Education reform

“No national [education] curriculum can be modernised without paying close attention to what’s been happening in education internationally.” – Britain’s Education Secretary Michael Gove

It is said that education is a great equalizer. With a sound education people from any station in life can achieve their dreams and aspirations. Apart from being a vehicle for social mobility at the individual level, a high quality education forms the bedrock of innovation, productivity growth, economic growth, development and poverty reduction. Small, resource-scarce countries like Barbados are even more dependent on this medium of human capital formation i.e. the education of its people. On Monday, there was an article featured on BBC online news titled Curriculum changes ‘to catch up with world’s best’ that caught my interests and stirred my passions.

The British government is pushing ahead with national curriculum reform that “sets out the framework for what children in England’s state schools should be taught between the ages of five and 14.” British Prime Minister, David Cameron was reported to have said that the new curriculum is “rigorous, engaging and tough” and the “revolution in education” is vital to the United Kingdom’s economic prosperity.

If the proposed changes are adopted it will see five year olds starting fractions and computer algorithms. According to the BBC, stronger emphasis will be placed on skills such as “essay writing, problem-solving, mathematical modelling and computer programming”.

England’s proposed education reforms are also intended to accelerate student aptitude in Maths and English while shifting the focus of tuition in science towards “hard facts”. For example, primary school children will learn about the solar system, speed and evolution and secondary school students will learn about climate change and given more specialised instruction in chemistry, physics and biology. Even more fascinating, pupils will learn about 3D printing and robotics while five to seven year olds will be expected to “understand what algorithms are”, do simple computer programming and by the age of eleven, have the ability to “design, use and evaluate computational abstractions that model the state and behaviour of real-world problems…”

The government of the United Kingdom is seeking to provide its young people with an education that not only matches the world’s best but also create a workforce that boosts innovation, productivity, entrepreneurship, international competitiveness and national prosperity. According to the Organisation of Economic Corporation and Development the highest achievers are from Asian school systems in places like Shanghai, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore. Massachusetts and Finland are also believed to be among jurisdictions with the world’s most successful school systems.

Coming on the heels of previous articles in this column which touched on the need for education reform in Barbados I think that the foregoing is quite instructive. The moves afoot in the UK and other countries across the world serve as a reminder of how proactive other nations are in laying a strong foundation for future success as they benchmark themselves against the best in the world. Barbados should not be satisfied with past successes or take comfort in producing better outcomes than some of its neighbours or second rate performers. We cannot afford to rest on our laurels. Barbados should always strive to be among the best in the world or even a front runner in various aspects of national development.

This writer will continue to be a strong advocate for comprehensive education reform in Barbados, reform that ushers in greater emphasis on fostering problem solving skills, creativity and critical thinking. It is essential to the country’s fortunes in the 21st century, that Barbados creates an education system that gives more prominence to Maths, Science, Engineering, Technology, Contemporary Caribbean History, Civics and spoken English. Other essential features of a 21st century Barbados education system should include: (i) continuous assessment in primary schools; (ii) corrective and special needs education; (iii) a more effective method of secondary school allocation and; (iv) annual evaluation and ranking of all schools.

Though a noble objective, achieving a university graduate in every household is not a tertiary education pursuit alone but a pursuit that requires sound tuition and outcomes at the primary and secondary levels as well. Moreover, we should not negate the importance of technical and vocational graduates to national development. It is time to get serious.

Despite the fact that I support changes to how tertiary education is financed in Barbados (as alluded to in last week’s column), I firmly believe that universal access to education at all levels should be maintained while improving the quality of education. It is time to appreciate the sense of urgency in improving Barbados’ education system. What has become of the recommendations of the National Advisory Committee on Education?

On another note, on Tuesday while Tropical Storm Chantal was making its way through the Eastern Caribbean the governor of the Central Bank gave the nation an update on the economic storm that is brewing in Barbados. Suffice it to say that he gave official confirmation to what many Barbadians have known for some time now – the economy is in recession, government is spending too much, unemployment is rising and difficult days are ahead. We will have to wait longer still to find out what remedies the government has in store to end the malaise, to restore fiscal sanity to the country’s affairs and to chart a course for a genuine recovery.

As it relates to the government’s proposed acquisition of the Almond Resort property, don’t you find it ironic that Almond (formerly Haywoods Resorts) was sold to the private sector in the early 1990s at a time when the country was experiencing a fiscal crisis and facing a possible economic calamity, and in 2013 facing similar economic strain the Stuart administration is seeking to buy back the same hotel property? Perhaps the government should tell the people of Barbados why they believe that the public sector will be better able to turnaround Almond Resorts than the private sector interests which previously owned it and the private sector investors that expressed an interest in purchasing and redeveloping the property. How will the proposed public sector acquisition be financed? If the Nation Insurance Scheme is a financing candidate, what safeguards will be employed to ensure that if this new hotel venture fails that institution is not left holding the bag? Has the government considered operating the refurbished Almond property under a Hotel Management Agreement with an international hotel chain like Hyatt Hotels, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, Holiday Inn, or Westin Hotel and Resorts?

*Carlos R. Forte is a Commonwealth Scholar and Barbadian economist with local and international experience.

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