Saturday, February 24, 2018

Addressing deficiencies in the education system


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I have read the budget presentations of the Minister of Finance and of the Minister of Education. The Minister of Finance spoke of the construction of a campus for the College of Science, Technology and Applied Arts (COSTAATT) in Chaguanas, an integrated campus in Tobago and a multi-storey upgrade to the existing structure at the University of the West Indies (St Augustine campus). He discussed reform of the Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses (GATE) programme to eliminate wastage and abuse; and expansion of skills training.

The Minister of Education spoke extensively of the achievements of his ministry in infrastructure development (school repair and building); distribution of Laptops, training of teachers in information technology, building of early childhood schools and training of teachers for these schools, development of technical vocational schooling, performance in Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) and Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE), teacher training for primary and secondary schools, arrangements for children with special needs, continuous assessment, curriculum development and publishing of textbooks.

I shall not discuss all of these activities but I shall discuss some issues which were not highlighted by the minister. I listened to the Minister of Education being interviewed (by telephone) on the television this yesterday morning during which he described his visits to schools where he saw first-hand some of the infrastructure problems. While I have no difficulty with a Minister of Education visiting schools and seeing some of the problems this cannot replace a systematic monitoring of schools. This is supposed to be done by school supervisors but that system is glaringly inadequate and does not shine light independently on the system.

I am unable to reconcile the achievements, praiseworthy as they may be, with what we see highlighted on the television news almost every night of the problems that school children, parents and teachers have with faulty infrastructure and absenteeism of teachers. Two young people when asked what they would like to have improved in their schools responded by saying that they would like better attendance of teachers.

I shall now discuss (not for the first time in these articles) the following issues which I consider to result in major deficiencies in our education system: independent monitoring of schools, teacher absenteeism, school and classroom design and numeracy and literacy.

Independent monitoring of schools.

The Minister of Education is a medical doctor by profession so he will be well aware that the first step in addressing an illness is diagnosis of the problem. For proper diagnosis it is necessary to carefully collect and record the symptoms. In this diagnosis there must be no bias on the part of the doctor and on many occasions the general practitioner alone will not be able to do the job and so specialists have to be consulted. This is recognised in England where there is within the Ministry of Education an independent unit: the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) which reports directly to Parliament.

In this system all schools are inspected at least once in every five years (more frequently if the school is not keeping up to a required standard). Inspections are carried out by a team of some ten persons, experts in different fields of education who spend a week at each school examining all aspects of the school's operations. Inspectors go into classrooms and listen to teaching, examine homework books, talk to teachers and students. The inspectors report on performance in individual subjects, particularly comparing this with previous inspections, comment in the report on the quality of teaching, on behaviour of students in the school. Comment is made on leadership in the school including leadership from the school board, on relations between the school and the community. The reports include assessment of the school's infrastructure.

Two extremely important aspects of the Ofsted system are that the inspectors are trained and certified and each report is posted on the Ofsted website. At anytime the most recent report on any of the thousands of schools in England can be accessed. The names of individual teachers are not mentioned but each subject is accessed and appropriate comments are made. We should request help from Ofsted to set up a similar system in this country, particularly in the training of inspectors. Retired teachers should be recruited in the first instance.

Teacher absenteeism.

In this country teachers can take 28 (casual) days off and 14 days sick leave during term time. When I first heard of this arrangement I contacted a teacher in England and enquired how many days a teacher gets off a year in that country. I was told that there is no such arrangement for "days off". I then enquired how many days of sick leave were teachers entitled to each year. I was told that there is no such entitlement. If a teacher is ill the principal is informed and in due course a sick leave certificate is submitted. I was told that a class could not be left without a teacher for apart from the adverse effect on learning if anything should happen to a student under such circumstances the principal, the school board and the Local Government Authority would be liable.

How do we solve this entrenched problem in Trinidad and Tobago? Sometime ago a previous Minister of Education tried to assess the extent of the problem and came up with the answer that for seven schools 100 additional substitute teachers would be required. At that rate I calculated that we would probably have to double our present number of teachers.

My proposal is that during salary negotiations (as are in progress now) Government should "buy out" these concessions which were no doubt introduced when teacher's salaries were low and the state could not afford to increase them significantly.

To be continued.

John Spence is professor emeritus, UWI. He also served as an independent senator.