Our Readers' Opinions
September 10, 2013

The Education Revolution: where it begins and ends

Tue Sep 10, 2013

Editor: Over the past two weeks, there has been much debate about the genesis of the so called “Education Revolution.” Though such debates can be somnolent, they hyperbolically engender “bragging rights” that have become a customary diatribe on daily talk shows.

According to the “Oxford English Dictionary,” a “revolution,” is a dramatic and far-reaching change, meaning that the status quo has been turned upside down and inside out, in what you can call a paradigm shift.{{more}}

This change of modus operandi can be reflected in governance, economic systems or social policy decisions. But because of space constraints, we will only examine the very claims and origins of this much heralded notion – “education revolution.”

The very idea of an education revolution cannot be examined without historical (colonial) contextualization, which space does not permit in this article.

However, in examining this much vaunted concept, it is more apt to look at the period 1984 – present, which traverses two political parties and governments, setting the basis for a banal comparative analysis.

In keeping with the theme “change,” the gist of a revolution – the first real attempt at radically changing the status quo in the education system took place in 1984, with the introduction of the school feeding programme. This programme initially started out as a pilot project by the World Food Programme, but in that same year, the New Democratic Party (NDP) administration saw the relevance and importance of this programme, in the fight against poverty, and as an interventionist strategy in early childhood development, to ensure that students’ stomachs were filled to function properly at school. Hence, the extension of this programme.

In 1984, the NDP administration, as official government policy, began to send students to study in Cuba. It must be mentioned that the United People’s Movement, as a Marxist party, was facilitating students to study in Cuba. What is exceptional about the government policy is that these students were allowed to return and gain employment in the public service, a policy which had been eschewed by the Labour Party, which had labelled such students communist sympathizers. This new policy in itself was revolutionary for two other reasons. Students were now given the opportunity to study outside of the University of the West Indies and the Anglo Saxon countries (the United States, Britain and Canada), and at same, it expanded immensely access to tertiary education for many Vincentians, rather than the few, who were fortunate back then to go to university.

In the same revolutionary vein, pregnant teachers, who previously had to resign, if unwed, were allowed to continue in the profession. The late Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley is still adored and considered a “national hero” by a large number of teachers for introducing such a policy in 1976.

The year 1989 was the first time a large number of Vincentians entered the corridors of the University of the West Indies in droves. In that year, the NDP administration granted all students wanting to attend and attending that institution the economic cost, which also made it possible for many students to pay their own way to university.

In that same year, I was also a beneficiary of that new policy. In 1989, I was awarded the first ever Government Employees Credit Union scholarship to study at the University of the West Indies. The cost of my programme then was in the vicinity of EC$20,000. With the advent of the economic cost being paid by the Government, it halved the cost paid out by the awarding institution.

This policy enabled universal university education for the first time in the history of StVincent and the Grenadines. Prior to that, university education was only for the few with money, those politically well connected to the Labour Party, or the children of senior civil servants, by extension, the middle and upper middle class, who understood the benefits and virtues of a university education. Thus, today, the vast majority of senior civil servants at present benefitted from that NDP policy.

The NDP also introduced in the 1980s and 90s, the template for modern school plant, both in terms of architectural design and layout. The construction of the Campden Park (Bethel)High School and the Georgetown Secondary, deviated from the just concrete and slab look, and now serve as the model when new schools are built.

The building of the Community College in the 1990s, by the NDP administration, radically and exponentially expanded the intake of the number of students who could pursue ‘A’ Levels by nearly 1,000 per cent.

Up to the early 1990s, the ‘A’ Level Wing at the St Vincent Grammar School, which basically was two classrooms, accommodated far fewer than 100 students. In the year 2000, the number of students enrolled was 561.

The majority of the students then, who gained access to do ‘A’ Levels were from Grammar and High School, St Martin’s and St Joseph Convent. The construction of the A’ Level College made it possible to immensely expand the intake of students from the less well-established schools, such as St Clair Dacon (Carapan), Bethel, Emmanuel and Intermediate etc.

In 1998, Mr John Horne, the then Education Minister, had taken the initiative that pregnant girls could return to school after delivery. I vividly remember being one of the few teachers who supported the policy then. But most parents at the Emmanuel High School opposed such a policy. Opposition to this policy was not confined to that school, but was widespread throughout the country. Sister Pat, at the Marriaqua convent, was the only principal, at that time, who had the guts and independence to implement such a policy, given the fact that it was a faith-based school. Today, such a policy has gained widespread acceptance, and while we can boast of such a policy, first conceptualized by Mr John Horne, South Africa is still having problems selling such a policy to the public, even when that policy is enshrined in law.

The final revolutionary change in the education system was the introduction of the Book Loan Scheme in 1998. The buying of school books was a worrying and unaffordable annual exercise to a large number of parents. The Leader of the Opposition Arnhim Eustace, then adviser to the Government, introduced that policy initiative, which has significantly eased the burden to parents and the cost of learning in StVincent and the Grenadines.

The ruling Unity Labour Party (ULP) led Government has deepened and expanded many of the revolutionary initiatives adopted by the “NDP” administration over its 12-year reign. But, it is important to note that many of the present education initiatives pursued by the ULP administration were regional (CARICOM) initiatives. These include: “One University Graduate per Household” and “Universal Secondary Education”.

Universal Secondary Education was initiated because Mr Cools Vanloo, the then education planner, had foreseen that primary school enrolment was falling and secondary enrolment needed to be increased at the turn of the new millennium. But, also, all CARICOM (Haiti not included then) countries had achieved nearly a 100 per cent enrolment rate in primary education. Surprisingly, secondary enrolment in Trinidad and Tobago still hovered around the 80s percentage point. In Jamaica, enrolment was higher. However, Jamaica was also seeking to redress a situation where class attendance was low on a Thursday and more so on Fridays, as students had to assist their parents in the field, in order to get money to attend school for the beginning of the week.

This article is not seeking to glorify the achievements of the NDP. The NDP, because of the mere fact of spending 17 years in office in the post independence period, and replacing a labour party government that was colonialist in their posture — the burden was on this party to make the necessary changes to meet the challenges ahead.

I do hope that this article lays to rest some of the false perceptions and misconceptions, that are used to keep Vincentians in mental political bondage.

Nilio Gumbs