"Developing Tobagonians in a developing Tobago" is one of the favourite catchphrases of the current Tobago House of Assembly (THA) leadership. Politicians adore catchphrases and slogans. They find them pithy and attractive to the electorate; they even come often to believe them (a very dangerous thing, believing your own propaganda).We in turn are well-advised to exercise great caution: do you for instance remember "Water for all by (or was it "in") 2000", or "Outages are a thing of the past", or, more recently, "Axe the tax" and "The people, the people, the people" and "We will rise"?
I have always been told that the two principal agents of socio-economic development in any society are education and health. If that is true, and if what I have been reading about the condition of those two factors in Tobago is accurate, the island is in some trouble. Let's take education first.
In 2000 the Cabinet appointed a Task Force, chaired by the distinguished Tobago educationist Dr Eastlyn McKenzie, "to enquire into the poor performance of students in secondary schools in Tobago". In its report, the Task Force stated inter alia (and, in my opinion, correctly) that "performance in secondary schools has a strong foundation in the primary schools", and it concluded that "of the many students assigned to secondary school more than half are in serious need of remedial teaching."
It went on to say that in mathematics and English Tobago "continues to lag behind" the seven other educational districts in the country: last or second last in the former subject, fifth or sixth in the latter. And it recommended "greater emphasis on the development of the basic learning skills of reading, writing and numeracy at the primary level." What happened to this and other recommendations I am unable to say, but I note that the THA, though named as a member of the Task Force, never appointed a representative to the body. I have to assume that the omission was in the best interest of Tobago.
Several years later came what is called A comprehensive economic development plan for Tobago 2006-2010, its cover bearing another favourite THA catchphrase (a "brand", I think they call this one) — "Tobago, capital of paradise: clean, green, safe and serene".
Like the McKenzie report, the plan made the link between primary and secondary, bleakly noting that the "education experience in Tobago is characterised by underperformance at the SEA examination and high scholastic retardation rates at the primary school level which are perpetuated with low performance at the secondary level." But then, as if the McKenzie report did not exist, the plan recommended that "a significant assessment must be conducted to determine the root causes of (low pass rates at the secondary level)". (It may simply be that the plan's authors didn't consider the McKenzie report "significant".)
Moving upwards on the education ladder, the plan called for an expansion of tertiary-level facilities, which appears to mean the creation of "centres of excellence" (Jack Warner, where are you?) "in specialised areas", and for a feasibility study "for the construction of at least two research institutes..."
A review of the plan was published in June this year. "Tobago," we are told, "continues its advance on the educational front..." Heartening news, except that two pages later we read that "at the primary and secondary levels students are not being supported to enter tertiary level education." Several "challenges" are then listed.
Among them are a general lack of career guidance at the secondary level, issues of co-ordination at the sectoral level, departure of the best and brightest students for more fertile pastures (one called me a few days ago to say he was leaving), and difficulties of broadband and fibre optic capability. One might be forgiven for thinking that the overall tenor of only those inadequacies negates the confident assertion of "advance".
I have been further alarmed in the last fortnight by information in the July 2012 Trinidad and Tobago Human Development Atlas. While Tobago, with Diego Martin and Point Fortin, achieves a 100 per cent educational attainment record for children aged six to 16, it sinks nearly to the bottom where secondary and higher levels for those 17 and over are concerned — only Sangre Grande and Mayaro/Rio Claro perform worse.
Further, "attainment" in this context clearly refers to "attendance". But having attended, what have these young Tobagonians actually attained? The June review itself says that full secondary school passes averaged a mere 32 per cent between 2004 and 2007. Thirty-two per cent! And I have no idea how that figure is disaggregated. Can we therefore with assurance propose "centres of excellence" and "research institutes"?
I point fingers at no one in particular; I am not a politician, and thus unskilled in the technique. I understand it is excellent for vote-snaring; it is certainly subversive of societal cohesion. All I would like to say now is that there appears to be an urgent need for a detailed and impartial examination of the place of education in Tobago society. Too much in Trinidad and Tobago is mindlessly taken for granted. The catchphrase, relevant or not, passes into folklore. Data are dismissed or glossed over or creatively distorted, often unsought. Postures are struck; superficiality is exalted; the real world fades; the ostrich rules. That way does not lie development.
In my next article I shall look at health.
• Reginald Dumas is a former
ambassador and former head of the Public Service