November 2018

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The Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of Education (MoE) recently put out a Draft Education Policy paper for public comment. The MoE is to be commended for drafting of the policy document, and, more so, for grounding it in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In my many discussions at The UWI and at public forums, I have commented that the current system was not designed for us, and needs to be “flipped on its head” to effect the kind of changes required. Although the policy paper falls a bit short of being revolutionary, its implementation in its current form will put the country’s national education system closer to an ideal state in which each citizen would be fully prepared to overcome the social, ecological and economic challenges of the future, while securing a decent standard of living.

The UWI St Augustine Campus has suggested how the policy should be shaped to ensure that the learning capacity of our citizens is maximised for the public good. This editorial addresses the key points raised in our feedback.

The policy document might have been better informed by addressing the very fundamental question: What is the real purpose of education, and the consequent need of a National Education system? This question facilitates a more holistic and philosophical perspective, unfettered by the status quo. In past editorials, I have stated the current position of The UWI, that the primary rationale for a national education system should be to enable citizens to “survive and thrive” in societal scenarios that range from the catastrophic to the ideal, however defined.

In particular, even as it prepares citizens for survival in the world of work, our education system must consist of a core “curriculum” that ensures that every citizen has the knowledge and skills, inclusive of the physical and mental abilities, to live through widespread catastrophes. In this state, it is quite likely that citizens will have to fend for themselves, having been cut off from their usual sources of supply required to sustain life. The challenges we faced following the recent deluge speak resoundingly to this.

The survival rationale also requires every citizen to have effective mastery of body and mind. If we could move our society to this level of self-mastery, we would have given our citizens a gift that is second best only to the gift of life itself. We would have a citizenry robustly prepared to realize their full potential, and to live through the worst in situations where they have to fend for themselves. The policy paper addresses the mental and emotional aspects, but does not adequately cover the physical.

The above makes a strong case for the implementation of a mandatory period of national service for all young citizens. A well-designed system of national service would foster civic mindedness and national pride, sharpen basic survival skills and promote social cohesion.

The paper speaks of building “capacity and capability specifically in art and design, so that concepts and finished products can be fashioned, licensed and scaled up for mass production”. This is a laudable objective, one that is in line with The UWI initiatives for developing a stronger culture of innovation that drives increased export entrepreneurship. To achieve this objective, our education system must move away from the purely functional approach to learning, to embed a curriculum core that strategically integrates science, technology, arts, engineering and mathematics (STEAM). There is strong contemporary and historical evidence that STEAM, as a strategically holistic combination of arts and technology, is the educational paradigm to nurture the innovative thinking required of “21st Century Learners”. In our context, STEAM is needed to create the individuals who would achieve the targets that we believe should characterise an effective economic diversification initiative – the growth in economic entrepreneurship that results in an SME sector that earns at least 30% of our foreign exchange requirements within 15 years.

The policy paper sets as one of its goals, the “access to educational opportunities by all learners”. This is a very laudable goal, one that resonates with the UWI Access theme in its current strategic plan. Although not mentioned in the draft document, this goal (Goal 2) reminded me of a discussion in local education circles a few years ago on the forging of a seamless education system – one that provides the opportunities for learners to achieve their desired educational goals, regardless of their present educational development.

Such a system would consist of multiple pathways that would engender articulation (vertical and horizontal) across the different levels from primary school right through to tertiary education, inclusive of TVET, for seamless and continuous learning. This includes the various system components that would allow, say, a primary school dropout to go ultimately to university or a CVQ-certified individual to do the same. The discourse should resume to enable the level of access required to optimise the education potential for all citizens.

One of the issues raised in the paper is that of TVET. The situational assessment on TVET does not paint a pretty picture of a sector that has so much promise. We are particularly concerned that the stigmatisation issue still remains. I fully agree with Didicus Jules, now Director General of the OECS, who, in a 2011 article declared that “TVET has not taken root in Caribbean education systems because notwithstanding the discourse, it is still treated by planners and seen by the public as a compensatory device”. In other words, TVET is viewed as the path to be taken by those who do not succeed at the academics. We are happy to see that the report speaks to these challenges and includes proposals for filling the gaps. The UWI has provided a few suggestions to complement the initiatives proposed by the Ministry to improve the TVET sector.

The elimination of TVET stigmatisation would help forge a strengthened education system and workforce. We propose initiatives that include, inter alia:

  • the strengthening of the monitoring and evaluation framework to facilitate articulation from TVET to academic streams;
  • expansion of TVET programmes through Caribbean Vocational Qualification (CVQ) certification from the current 81 schools to all 190 secondary schools in the next five years, making one CVQ-certified TVET subject mandatory for each secondary school student;
  • the continued promotion of CVQ programmes at higher education institutions; and
  • the creation or strengthening of the licensing regime for a wider range of “trades”. The latter will have the benefit of professionalising the vocations as well as providing a greater degree of comfort to users of these services.

The CVQ system has two very appealing characteristics. First, it is competency based, i.e., one can only acquire the CVQ certificate by actual demonstration of the required skill to do the work in the relevant field. Further, the continuous assessment nature also provides a level of instant gratification that encourages and motivates the candidate on an ongoing basis. Finally, by virtue of the above, graduates are, at least theoretically, immediately ready to work in the area in which they are qualified. It is interesting to note that many universities abroad are embracing the concept of Competency Based Education and Training (CBET) to improve the work readiness of graduates.

These proposals for CVQ expansion should go a long way to reducing the misplaced stigma associated with TVET and are based on experience in TVET delivery over the years. In particular, experience with early CVQ offerings in secondary schools shows that, if well done, a mandatory CVQ curriculum can positively impact on academic achievement and discipline. Furthermore, at The UWI, The Faculty of Engineering at St. Augustine has worked with NESC since 2009 to offer CVQ components to students in its pre-engineering programme. In addition, the School of Education offers a Master of Art in Education – Leadership in Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) and Workforce Development.

The University of the West Indies again commends the Ministry of Education and its staff for drafting a policy document that considers how the many facets of our education can be made more effective in preparing the citizen of the future. As with any draft document, changes will be required to ensure that the policy that will ultimately determine the fate of our young citizens is optimised for maximum benefit. It is in this regard that I call upon citizens to make their contribution by taking part in the ongoing public consultations. The paper and details on the consultation process are provided on the Ministry’s website.


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