Urgent need for dialogue on education

Education has historically played a critical role in the development of countries the world over. It empowers citizens through imparting a broad range of knowledge and skills, which can then be applied to solve everyday problems at the national level.

In the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, education pivotally supports capacity building in critical areas at a national level and contributes, by so doing, to giving many a country that competitive edge over others in the pursuit of economic growth and development.

As Barbados’ own experience over the last 50 years as a sovereign, independent nation shows, the more educated and skilled a country’s population is, the greater are its chances of achieving successful social and economic development with the main spin-off being a better quality of life for its people. This was certainly our experience within a Caribbean context.

Of late, however, our pride and joy education system has been beset with myriad challenges. These range from environmental problems associated with ageing school plants to student indiscipline, declining academic performance and disquiet among teachers because of a number of outstanding grievances between their unions and the Ministry of Education.

In some instances, these issues have caused disruption in the traditionally smooth operation of the education system through school closures, as happened recently in the cases of Combermere, Springer Memorial and the Lawrence T. Gay Primary, which have experienced different types of environmental problems.

Additionally, there are vexing issues related to the permanent appointment of temporary teachers who have been in the service for years and the refusal of teachers in secondary schools to correct Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) School-Based Assessment (SBA) papers unless they start to receive payment for this task.

Taken altogether, the issues confronting education are naturally a source of great public concern. With the start today of the crucial third term when students will be busy writing school-leaving and end-of-term promotional examinations, it is an opportune time to emphasize the need for all the parties to recommit to finding speedy solutions to reduce or eliminate the possibility of further disruption in the learning experience of students.

More effective leadership is required on the part of the Ministry of Education, which seems to have suffered some loss of respect and confidence in relation to teachers. A major criticism of the ministry is that, given the background of its top leadership –– Minister of Education Ronald Jones, Parliamentary Secretary Harry Husbands and Chief Education Officer Karen Best –– it should be equipped with a more rounded picture and better understanding of the education system and related challenges.

The trio are former union leaders, whose experience also covers teaching in the classroom and school administration, albeit mainly at the primary school level. Some stakeholders are naturally disappointed that, despite this background, education is plagued by unprecedented challenges, and solutions do not seem to be easily forthcoming as was previously the case.

Like so many other areas of current Barbadian life, the education system is at a crossroads in the context of sweeping social, economic and technological change. There is also a growing view that Barbadians are no longer getting value for money from education, which receives the single largest slice of the Government’s annual budget, and that the system is producing persons who are not sufficiently equipped to function in the modern 21st century economy.

It seems, given the various concerns, that education ought to be the subject of a national conversation involving the Ministry of Education and other key stakeholders, including students and parents, that should be convened at the earliest opportunity. This conversation, which may be conducted using many platforms, should begin with the articulation by the ministry of a clear vision, going forward, and a comprehensive strategy for reform to bring the education system in line with today’s needs.

What is Government’s future relationship with the University of the West Indies (UWI) going to be like, considering the decision to introduce tuition fees for Barbadians that has resulted in a sharp drop in Barbadian student enrolment? What is the future of the Barbados Community College, in light of the establishment of sixth forms at schools which previously provided students for BCC? What lies ahead for technical and vocational education beyond the current Skills For The Future programme? These are relevant questions which should be fully ventilated and decided.

A national dialogue would provide Barbadians, as the consumers of education, with having a hand in directly shaping the future of this important sector, so that it becomes more responsive and relevant to our personal development needs and the requirements of a changing Barbados economy, which is heavily influenced by external events.

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