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Education in Tobago

By Reginald Dumas

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” said Nelson Mandela. It is indeed. “Knowledge is power,” wrote Francis Bacon, the English philosopher, towards the end of the 16th century. Over 400 years later, the situation is unaltered. Listen to Barack Obama: “If we want America to lead in the 21st century, nothing is more important than giving everyone the best education possible — from the day they start pre-school to the day they start their career.”
Education is not only about passing exams and getting good grades, though that is an important factor in a child’s development. Here’s another quotation, this time from Margaret Mead, the American anthropologist: “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.”
Yet what I see and hear of our national education system, including The UWI, tells me strongly that we have been placing far more emphasis on exam results than on nurturing the ability to think independently, to explore new terrain, to analyse, to challenge, to innovate. This shortfall is already haunting us. For now, let’s look at some exam results, with particular reference to Tobago.
Former THA education secretary Gary Melville was quoted as saying last month that “in 2013 we saw some major improvements in our CAPE results.” He and I must have different data, because the CAPE Unit I official figures I’m looking at show that in 2013 the pass rate for the Tobago education district in fact declined from 2012, though it improved for CAPE Unit II. Both rates were however well above the 2011 rate — in that year the Tobago Unit I rate was the lowest in the country. Over the period 2007 to 2013 the average pass rate for Tobago in Unit I was the second lowest in the country; only the North Eastern district (Trinidad) fared worse. As for Unit II, Tobago was the third lowest, joined by the North Eastern and South Eastern districts. All three districts were below the national average.
Melville also said that there had been “slight improvements at CSEC in terms of English and mathematics.” Improvements cannot be allowed to remain “slight”; they will have to make a quantum leap forward. Why? Because the data I have show that over the same period Tobago had the second lowest average percentage of students passing five or more subjects including maths and English. Again, the North Eastern district was in the cellar. And again, North Eastern, South Eastern and Tobago weren’t only at the bottom of the ladder, their average pass rates were well below the national average. Further, only in Tobago and North Eastern did fewer than 50 per cent of candidates consistently obtain five or more passes. One school in Tobago East was so bad it’s embarrassing. That is hardly a record to be proud of.
What about the SEA? Frighteningly, over the period in question Tobago had the lowest percentage in the country of students scoring above 90 per cent; even North Eastern did better. As for students scoring above 60 per cent, Tobago and North Eastern again occupy the bottom floor; they had fewer than 45 per cent of their students in this range, and, yet again, they were well below the national average. Over the period Tobago had the lowest percentage of students in this category while the Victoria district had the highest. The bad news continues.

When you look at the percentage of students over the period scoring 30 per cent or less in the SEA, you find that Tobago has the second highest (12.31), outdone — again — only by North Eastern (15.27). They are both well above the national 2013 average of 8.9 per cent. Once more, Victoria shines: it is the only district in the country that has consistently had fewer than 10 per cent of its students scoring 30 per cent or less; in 2013 it was down to 5.6 per cent.
To his credit, Melville did concede that Tobago was underperforming. He was reported as saying that measures were being put in place to correct the problem and that the primary focus would be on making students competitive in a regional and international scenario. I have no idea what those words mean — after all, the students aren’t competitive now even at the national level.
He was quoted as speaking about strengthening student support services and assessing and testing children for “developmental challenges.” But there was nothing said (or at least reported) about the roles of parents and civil society generally, about the relevance of the curriculum to Tobago’s progress, about teacher responsibilities and pedagogy, about the physical location and condition of schools and adequacy of equipment, about training students how to think, about how and in what context “competitiveness” is to be achieved, about the widening gender gap in performance, about the gulf between Tobago West and Tobago East, about the sociological and economic significance of the data (which the THA must have), and so on. May I therefore ask how exactly the THA proposes to “correct the problem”?
Melville was also reported as saying that a country’s development is measured by the population’s education level. He sounds like a disciple of Mandela and Obama. That’s good, but is the THA putting those leaders’ teachings into effect? Tobago, he went on, had to aim for the highest possible achievements. That seems to mean Tobago isn’t doing so now. On the basis of the figures above, such an interpretation would be entirely plausible. Perhaps the THA could take the trouble to provide us with detailed enlightenment on its education plans, if it has any, so that a public conversation may begin? Or is the fate of Tobago’s children, and of Tobago, a matter for the THA alone?
I end with another quotation, this one from the 19th century French writer Victor Hugo: “He who opens a school door closes a prison.” I hope the new Education Secretary, Huey Cadette, quickly grasps the full significance of that statement.

* Reginald Dumas is a former
ambassador and a former head of the public service
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