Is there a policy on adult education? Not really

 “We cannot wait for the children”

—Julius Nyerere, Tanzania.

With no fanfare and like a thief in the night the Adult Education Unit, as we knew it, was disbanded by the Ministry of Education, on January 9, 2012. Adult education centres engaged mainly in craft (vocational courses) were transferred to the Ministry of Community Development. Some may argue that it was a progressive move as it sought to make adult education programmes community-based. Unfortunately philosophical reasons are not forthcoming and we are left to speculate as to the purpose of the change. 

This move brought to an end 40 years of continuous service under the aegis of the Ministry of Education. Since 1971, the adult education programme was annexed to the Ministry of Education with the establishment of an Educational Extension Unit, to organise and co-ordinate programmes of education extension. 

Before this, adult education had experienced a checkered past. Even during slavery, there were skilled artisans among the slaves and training of others was most probably achieved through non-formal means of apprenticeship and experiential learning. 

There were, however, popular movements in the 1930s and 1940s in Trinidad and Tobago where people were mobilised to participate in their own social and educational development, for example, the Negro Cultural and Welfare Association and the Indian Welfare Association that aimed at addressing  the problems of illiteracy in particular. 

Formal attempts at adult education in T&T date back to 1943, with the establishment of the Social Welfare Department that assumed responsibility for the education of community groups (forerunners to the village councils) and began its adult education programmes with classes at ten centres in literacy, numeracy, civics, music and art. 

Between 1948 and 1971, adult education was shunted to the Department of Community Development under the Ministry of Social Services. Officers were mainly primary school teachers, who believed in the importance of community involvement in education and were themselves prominent in their communities. Some sought professional training but in the majority of cases it was felt that adult education was really an extension of primary schooling and that any good primary school teacher could have similar success in adult education. 

This perspective is still held by some policy makers. Some of the early stalwarts though were CLR Ottley, Phyllis Anderson, Olly Stanford, Olga Shurland, Eileen Armstrong, Ramcharitar Rickhi, George Sinanan, Jeremiah Saunders, Cyril Solomon, John Romano and Kelvin Branche.

Allied programmes were established at other ministries in public health education, culture, agriculture, and at the Community Development Division of the Prime Minister’s Office with the Prime Minister’s Best Village competition. There was the establishment of formal institutions such as the National Training Board and the National Training Agency. In the face of the complexities and duplication, two private/public institutions are still respected  for their work in “popular’’ education: the Extra Mural Department of the UWI (now the UWI Open Campus) mainly under the leadership of Esmond Ramesar and SERVOL led by a visionary priest Fr Gerard Pantin.

Since 1997, there was growing stability in adult education with the establishment of lifelong learning centres offering approximately 69 different courses in adult basic education, technical/vocational education, enrichment activities, family life education, citizenship education, environmental education, and computer literacy as well as a growing interest in andragogy —the art and science in facilitating adult learning vis-a-vis pedagogy, and of course the progressive work of ALTA.

With this momentum, by now, we should have established a sound professional adult education unit in the Ministry of Education, a unit that would have been the hub for research and policy on all aspects of adult learning and training. Of grave importance would have been its role in identifying barriers to learners’ participation in adult education and the means to overcome these barriers. 

The unit would still have played a crucial role in the delivery of adult basic literacy and numeracy and other life skills. It would have sought to reduce the several duplications and discontinuities and allow for greater organisational coherence among government ministries and state agencies and the private sector that deliver adult education. Revival of its role in cultural studies and citizenship education would have been necessary with a focus on the lives of ordinary people, on historical memory and on critical understandings. Many progressive countries in Africa and Latin America also parts of India are adopting a similar approach with equal attention paid to non-formal and informal adult education. 

It was further hoped that in its new dispensation, a new cadre of researchers and practitioners in the field of adult education, for example, graduates of the Masters in Adult and Continuing Education of the UWI Open Campus would have taken their place in this transformed unit.  

The current move by the Government suggests there is really no amplified vision of adult education. There is talk among the power-brokers that education of the adult population is essential for sustained economic growth and development, but there is little evidence however that adult education is integrated into the educational sector much less national development planning. It has not been designed to serve basic development goals, at least not in terms understandable and convincing to curriculum developers and decision makers. 

What is worse is that there is also great confusion regarding the concepts of adult education, continuing education, lifelong learning, higher education and the parameters and application of these, leading to the resultant fragmentation across state agencies, non-government organisations and the universities.

• Lennox Bernard PhD (Sheffield) has been a teacher at all levels of the

 educational system


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