From a Native Son – Economic Prosperity is Tied up with Improved Education
It seems as if the ambitions of Sir Hilary Beckles has no limit, given the revelations that the UWI now has plans to occupy the grand Mutual building at the bottom of Broad Street as a campus for part-timers. Somehow it seems as if the notion of prudent spending in these tough times does not apply to the empire-building of Sir Hilary.
In a crude way, it is the exploitation of the nation’s traditional love of education and qualifications, by a university administrator who seems to behave like a horse out of control. As a small island-state, we do not have an abundance of natural resources, Ivy League universities, or even a vast military to enforce our policies. What we do have is a nation hungry for education and a willingness to go to great lengths to educate ourselves, our children and our fellow citizens. Somehow, and for some reason, this reality has rarely impacted with our education policymakers.
Our education policymakers, many of them educated at Cave Hill, seem intimidated by the very idea of imposing tough conditions and benchmarks on Sir Hilary and driving the Cave Hill campus in to the belt-tightening 21st century. In fact, so poor is our education policymaking that since the end of the Second World War, Cameron Tudor still remains out outstanding minister of education. And to believe that we have declined from Tudor, whatever his faults, to the present minister Ronald Jones and the gross incompetence of Alexandra School, is a slap in the face to a once great island.
Under any new reforms, UWI should be given no longer than ten years to reach the top 3000 on the Shanghai Global university rankings, and a further five years to be in the top 1500. All staff should be contractually compelled to publish peer-reviewed essays annually, allowing with a full teaching programme. Those failing to reach the target should be dismissed.
The global economic crisis has caused most of the world to re-think how they make policy and Barbados has a stronger need to tighten its belt than most. But, economic crises are moments when good policymakers come in to their own, when they device innovative and efficient policies that would benefit the nation not over the next five years, but decades. As a nation, we somehow prefer to bury our heads in the sand than to face reality, and one of these myths – pat of the myth-making of nationhood – is that somehow Barrow introduce ‘free’ education to Barbadians, who until then were living in the dark.
It is true that in December 1961 the new Barrow government introduced a new policy, effective from the following year, that “…children of persons qualified by birth, residence or service in the island would pay no more tuition fees to government-aided secondary schools…” But this was a policy tweak, an evolution, not a revolution, although for all kinds of reasons this has been seen as a historic watershed by the Barrow disciples.
In fact, we are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water, since before the introduction of this policy there were an abundance of scholarships for bright pupils to allow them to go to the existing ten grammar schools (Harrison College, Queens College and Lodge, the first grade schools, and Combermere, Foundation Girls and Foundation Boys, Alexandra, Alleyne and Coleridge and Parry). What we are now witnessing is the so-called Barrow revolution reaching middle age. All our active politicians an senior civil servants have been educated either wholly or in part under the Barrow paradigm, so it is fair to say that what we have is the natural outcome of the Barrow promise.
Economics of Educations:
One of the biggest, if not the biggest, waste of education spend is the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies. It is, in many ways, Hilary’s own Folly. The university has come a long way since the Faculty of Arts and Science was opened at the Harbour in October 1963. Now it embraces about 50 acres at Cave Hill, comprising a test-class cricket field, a silver-service restaurant and elaborate non-teaching facilities.
And, on Sir Hilary’s shopping list is a further site in the Port, occupancy of the historic Mutual building at the bottom of Broad Street, a hotel to house visiting Ivy League students who find higher education in Barbados so exciting they want to come in droves, and plans to expand overseas. On top of all this, if the Chinese can produce the Yuans, Sir Hilary would also introduce a mandarin-speaking faculty at the university.
It is, of course, the expansionist dreams of a fantasist, of someone whose grandiose plans have outgrown reality and who politicians and policymakers obviously find it difficult to rein in. It is not funny.
In years archaeologists will be visiting the site and pointing out to heritage tourists that on that site was situated the great university campus, on par with the Universities of Timbuktu and Alexandra. To come back down to earth, Barbadian taxpayers cannot afford such an expensive luxury. At present government spend about eight per cent of GDP on education; this should easily rise, incrementally, to about 12 per cent by the end of the next parliamentary session. But, instead of spending millions expanding an institutional that clearly sees increasing numbers to be more important than quality of teaching, government should focus at the entry level of education with clear and transparent outcomes.
Any fundamental educational reforms in Barbados should start at the bottom end, nursery and primary education, rather than waste more money on a university that is dumbing down almost every academic year. But before spending taxpayers’ money, government must set itself a number of desirable outcomes: that by the end of statutory education (between five and sixteen) the vast majority of children would be competently bi-lingual (English/Spanish), competent at maths, have adequate computer skills, can swim, play a musical instrument, have basic financial planning skills and be physically fit.
There must also be proper provision for the one-to-one teaching of especially talented and gifted children, so that mixed ability teaching would not hold them back. This is a gap that can easily be filled by part-time recently retired teachers. For those moving in to further education and skills training, there should be a network of Sixth Form colleges initially two in St Michael and one each in St Peter, St Philip and Christ Church, catering for the academically-minded. Then a network of specialist further education colleges: music, sports, fine art and performance arts, business and commerce and science, design and technology.
Then there should be the development of the Samuel Jackson Prescod Polytechnic, first by making it a campus of the Community Campus, then having it providing a full programme of skills training, full, part-time and weekend courses on a first com, first served basis. This without the relevant knowledge of maths and English can be given supplementary lessons based on their skills needs, rather than on the academic model which they had already failed. For example, if you want to teach a youngster maths and he had failed at school, then based it on the trade he is learning, or reading based on safety notices or understanding a blueprint.
One of the first decisions to be made in any reform of education is to reach a fair and modern settlement with teachers. As I have said here before, this can be done by making teaching a graduate profession, improving pay and conditions, raise the status of the profession to that of law and medicine; but a crucial part of any new settlement must be a no-strike agreement. At present we have teachers’ unions that function more like the worst kinds of industrial unions from the wild days of the 1960s. Young people must learn to respect teachers for all the right reasons, not for selfishly going on strike, but for their impact on their moral and academic learning. I can still remember the impact a stare from the late, great Harry Sealy could have on a rowdy boy, and I was very active at school.
Analysis and Conclusion:
As our educational system declines, the more secretive and inward-looking the education authorities become. For example, back in the 1950s, it was normal for school exam results to be made public. Even now the Caribbean Examination Council passes on to the ministry the results for individual schools. One can only surmise that the only reason governments – both BLP and DLP – do not publish these results is because they want to hide them from the public, and parents in particular. Every year these results should be published so that parents know the quality of education at the schools their children attend. Publication will form part of the benchmarks set by government for each school to achieve, forming part of an overall picture of national educational aspirations and actual achievements.
It is important that all new recruits to the profession should be graduates, with improved pay and conditions and a no-strike clause in their contracts. There should also be clear disciplinary and dispute resolution procedures which must be adhered to.
Another important reform is government has to separate out vocational training (with the exception of law and medicine) and the academic; concentrating academic learning at the university, and the vocational and skills at the Community College. Unlike Trinidad and Jamaica, there is no need for a so-called university of technology or a rival institution to Cave Hill; all that is need is a properly managed Cave Hill. Secondary schools should also be set a benchmark of reaching the top 25 of Programme for International Student Assessment within 15 years.
Finally, asking government to decentralise the management of education is like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. But, it has to if Barbados with a colonial educational system, structured in the 1870s and based on a British system itself structured to accommodate farmers, is going to survive this highly globally competitive era. Heads should be given full control of the management of schools, reporting to a school board made up of representatives of the teaching and non-teaching staff, parents, the constituency council, the local community and, in secondary schools, the student population.
Apart from these proposals, government should give constituency councils oversight of education in their catchment areas and leave central government responsible for strategy and administration, such as payroll and pensions contribution.