The onslaught of COVID-19 and its impact on the education system, particularly as it relates to the delivery of face-to-face learning, has brought a number of age-old issues into sharp focus. The overall architecture of our education system as it relates to requirements of a developing economy, the transformation of the grammar school system bequeathed us by colonialism, the accessibility of appropriate learning to all, the role of ITC in preparing our people for the challenges of development and connected with this the accessibility of electronic learning devices and the requisite support architecture. Broadly speaking, these are a few of the overarching issues of our education system, challenged as it is by a social environment which must take cognizance of specific remedial issues of language and numeracy which must be addressed throughout the system, beginning with early childhood learning, into primary and secondary education.
The holistic approach that is required has never been lost on the Saint Lucia Labour Party. History will record, that in the 1950s and early 1960’s it was a government of the Saint Lucia Labour Party, then hampered by colonial control, that strove to ensure that a larger number of the sons and daughters of this little island had access to universal primary school education, and then had access to secondary school places which were then very restricted. It should be noted also, that it would take the coming of the Kenny Anthony-led Labour Government of 1997 to expand the secondary school plant to make it possible for every child to have a secondary education. It was then that areas like Babonneau, Gros Islet, Ciceron, Marigot, and Desruisseaux among others, had access to secondary education for the first time.
Of course, many shortsighted people then (some educators among them) criticized the move as having no merit, because there were children who were deemed unable to cope with the transition. Bogged down in the myopia of elitist thinking, they did not recognize that the issue was not whether we were ready for universal secondary education, but whether we were going to address the complex remedial issues that must be engaged to ensure that our children could progress seamlessly through the various stages of the system. Today, the wisdom of the Labour Government’s progress in that direction can hardly be questioned.
The issues, apart from those of a remedial nature, are understood to lie in the architecting of an education system that understands education not simply in terms of the traditional “academic disciplines”, but in terms of the larger, social development of the individual in his/her social engagement with the society. It is in this context, that while the SLP Manifesto of 2021 boldly proclaims the objective of “actively [pursuing] the policy that every Saint Lucian house-hold has at least one university graduate within a reasonable time” (p. 21), the critical issue of Early Childhood Education is focused on, with the fundamental goal of pursuing equitable access to this level of education. At this level, the intention of introducing at least one foreign language in a multilingual region can be a game-changer. Introducing Spanish, French, Mandarin at the stage of early childhood and developing this throughout the education experience will have us well-positioned – here we already have the advantage of being bilingual.
Some years ago, officials of Club Med in Vieux Fort observed, that many Saint Lucians had a predisposition to learning the French language and being able to progress to positions as GO’s in that organization, precisely because they were bilingual. The old prejudices that our Kwéyòl was a brake on our learning of English, or indeed of French, were totally discounted by them. They had practical examples among the local staff.
The reimagining of the system with an emphasis in the areas of technical and vocational education, and ITC along the lines delineated by the Party Programme is a blueprint that can indeed revolutionize education along the lines that will be the basis for the transformation of our economic as well as our social landscape. The idea that such education is somehow of a lower order needs to be dispelled. But it cannot be simply a matter of lip-service. Other cocks have crowed loudly about these needs; but they have delivered very little that is tangible. It is not enough to have good intentions that are not matched by the commitment and the political will necessary. We definitely cannot go the way of a spaced-out, ki-gany-ki-an-sa disposition which betrays a total disconnect with an understanding of the needs of our people as they pursue their day-to-day living.
From time immemorial there has been the criticism that our education system does not prepare one for the world of work. This has often been the observation of the private sector. This is a fair observation in a society where the complaint has been that technical skills are in short supply. But while we have to ensure that these skills become readily available and our education system ensures this, the development of the softer social skills, and the acculturation of our people into an ethos of caring is equally important. In other words, we cannot simply be turning out automatons for an economic machine. And although we have understood this as far back as on the cusp of our attainment of independence, we have not been able to actually translate this apparent grasp of our psychosocial and material needs to actual praxis in our education system.
The actual will to give form to what we say we intend to do in the sphere of education will take time and resources. The financial resources appear in bold relief, because of the very restricted fiscal space that we have been left with, consequent to no small degree on the mindless borrowing and spending excesses of the Allen Chastanet regime. But we must commit ourselves assiduously to achieving the tasks in education that we have set ourselves – always measuring our achievements against the contract we have with the electorate.
Of course, I must express satisfaction with the way in which the Saint Lucia Labour Party Administration has ensured the payment of facilities fees for all, the payment of CSEC/CXC English and Mathematics, and the very advanced programme to ensure that all our children have electronic learning devices and the infrastructural support required. And while this only addresses the tip of the veritable iceberg of challenges that the nation faces in the education system, we must commend Prime Minister Pierre and Education Minister Shawn Edward for what has been done so far. Contrary to the narrative of those who have tried to detract from the efforts made only six months into the government’s term.
It is my view, that working together with the staff of the Ministry of Education, professional bodies such as the Saint Lucia Teachers’ Union and the Principals’ Association, the parents of our children, and the private sector who have a stake in the overall development of our education, the undertakings in the 2021 Manifesto will be translated into concrete interventions that will redound to the real development for our people. A development that truly reflects the ethos of “putting people first”