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Remarkable advances in education since Independence

Remarkable advances in education since Independence

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It is undeniable that there have been remarkable advances in education here over the last 27 years. When the flag of Independent St Vincent and the Grenadines was raised just after midnight on October 27 1979, the young people of this nation were beneficiaries of an education system which was described in a UNESCO report, written at the time, as quantitatively good, but having the following “urgent areas requiring priority attention”: (i) training of teachers (ii) non-academic education programme (iii) administrative structure and procedures (iv) improvement in physical capacity.

Now, one generation later, those children are now parents, and their offspring have opportunities never imagined by their parents. Universal access to secondary school, increased access to post secondary level education and larger numbers of trained teachers more evenly spread throughout the system are but three of the improvements they benefit from.{{more}}

But just how much have things really changed? This brief survey looks at selected indicators in our education sector in 1979 and compares them with our present situation. Most of the 1979 data was obtained from a UNESCO Education Sector Report written in 1982. The 2006 data was gleaned from the Ministry of Education 2005/2006 Directory of Schools and Colleges, the 2006 Budget Address, press releases from the Ministry of Education, interviews with staff members of the Ministry of Education, the Service Commissions Department and educators. Other data was extracted from the 1980, 1991 and 2001 Housing and Population Census data.

Perhaps the most dramatic improvement was an increase in the number of students who stayed the course and completed school. The dropout rate 27 years ago in our primary schools was four per cent in the initial grades, increasing to about 15 per cent in the final grades. Of the 24,000 pupils who entered our 62 primary schools in 1979 at age five only 3,600 graduated. A whopping 85 per cent dropped out.

Today the story is reversed where the dropout rate has plummeted to a negligible amount.

Falling birth rates and the discontinuation of the senior classes have seen the student population drop by 35 per cent to 15,595 in 64 primary schools. Eight per cent of the teachers are trained. The level of trained teachers in our primary schools at the time of independence was a meager 28 per cent meaning that only 3 of 10 pupils were taught by someone who had been specially prepared for the task.

The improvement in the ratio of trained teachers to untrained teachers in our nations’ primary schools is undoubtedly one factor contributing to the improvement in Common Entrance pass rates over the last 27 years. It moved from 25 per cent (275 pupils) in 1979 to 41.3 per cent (1,106 pupils) in 2006.

Despite the tremendous improvement in the ratio of trained to untrained teachers in the primary schools, it is felt by some experts interviewed by Searchlight that many of the trained teachers are not performing at the expected higher level once they leave the teachers’ college. It was the opinion of the experts that the system is not reaping benefits commensurate with the resources expended on the training of the teachers. It was opined that too many teachers were not being creative in the delivery of instructional material, and exhibited a lack of professionalism and a general lack of caring for their students.

The composition of the secondary school teaching force in 1979 was not much better. At the time, there were 5,367 students in secondary schools including the sixth form where there were fewer than 40 students. In 1979 only 13 per cent of the secondary school teachers were fully qualified, that is, specialists in their subject areas and trained as teachers; 18 per cent were only specialists in their subject areas (but not trained as teachers); 69 per cent had primary school experience only with the majority not professionally trained. As was the case in the primary schools, 70 per cent of the pupils in the secondary schools therefore were taught by staff without a command of the subject areas for which they were responsible. Fifty of the 64 specialists or 78 per cent were found in 4 of the 17 existing secondary and junior secondary schools.

Today, we have 10,655 students in our secondary schools and 1,008 in A’level College. Only one of the nation’s 26 secondary schools does not have a graduate teacher on staff. The percentage of fully qualified teachers has increased to 20 per cent, a further 18 per cent are specialists in their subject areas (but not trained as teachers), 26 per cent are trained non graduates and 37 per cent are not professionally trained.

It shows therefore that 27 years later, 62 per cent of the pupils in our secondary schools are still being taught by teachers without a command of the subject areas for which they were responsible.

The 2005/2006 Directory of Schools and Colleges however shows a more equitable spread of graduate teachers around the country. Today, 80 of the 203 specialists or 39 per cent are found in four of the 26 secondary schools. It must be noted however, that these four schools account for 27 per cent of the students enrolled in secondary school.

Our investigations reveal that the still low levels of fully qualified teachers in the secondary schools is not so much that teachers are not being trained, but because of the rapid turnover of secondary school staff, especially graduates in the natural sciences, mathematics and information technology. The high level of instability is mainly because fairly large numbers either abandon their posts, resign to take up more attractive offers in the private sector or leave to take advantage of the increased opportunities for further study. There is also apparently a disinclination shown by teachers to pursue studies in content areas. Far too many secondary school teachers, it was felt, were instead pursuing Bachelor of Education degrees.

The UNESCO report comments on the provision for loans and grants to students pursuing tertiary level education in the 1980/81 estimates. This area absorbed 12 per cent (EC$1,360,000) of the recurrent expenditure on education, or twice as much as the amount spent on public secondary education, or three times as much as that devoted to the technical college and teacher training college combined. The report questioned whether this order of expenditure could be justified on equity or economic grounds. It recommended that the Government should consider seriously freezing its expenditure at this level and increasing expenditure for other levels.

The problem here is that the growth and development of our nation depends heavily on continuous improvement in the educational level of our people including the tertiary level. But with scarce resources, which area is given priority, and can ways and means be found to tackle improving the situation at all levels simultaneously?

From available census figures, it is clear that successive governments did not heed the recommendation, or found alternative means to finance tertiary education of its citizens.

The 1980 census indicates that there were eight persons attending university at that time. By the 1991 census, this figure had risen to 414. The 2001 census figures show university attendance of 528. Information obtained from the Service Commissions Department shows that at present there are 602 Vincentians pursuing university education overseas. This figure does not include persons pursuing university education privately at tertiary institutions other than the University of the West Indies or distance education programmes.

In 1980 eight persons (0.0 per cent) of the population claimed to have university level education. In 1991, the percentage of university graduates was 1.5 per cent (1,441 persons). The 2001 census puts this figure at only 1.1 per cent (1,275 persons) of the population, despite the thousands of persons trained over the years – an indication that we have not been retaining our university graduates.

In 1979, the illiteracy rate in St Vincent and the Grenadines was estimated to be one of the highest in the Caribbean region. Government estimates put the figure then at between 30 and 50 percent. The office of the National Literacy Crusade puts the figure at just under 20 per cent in 2002. For almost a year, a vibrant nationwide literacy crusade staffed by 18 full time officers, three support officers and 19 part time workers has been in operation. The project will come to an end in December this year, but it is expected that the work of the project will continue to be financed from the Ministry of Education’s recurrent budget from 2007.

There have been other positive developments in many other areas including special education, pre-school education, diagnostic testing at various levels in the primary schools, expansion of nursing education, the introduction of the book loan scheme, and removal of school fees for secondary schools. There has also been an expansion of technical and vocational education for “those pupils who are compelled to stay in school during the compulsory education period and who are incapable, unwilling or unable to follow academic education”. This was seen as “an issue of the first magnitude” in 1979. Today there are six technical and vocational centres having an enrollment of 662, staffed by 70 teachers, 79 per cent of whom are trained.

Government has budgeted $65 million to be spent on recurrent expenditure in the education sector this year. This is a whopping $55.8 million more than was budgeted in 1979 for the same purpose. However, when looked at in the context of the Government’s entire budget for recurrent expenditure, this year’s sum works out to be 18 per cent, four percentage points down from the 22 per cent of recurrent expenditure allocated for education in 1979.

The 1980/81 capital estimates provided for $5.4 million or nine per cent of the total capital expenditure to be invested in education and training. This year $27.5 million has been budgeted which is 16.6 percent of total capital expenditure.

In 1979, the office of Permanent Secretary and Chief Education Officer was held by one person. That officer was supported by three senior education officers, eight organizers in different subject areas and five other specialists. The UNESCO report said that “the revision and overhaul of the existing educational administrative practices is of capital importance, both because existing inadequate functional practices need to be removed, and because of the need to establish improved leadership, guidance and help in the decade ahead when major changes will be implemented. The issue goes beyond mere bureaucratic activities and involves the necessity to recruit and employ some specialized experts.” The report specifically mentions the need to recruit permanent staff in the areas of curriculum development, evaluation, programming and educational planning.

Today, the posts of Chief Education Officer and Permanent Secretary have been split; the office of Deputy Chief Education Officer has been created, there are six senior education officers, 20 other education officers, and 14 officers and specialists of varying levels. We now have curriculum, assessment and evaluation, media, music development, school supervision and research and development units staffed by experts in the respective areas.

Despite all these advances, informed observers say although the system has ballooned, there is still a lack of capacity to deal with a continually expanding sector with rapidly changing needs. There are inefficiencies in some areas and education practitioners cite inadequate resources and bureaucracy as the main challenges to continued improvement.

Overall, though, even the most cynical among us would admit that the positives far outweigh the negatives. The challenge now is to build on the momentum existing at present and to ensure that beneficiaries realize the investment made in them and their responsibility to give back to our tiny nation state. Of course, an enabling environment must exist within which they can comfortably make this contribution.

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