Thursday, April 7, 2011

The recurring dilemma in Caribbean education

By Oliver Mills

Caribbean education, throughout its history, has faced an ever recurring dilemma, which is how to so structure and manage the education system to get the maximum results. But most importantly of all, how to design a system that gets rid of the historical dichotomy between catering mainly for a small, academic elite, while the majority of students leave school without the requisite number of subjects to pursue further education.

Oliver Mills is a former lecturer in education at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. He holds an M.Ed degree. from Dalhousie University in Canada and an MA from the University of London. He has published numerous articles in human resource development and management, as well as chapters in five books on education and human resource management and has presented professional papers in education at Oxford University in the UK and at Rand Africaans University in South AfricaThis issue is taken up by Rosina Wiltshire, who is reported in the Caribbean News Now of March 23, 2011, as saying that the education system in the region caters to the one third academic elite, while the remaining 67 percent leave school with two or less certificates, and with little option for technical, vocational and skills training, and so are viewed as failures, and see themselves as such.

This challenge to the Caribbean system has both philosophical and managerial roots. From its very inception, the school system in the Caribbean was structured around a certain type of education for one set of persons, who would later proceed to the professions, and another set that would engage in physical endeavour. Hence the distinction between an academic and practical education.

Primary education was designed for the lower classes, while a secondary or high school education, was for an elite. The private primary and high schools fostered an elite clientele, based on the ability to pay, and better teachers and resources, while the primary or public school system catered for the masses of the population, with comparably less resources, and teachers who were not well paid.

Those high school leavers who attained the requisite number of subjects proceeded to university, while those who had insufficient subjects, either went to technical and vocational establishments, or were exposed to skills and vocational training of varying quality. In the independence era, some Caribbean governments tried to democratise education, by structuring the system to accept more primary graduates into high schools, and many of these have done well. Some governments attempted this by converting certain institutions into high schools, to facilitate this increased number. And recently, in many instances, some of these newly established institutions have either performed on par with, or gotten better results than the traditional grammar schools. Vocational schools of various types have also been established, in order to facilitate better opportunities for students, and to supply the needs of the job market.

But why is it that, even in the era of independence, and the further democratisation of education, there are still institutions that produce an elite, and those that cater for another social class? It all has to do with the philosophical perception that there were certain persons who were endowed with an academic ability, while the majority was only fit for physical labour. This perception was also related to the socio-economic background of persons, in essence, a class analysis of capability and competence. The education system, therefore, was a replica of the class system in the society. The school therefore reproduced the social relationships that already existed in the wider society.

Education was therefore the instrument that decided where persons were placed in the social hierarchy. It determined who held what kind and quality of job, who the elites were, and who exercised power and influence. It was, and continues to remain an elite that determined what goods were produced, and services rendered in the wider society. Those who were deemed to posses less abilities became the consumer class.

The situation was further compounded by the fact that, although some Caribbean governments sought at various times to either make education free at all levels, it was not sustainable for many countries. But although there was greater access, those from the privileged classes continued to be the greatest beneficiaries, because of the types of schools they initially attended. Higher education, with its degree structure and grading mechanism, further ensured that only a minority got the requisite grades to graduate with top honours. In fact, in many school systems outside the Caribbean, many high schools only accept teachers with an honours degree. This ensures the same quality of product.

Even in the technical schools, there are divisions between technical, vocational and skills training, although there should be no distinctions, since no matter what it is called, skills remain the critical tools to be acquired. In some of these technical schools, students even do different examinations, and there are also perceptual differences and levels of recognition of particular courses that are offered. This even happens in higher education, where the humanities are seen as less rigorous than the social or natural sciences.

The point is, that it does not matter what the level of education is, primary or higher, there is the perception that some schools are better than others, and some programmes are preferred to others, and seen as superior. Even though in the technical and vocational areas, it is said that graduates of these programmes are financially better off, yet the class system determines that culture, reflected in the academic areas is the pivot of achievement. All of these factors re-enforce the idea, that an academic education is better than a technical or vocational education, although a gradual change in perception is taking place.

But what can be done to change this perception, which allows a gulf between various kinds of educational provisions? In one country outside the Caribbean, all of those institutions beyond the secondary level offering a technical education were granted university status. However in many circles, the retention of the term ‘technical’ seemed to denote inferiority. The institutions were therefore granted full university status, without the term ‘technical’ being a part of its name. What happened though, is, that although they continued to offer technical subjects, other arts, social sciences and management programmes were added, apparently to bolster their image as serious institutions. In addition, lecturers who could not get jobs at the more traditional institutions, were recruited to these institutions. This had the effect of tilting the balance again away from technical to an academic education.

Even in the area of political leadership, the type of school a person attended gives the stamp of eligibility for high office. There was a prime minister of one country with a degree in the natural sciences, whose intellectual abilities were highly questioned. This was because high political office was, and is still seen as the province of persons who studied law, management studies, social sciences,’ and even medicine. The point is, that academic ability and competence are still seen as being embedded in academic subjects, and the other technical areas are perceived as not producing the kind of intellectual and academic competence as these areas. The technical areas are still seen as being ‘hands on’ although exposure to technical areas does not rule out the ability to formulate alternatives, or to reason logically. It is not just the use of the hands.

To dissolve the distinction between an academic and vocational and technical education, Caribbean governments need to undertake serious efforts to educate their publics that it does not matter which type of school is attended, or which subjects are offered, that everyone receives a quality education irrespective of the level of that education. Again, accreditation criteria should be put into effect both nationally and internationally to give credence and credibility to the programmes that are offered, so that there is both regional and international equivalence of programmes, and no one feels cheated.

Also there should be a healthy mix between the academic and technical in all programme areas, as computer science shows, so that arts or social science subjects could be done as part of any programme, with the latter still retaining its quality and legitimacy. Furthermore, the subjects must be taught in such a way that a clear linkage is demonstrated between them, and not as separate areas. If the linkage is not shown, the dichotomy between the areas would be further strengthened.

In a final sense, ministries of education in the Caribbean need to formulate and advance a clear philosophy of education, which dispenses with division and distinction, and advocates the interrelationship of subject areas. The value, and values embedded in the subjects should be brought to the forefront, so that the equality factor is demonstrated and adhered to. In addition, a consciousness raising campaign should be waged by the educational establishment, stressing the ethical content and solutions orientation of the subjects offered at any level of the system.

These measures would serve to break down and dissolve any prejudices against certain subjects and institutions with respect to their value, and contribute to bringing about equality not only among institutions, but also in the wider society.

April 7, 2011