The immediacy of the financial economic crisis facing Barbados is so important that there is a real danger of this single issue crowding out other equally important social and cultural policy initiatives, many of them far more important to the long-term development of the nation and its people. But, for a variety of reasons, including the routine acceptance of mediocrity, politicians, policymakers, parents and education professionals prefer to remain silent about the acceptance of this new normal rather than bite the bullet. Our nation is the poorer for this.
For all kinds of reasons previously discussed in this blog, including demography, geographical size and economic limitations, the great opportunity for economic growth in Barbados is to develop a knowledge-based skilfully and prudently economy by utilising our limited resources and human capital to meet this collective goal. However, to do this in any objective and scientific way will mean confronting a number of demanding challenges, such as defining what it is we want to achieve as a society and the extent of the deferred gratification we are prepared to endure.
Advances in technology and the increasing movement of globalisation, even considering the current temporal reversal, means that if small island economies are to remain relevant in a more competitive world, they must invest heavily in survival. At present the dominant model of economic growth is the shift of manufacturing to low-cost economies, with value-creation and expertise providing the growth opportunities in the more advanced economies, leaving the majority of the other nations in what is called the middle trap. But there are no economic, cultural or religious iron laws of development, nor are there any limits to human imagination and ingenuity. So, for small nations with limited resources, the big challenge is to be inventive and focused in their exploitation of intangible resources and the monetising of those assets. In the current economic race, the poverty and failure of imagination are major handicaps facing our politicians, policymakers and educational institutions. So far, despite spending about 12 per cent of GDP on education, the reality is that a lot of the money is terribly mis-spent.
The objectives of formal state-backed education to the school-leaving age of 16 should be simple and clear: the creation of first-rate citizens and the transferring of the national culture to another generation. The mechanisms for achieving this should be meeting benchmarks in literacy, numeracy and acceptable standards in social, moral, physical and emotional intelligence and general life skills – the qualities to make ours a better society. Therefore, formal statutory education needs to be based on wider shared social and cultural values, with an underlying desire to improve the rest of society. In the ensuing debate, there should be no sacred cows. Up for discussion should be the existing and other forms of methodologies and ideologies for delivering knowledge, including the didactic, whole-of-class lessons which our great grand parents would recognise. Equally, there is a need for the re-evaluation of the dominant forms of teaching, including focusing in exceptional cases on one-to-one individual attention and other forms of personalised teaching techniques. There is also a need to look at the effectiveness of class sizes and how these impact on learning and classroom behaviour; and the teacher-pupil ratio in infant, primary and secondary schools.
One thing that is clear is that the ideals of mixed ability teaching do not deliver in reality, in that by focusing on the middle group, those at the top and bottom of the ability range can often suffer.
At the bottom the outcome quite often are those school leavers who enter the adult world semi-illiterate at best and in any case functionally illiterate for a modern technological world. And, at the top are the bright and gifted who are left for most of the subject period to fend for themselves and get up to mischief. The result quite often is that they are excluded from class, get in to troubles with the school and welfare authorities and the end result is that unless they are rescued their fate is very much the same as the child at the bottom of the class. In fact it is now part of radical criminology, the epidemiology of criminal activity, is that often the so-called trouble maker in the class room is among the brightest.
To avoid an educational system in which ‘success’ comes from the crowded centre – the comfort zone of the mediocre and unimaginative – is to make provision for those two cohorts, by providing virtual centres of excellence for the brightest and best, a one-to-one tutoring for the weakest, staffed by a squad of floating teachers and coaches.
Once we have dealt with this basic infant and primary framework, the other challenge is that of the curriculum. Here it is important to stress that although a pupil may be gifted and exceptional in a single subject, for example maths, it does not means he will be gifted in all the other subjects. So, it is important that although the girl or boy may be taken out of the ordinary classroom for special tuition, s/he should be returned for normal teaching among her/his classmates. This is important for a normal childhood, including allowing the child to make friends with her/his age group. This being so, the content of the curriculum and the way subjects are taught will determine the future quality of our human capital. Apart from the core subjects, all lessons should be taught bilingually – Spanish/English, given we are situated in the largest Spanish-speaking region in the world. Mandarin and other languages could be taught in secondary schools and in language laboratories.
Delivery of lessons will also be important and the out of date whole of class method should be replaced with child-focused teaching, using electronic I-pads or tablets (or whatever the new development), thereby giving the teachers, heads, parents and authorities an objective method of monitoring and assessing the child’s progress. The menu of non-core subjects should include sports (other than cricket, football and netball), such as swimming, camping, scouting and guiding, introduction to money, road safety and others as relevant.
With a good grounding from infant and primary schools, pupils should enter secondary school at the age of 14 (raising the Secondary school-leaving age to 18) equipped to take full advantage of a top quality early education. It is at this stage that they would be selected for a specialist Secondary school (or junior college), based on their aptitude and performance to date, although this selection method would not be for life. There will be an open door policy for late developers and those with undiscovered potential and abilities. For example, Secondary schools/junior colleges could be organised along the following lines:
School of Fine and Performing Arts
School of Languages
School of Science and Technology
School of Crafts and Skills
School of Sport and Entertainment
School of Administration and Business
Other Non-core Activities:
Apart from the obvious specialisms of the Secondary schools, young people should be offered the greatest number of additional opportunities, especially at a stage in their lives when they are looking for academic, sporting and recreational activities with which they are comfortable. Most of these will involve school and recreational activities such as After-school and Saturday clubs, which would revolve around the parents and schools. For example, a Saturday Club may involve dance and drama, chess, draughts, creative writing, golf, tennis, water polo, fine art, photography, sculpture, music, sailing, pottery – the list is endless.
Any reform of the mandatory educational system in Barbados must include a resolution of the role and authority of head teachers. This is even more import given the behaviour of some trade unions and of the scandal of the Alexandra School. The reforms should be widespread and include freeing experienced heads from the authoritarianism of civil servants and politicians. Headmasters will also become chief executives of their schools, having responsibility for the profit and loss account, reporting to a school board (the board of directors) – made up of representatives of parents, teachers, non-teaching staff, pupils, community groups and an ex-officio ministry officials – which reports to the constituency councils, restricting central government’s control only to a strategic
overview. Heads should have the right to hire and fire, within the framework of
the law and the rules as laid down by the school’s controlling management board.
Analysis and Conclusion:
It is generally conceded that the educational system in Barbados has collapsed. It is no longer what it used to be. About 70 per cent of school leavers are entering the jobs market without any qualifications, drug abuse and violence has reached
epidemic proportions in many of the island’s schools, and the political leaders are in a panic. This state of affairs is more than just another stage in the moral meltdown of a once dynamic, proud and steadfast nation. It is that and more. We are looking in the abyss of a country where the national leaders are wrapping themselves in the rhetoric of progress, especially the development of human capital, while at the same time ignoring the very educational system on which any such development must be built.
To develop a knowledge-based society takes imagination, determination and most of all, a willingness to attract the brightest and best working to work in the sector – from teaching, advertising and marketing to scientists. It means investing a great amount of time and effort in talking to businesses in the region and all over the world, the leaders of new industries and new forms of knowledge, businesses which can bring to Barbados a sustainable competitive advantage. It also means narrow-focusing on those businesses that a small, island economy can support by creating the infrastructure – from office space, to good logistics, getting things in and out of customs with relative ease – such as telecoms, internet, media and entertainment (TIME), industries which are re-organising themselves to face new and unknown challenges.
They are the ideas companies at the cutting edge of the new business models such as television programming, which depend on script-writing, production, actors, marketing, editing, soundtracks, sequencing and the other services. Barbados can easily become the centre of television and film production excellence in the Caribbean, even regional and by 2025 a world-leader in the TIME sector. Barbados can also become a centre of excellence for medical and dental services, if not in research, then in the application of new forms of medical-scientific knowledge to the treatment of patients by developing a dynamic medical and dental tourism sector. Then there are the other services connected with the life sciences – medical devices, from heart monitors to servicing equipment, and healthcare, world-class saleable skills which will act as a magnet to foreign direct investors. This will mean learning from the best, from Houston, Texas, the world leader and Manchester, England, number two, even headhunting some of their young, ambitious scientists and giving them a relative free hand to develop their research. For example, with the use of up-to-date technology, Barbados can become a world leader in cancer diagnosis, pulmonary research and treatment. This will mean re-focusing our education by encouraging young people to study the bio-medical sciences.
In a world of cutting edge nano-technology, with industries working at the frontier of scientific knowledge in chemistry and pharmaceuticals, in Barbados people are still obsessed with establishing a sea-island cotton industry that has been failing for generations. Then there is the digital industry, which is only now in its infancy, and which is predicted to growth by leaps and bounds throughout the 21st century. What these industries need is solid government and a mature legal structure, a friendly fiscal climate and the ability to recruit and retain skilled staff. All this could be achieved, or at least get us on the way, within a time-span of 20 years. There are fourteen Taiwanese-owned industries in the northern English city of Manchester alone, because of the city’s skills base. These firms bring with them a supply chain, from recruitment and advertising agencies, to scientists. It also means managing people differently not the traditional top down command structures, but a more collaborative way of managing talent. These are some of the enormous gaps in our knowledge-based education system.
Barbados should aim to be the first emerging nation to be on the Intelligent Cities Foundation list. The ICF measures things such ass community access to broadband and digital facilities and matching skills. They measure the number of jobs created in these industries and social inclusion. The decentralisation of educational policy will be at the heart of the reform of education with the strategic delivery of that policy. But it goes beyond that. Education policy must also include school accountability, school choice, teaching standards and professionalism, equity and adequacy in teaching, funding, teachers’ remuneration and career progress, training and the status of the profession in the wider society, and, most important of all, the contribution of education to the general development of the society.
None of this is beyond the imagination of our education official and minister Jones. All these are achievable if we could plan beyond the next general election or the colour of the party that introduces such progressive policies.