November 28, 2020

Oliver Mills: The merry-go-round of Caribbean education

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By Oliver Mills From Caribbean News Now

Is Caribbean education in a merry-go-round state? Why is it that, despite the educational consultancies examining the system of Caribbean education, there is the feeling it is not serving its purpose, and is without direction? Is it because of misguided strategies used by consultants and local stakeholders, resulting in faulty prescriptions?

educators, Canute Thompson and Yewande Lewis-Fokum, recently, in the , summarized a presentation titled “The future of education and the education of the future in the Caribbean” given by Dr Didacus Jules, director general of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), at the13th Biennial Conference of the Schools of Education of the UWI.

They note, in part, that painted a picture of the systematic failure of our educational institutions and he argues that, while some schools do well in the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate exams, the overall picture is one of failure, resulting in part from disparities in the support that schools receive. The result is social stratification instead of mobility, seen where only 40 percent of the eligible demographic sit exams and 22 percent pass five or more subjects, with 66 percent receiving either “none, or less than two subjects”. And subjects such as music, agricultural science, physical education and sports are basically ignored, which hampers creativity.

The educators add that Jules suggests that a radical re-engineering of education requires its alignment with the requirements for a sustainable economy, focusing the curriculum on the important drivers of a sustainable economy, greater involvement of the family in education, and strengthening participatory democracy, so that responsibilities are accepted, and accountability demanded. Jules further notes that Caribbean people should use their imagination to rethink education in a way that works for us.

It is indeed true to say that there are recurring issues in Caribbean education. But attempts to remedy many of these have not met with the desired outcomes. So are the right people with relevant expertise being used? Have they been given the training required to diagnose and transform education for the better? Are these experts themselves the victims of false paradigms? And are those who trained them guilty of the same deficits that have been transferred? If this is the case, then we can expect no transformation in education.

When the two educators say that Dr Jules provides a picture of educational institutional failure, nothing is said about what constitutes failure. Is it the setting of benchmarks that were not achieved? If this is so, then were these benchmarks realizable given the environment of Caribbean education? And isn’t the setting of targets a subjective exercise? How can achievement targets be set realistically when those who set them have no advance knowledge of what will happen, and cannot know? Performance at public or private sector institutions is unpredictable, since it not only depends on knowledge, but the psychological make-up of the individual and the quality of motivation the system provides.

If failure means an inability to succeed in passing a certain number of subjects, then it means something is wrong with the subject content. Or that effective teaching strategies were not employed, those imparting knowledge have a deficient subject base, so students are being marred. Those who succeed do so because of the quality of the home environment, because they are ingenious, or naturally intelligent. Again, failure results from low expectations the system has of its clients, the deliberate crafting of an exam with failure built into it, or using other exam systems as a model, which is irrelevant to local circumstances.

Dr Jules is further quoted as saying that, while some schools do well in the CSEC exams, the picture portrays overall failure, resulting partly from disparities in school support. Where is the objective evidence supporting this? How could disparities in school support cause systemic failure? What constitutes disparities? How much success is possible in the absence of disparities? And how does social stratification and lack of mobility result from disparities in the system?

Could not what is described as disparities be seen as benefitting traditional elite groups of schools, and be interpreted as smearing them, rather than properly recognizing competence and exemplary performance? In some Caribbean school systems many elite traditional schools are now performing below the levels of schools in “deprived” areas, regarded as places of failure. How does the disparity argument hold here?

The performance statistics Jules gives and sees as representing failure of the system has to do with a poorly designed and irrelevant exam, the prevalence of a feudal education structure that sees people as being born into categories, which the education system reinforces through its policies and management style.

According to the two educators who summarized Jules’ presentation, he says that a radical re-engineering of education requires alignment with what is required for a sustainable economy. What is it to re-engineer education? What are the processes that are involved? What kind of education results from this? How can education be aligned with the economy, when economic strategies are constantly in a state of flux, along with the skills education should produce? What is a sustainable economy? Is it achievable, or is it merely an aspiration?

Jules also reportedly states that Caribbean people should use their imagination to rethink education in a way that works for us. This is a noble idea, but how can rethinking occur without proper knowledge, and a deficit in critical thinking skills? And by “Caribbean people”, does he mean the entire adult population, interest groups, educators, or young Caribbean adults? We need to know this because it is really those responsible for education that are causing the present challenge the Caribbean is experiencing. Probably the young adults have not yet received the full tarnishing of the education system, which could be a plus in advocating new ideas.

My view is that transforming education should involve clarity of what is required, a professional analysis of what currently exists with a view to determining real needs, a familiarity with trends in the economy so that the new educational content can be integral with it, and an assessment of how education professionals are trained to re-engineer their current training and methodology to fit the new thrust. And of course there needs to be a determination of the most appropriate technologies that would enhance learning, and a familiarity with that used in the wider economy.

Most importantly, a comprehensive philosophy of education should be devised as a guide pointing the way forward, which makes the purpose of education understandable to all. There are other ingredients, but the approach mentioned provides a healthy start, and space for continuity and renewal.

IMAGE:Oliver Mills is a former lecturer in education at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. He holds an M.Ed degree from Dalhousie University in Canada, an MA from the University of London and a post-graduate diploma in HRM and Training, University of Leicester. He is a past Permanent Secretary in Education with the government of the Turks and Caicos Islands

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