June 30, 2002
By Raffique Shah
IF THE decision by the Basdeo Panday government to offer secondary school places to every child who sat the SEA examination was patently political and grossly stupid, Patrick Manning's decision to dole out $94 million to all those who attend secondary schools is imbecilic at best. It's a case of our worst nightmare coming to reality: a government pandering to voters at a prohibitive cost to taxpayers, throwing good money after lost causes, and that under the guise of "helping out poor people". One needs ask: what next?
While I acknowledge the fact that Manning has to face the polls soon, and that in real politik the ends justify the means, nothing can justify this wanton waste of taxpayers' money. When asked by reporters how she would ensure the money given to students is used for books, Education Minister Hazel Manning stammered: "Moral suasion, I suppose." Moral suasion my foot! Look, I am all for education, and if ever we achieve the standing of a society in which everyone has not just the benefit of secondary education, but success at the CXC level or in technical or vocational fields, I would be a happy man.
But giving $1,000 to every student who attends secondary school in no way allows us to get anywhere close to that goal. Without the benefit of statistics, I should think that not more than 30 per cent of these students get full CXC certificates or proper qualifications in other marketable skills. Worse, less than 10 per cent move on to do "A" level examinations, and those who could ably tackle tertiary education must number about five per cent of the student population. So, for close to $100 million a year in direct "subventions" (yeah, that's what it is), not to add the prohibitive cost of teachers' salaries and other costs associated with education-maybe $1 billion a year-we get a few thousand CXC graduates, a few hundred "A" level graduates, and tens of thousands of unqualified dropouts!
Does that make any sense? It's as rational as Panday's notion of universal secondary education. What Manning and Panday fail to understand is that the education of a child starts in the home. If parents care about their children's future, they would make every effort to stimulate the latter's appetites for learning, matters not how poor or rich they are. In fact, the number of poor people who produce brilliant children through sheer sacrifice and dedication far outweighs the percentage of rich kids who have everything material at their disposal, but who fail to achieve decent standards of education. If government is to ensure that the money spent on education is utilised to its optimal level, then it must come to terms with the degeneration of standards at all levels of the society, starting with parents and family life.
Let me, for the benefit of the Mannings, forecast what will happen to the $94 million they are doling out before September. Around 30 per cent of parents will use the money wisely, ensuring that their children are equipped for school. Another 30 per cent will make a beeline for shops that sell brand-name sneakers and purchase expensive footwear for their "darlings". Hell, the coots have earned it, haven't they? "Mih chile pass for de Model school, gyul!" Of the remaining 40 per cent, many would cash the cheques and head for the rumshops and Play Whe outlets-en route to bookstores. Half of this lot will never reach the bookstores. A significant number of parents will head first for the cocaine pushers-or better still, send the tots who "earned" the money to buy sufficient "rocks" to celebrate their children's first "pay day ".
I hope the PM and the Education Minister get my drift. Now, if, on the other hand, the government were to allocate funds for students who did well in the SEA examination (as has been the practice since we had the Common Entrance examination), that would serve as an incentive for them to aim for even higher standards. Then target students who have done quite well in the examination but whose parents are too poor to enable them to attend school. These are the people who desperately need assistance. Exclude children who come from homes in which the family incomes are above a certain level: I'm sure such families will understand that although their children are entitled to the money, they can afford to face the bookstores without help from government.
The Ministry then purchases essential textbooks and other materials (copybooks, pens, rulers, geometry sets, etc.) that will be available to students only when they actually attend school. In other words, the onus must be on the parents to provide uniforms, shoes and so on, and only when their children turn up for classes will they get their books. If the parents are too poor to provide the essentials, there should be an avenue through which officers of the Ministry determine that and maybe provide uniforms and shoes for such children. Further, the school nutrition programme should be expanded to cater for all such students, not a selected few, and certainly not for teachers!
Note well that I have not opposed the primary school initiative by the government. I think it's the way to go, providing essential textbooks that the students will use and eventually pass on to others who come after them. It's a system that is currently used in some schools (mainly private institutions) and it allows for considerable savings in that one does not need to buy such textbooks on an annual basis.
I know I'll be taken to task for this stand, that many parents who are licking their chops in anticipation of getting the $1,000 would probably want to murder me. But I'm not a politician so I can say or write what I believe is right, not what people want to hear or read. To support my argument that the "freeco" government has embarked upon is wasteful and unjust, let me remind the Prime Minister that people who have given dedicated service to their country, who have been forced to pay NIS contributions all their working lives, receive some piddling pension upon retirement. These people cannot afford to buy food, pay their utilities' bills and meet medical expenses, thanks to both the NIB and successive governments treating them like scum. Maybe it's because they don't have voting power.
Which, of course, begs the question: is it that governance over the next few years will be dictated by grabbing for votes, whatever the cost? Is it a case of Panday "trumping" and Manning "following suit"? Jeezanages! We reach!
Copyright © Raffique Shah