November 17, 2003
By Raffique Shah
NEITHER the policy makers in government nor the educators in society seem to know the direction in which we should be heading to solve the crisis in our schools system and in broader education. There is also a dearth of management capability at the Ministry of Education, where resistance to change is commonplace.
Many persons, including university graduates, who enter teaching, do so only because they cannot get other jobs. And because the quality of education delivered is dictated by political expedience, there is little hope that we can solve what has become a full blown crisis in schools for at least another generation.
These were among the main causes of the current crisis in the nation's schools identified by a forum comprising some of the top educators in the country assembled at a forum that discussed "Education and Schools in Crisis". It was held Sunday at the Trinidad and Tobago Institute of the West Indies in Tunapuna. Panellists at the forum were Lloyd Best, Professor emeritus of UWI John Spence, lecturer at the UWI School of Education Samuel Lochan, former lecturer at the Corinth Teachers College Lynette Simmons, former Bishop Anstey principal Valerie Taylor, and current PhD candidate at the UWI School of Education, David Subran.
Taylor pointed to the problems of placement and promotion, as well as the "anomalies, assumptions and absurdities" in the system. She slammed the curriculum in secondary schools as "being resistant to change, unscientific", and suggested that it needed to be "reviewed and customized" to meet our requirements. "We have some 14,000 teachers in our secondary schools system," she said. "But how many of them are trained in pedagogy? Upon close examination, one will find the majority posses only "A Level passes or first degrees from UWI. They have no strong grasp of the issues, but they are then put to teach children, many of whom cannot even read their own names!"
Taylor said that currently most students enter the secondary system between the ages of 11-16. "However, we are seeing children aged 19 now entering Form One! And the government has US$150 million to promote a Secondary Education Modernisation Programme (SEMP), but no one can say what SEMP is or how it will help in this crisis. We are not achieving our targets if we measure them by the kinds of students we produce at the end of their exams."
Best, one of two panelists who dealt with tertiary education, slammed the UWI as being "a wasteland". "The paradox of our situation is that we have so much will, experience and vision, yet we are in crisis. In fact, the country is in a state of panic when it comes to what's happening in our schools."
He said there was a need for "discourse" at all levels, but there was none at any level. "It's not only that we have had incapable ministers of education, but we have had charlatans running countries in the region. They are not crooked or wicked men and women, but the crisis in the system is institutionalized and they don't know how to change it."
Citing Vidia Naipaul's reference to universities like Oxford as being "provincial", he saw the UWI as "being a polytechnic of foreign institutions".
"We must break out of the stranglehold from abroad. If we look at it carefully, there is more inequality in the education system today than there was at Independence. The momentum of the old order keeps us going backwards."
He said there was "no discourse" at the UWI, and urged that seminars be held involving professors emeritus, graduates and current students. "The UWI needs to become a true centre of learning-as it is, lecturers go there, lecture for a few hours and then leave campus. There is no intellectual tradition, time spent with students holding discussions."
Lamenting the discarding of the "humanities" from a UWI where only "passes" count, he suggested that history and geography become two compulsory subjects at the institution.
"The problem in our entire education system does not lie with failures or dropouts. It lies with those who cannot read or write. Worse, there are those who are well qualified from this system, but who see themselves only as clerks. They cannot contribute to any discussion because they weren't taught to do that. They were taught only how to pass exams."
"The problem is with leadership at all levels. They have no time to read, they are bankrupt. Schools should serve as a form of apprenticeship for future life. We need to bring back the coimmunities into the schools. Bring back the professors and alumni to join with current students and hold discussions on how we move forward."
Spence's view was that we cannot hope to change the system in this generation. "We have to intervene for the next generation to benefit. Because what we have as students at the UWI are products of the very deficient primary and secondary schools systems. Mostly, they can regurgitate facts, theories – they can prepare for exams. But they can do little more. Look at the failure rate in General Paper at A-Level exams. UWI students, more so males, are deficient in language...it's why most of them are afraid to talk in public.