News Americas, LONDON, England, Mon. Nov. 19, 2012: ‘Education, education, education,’ was the expression used by Britain’s former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to describe his three main priorities just before he first took office. Although he later squandered over Iraq, the high regard in which this and other elements of his third way philosophy were held in the Caribbean, his simple message about the strategic importance of education continues to resonate.
This is because without an education system that is modern, relevant and future facing, all states, including those in the Caribbean, will struggle to develop newer industries and achieve the competitiveness and skills that are essential to create economic growth.
For many years now, the region has been able to cultivate a generally positive image of high literacy levels and academic achievement. It has given the world Nobel laureates and has a capacity for intellectual rigour and debate that makes it among the more interesting regions with which to engage. It has used this to promote itself as a location for foreign investment and as an indicator of its identity and culture.
However, look more closely at what is happening on the ground in many states and it becomes clear that away from a small elite group of schools, the region’s secondary education system is now failing to turn out students with the type of qualifications or skills that will enable the Caribbean to succeed in the highly competitive services based industries that its future rests upon.
Recently, Dr Kenny Anthony, St. Lucia’s Prime Minister, made this point. Speaking in St Lucia at the launch of new phase of the Caribbean youth empowerment programme he was blunt. The island, he suggested, was in danger of becoming uncompetitive.
“We are facing an employment crisis,” he said. “Economic stimulus alone is not the answer. We need to restructure our agencies, laws and curriculum to place greater emphasis on developing citizens who can make a contribution.”
Declining CXC exam results in St. Lucia meant that concerning numbers were leaving school unready for the world of work, and did not have any marketable, technical or vocational skills. “We have become a nation of underachievers; that has never been our tradition,” he was reported as saying.
If his counterparts elsewhere in the region had the same courage, Dr Anthony’s frank assessment could, with some variations, be applied to almost every Caribbean nation. With the exception of Cuba and in part, the Dominican Republic, all are now experiencing a decline in educational standards and are failing to develop young peoples’ talents in ways that relate to the region’s future.
The changing requirements of education were placed in a global context at the 18th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers in Mauritius. There the sense was that education needed to be seen as transformational. Knowledge-based economies were the only realistic future for most resource-poor small states. This meant that limited resources needed to be better spent and there was a need to reassess teaching methods so they were technology-driven and relevant to national development.
Similar concerns and solutions can be found in a Caribbean-specific context in a thoughtful and challenging 2010 paper on rethinking Caribbean education. Written by Dr Didacus Jules, the Registrar and Chief Executive Officer of the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC), it suggests there is a pressing need to redefine the region’s approach to education to ensure it is producing individuals with competencies that place the region on a path to sustainable development.
His central argument is that education in the Caribbean has largely been based on adapting a colonial inheritance in which the organizing principle has been to sort and classify people. This approach, which he notes is still fostered by the international funding agencies, is, he believes, no longer relevant to the region’s needs. Globalisation has brought about in developed countries an educational sector that has become a powerful industry dominated by western thinking. This he feels leaves little room for small states to create a model that is significantly different.
Caribbean governments, he argues, spend a much larger percentage of public money on education than many developed countries. Although as a percentage of GDP this is higher than in many OECD countries, Dr Jules produces evidence to suggest Caribbean performance is not commensurate with that investment.
Space does not permit more in the way of detail, but he suggests that Caribbean education needs rethinking; that there needs to be agreement on a new educational philosophy appropriate to the contemporary Caribbean; that there ought to be a seamless education system; that learning should become fun and be more closely related to the digital world; and that it needs to be attuned to a Caribbean-led assessment of the region’s key competencies and global competitiveness.
What neither Dr Anthony nor Dr Jules make clear, however, is how the gap between the dream and reality is to be closed, given that, in most Caribbean states, educational spending is falling and has to compete with other social priorities including healthcare and housing.
The problem is that many developed nations that have provided bilateral assistance in the past, are now struggling to raise sufficient revenues to deliver their own social commitments in the face of the continuing global economic crisis.
Yet it is only likely that through education and the retention of those with skills and training that the Caribbean can be transformed.
What is required goes beyond new thinking about the Caribbean educational model. It suggests that thought needs to be given to new sources of funding if education systems are to be adapted and made relevant to the future.
Here there is a wealth of external experience. Community colleges and tertiary education establishments created through Foundations, using corporate money; public/private partnerships; research hubs and parks around universities; fee paying summer schools; and peer to peer support are just some of the ideas common in North America, Europe and parts of the Far East, that are worth studying. So too is a recent study by Brookings, the US think tank, which suggests that one way forward in Latin America and the Caribbean might be to encourage large regional and hemispheric multinationals to invest out of self-interest to improve the quality of potential employees.
As Dr Anthony suggests, the priority is to find new ways to make and fund ‘dream factories’ that give the Caribbean people the tools to create a better reality.