Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

TRINIDAD & TOBAGO: Government Promises Free Secondary Education for All

Peter Richards

PORT OF SPAIN, Jul 6 2000 (IPS) - ¡ Every year approximately 30,000 primary school students under the age of 11, sit the Common Entrance Examinations for entry to the 107 public and private secondary schools on the island.

Every year, nearly 10,000 of them fail to gain entry into these schools to further their education.

Now, the government says from September this year, universal free secondary education will be available to every student who sat the Common Entrance Examinations.

“This year I have instructed the Ministry of Education that every child that sat the exams, fail or pass must get a secondary school place and enter the secondary school system,” says Prime Minister Basdeo Panday.

No figure has been provided for implementing the free universal secondary school initiative.

The government hopes to create “extra space” to accommodate the students by building 10 new secondary schools, costing nearly 40 million US dollars under the Secondary Education Modernisation Programme (SEMP). The authorities hope the schools will be ready by September.

In addition, the government says it will pay for some students to attend private schools and some primary schools will be converted into Form One classrooms.

The decision to provide universal free secondary education is seen as part of a reform programme in education which will result in the implementation of a Continuous Assessment Programme (CAP), for primary school students, the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) which will replace the Common Entrance Examinations.

But the government’s move has found opposition from the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA), the National Parents- Teachers Association and even a government minister.

TTUTA has described the government’s move as “political” warning that “secondary education can’t be treated as instant coffee, that you can suddenly transform a place into a secondary school.”

TTUTA’s President Trevor Oliver says his union would not “allow teachers to be set up” by the government for clearly political reasons.

“Secondary education is not just herding children into a room and then saying everyone was placed. Principals are being asked to increase their class.”

Under the proposed initiative, classes are likely to be expanded to accommodate as many as 50 pupils from a current average of 30.

“By further overcrowding the schools we are only sowing the seeds for violence and indiscipline. This mad rush can’t go on. Somebody must stop it,” he added.

But the Education Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar has dismissed any suggestion of engaging in electioneering ahead of a general election likely to be called later this year.

“TTUTA is entitled to their view. I wonder if the agenda is not political. This is not a political agenda. If it is political, it is only in the sense of policy,” she said, adding, ” I think it is disrespectful for the Ministry of Education workers who worked and consulted principals.”

But mystery still surrounds the resignation a few weeks ago, of the cabinet-appointed committee overseeing the exercise. The committee headed by a former Education Minister resigned en masse, but has kept quiet as to why it took that position. The government on the other hand said it’s work had been completed.

Persad-Bissessar says that while her Ministry will “not force anyone to take up space” the choice for parents will be very simple. ” Will we decide to keep this child at home or on the streets or take up the offer.”

She says an additional 212 teachers would be recruited to ensure that the new initiative comes on stream by September.

The Education Minister has dismissed reports that the results of this year’s Common Entrance Examinations were being delayed because her ministry was still holding discussions on placing the students.

There are conflicting reports as to whether the denominational schools would assist by taking in extra students. The Minister has said these schools were “supportive” of the government’s plans, but TTUTA and media reports say this is not the case. Some of the denominational schools receive financial support from the government.

“Teachers will not work outside of school hours. They will not be doing any extra work or attempt to play doctor or nurse when it comes to students with disabilities. They will not be doing any clerical work,” the union said pointing to a lack of supportive systems to implement the new initiative.

Both the Trinidad and Tobago Primary School Principals Association and its Secondary School Principals Association have dismissed the idea saying it may result in putting additional financial burden on parents, particularly “from the lower income bracket”.

“In some cases students may be placed at schools far from their homes and we fear it may not be economically feasible for these parents,” Cecil Bailey, President of the Primary Principals Association told a news conference on Wednesday.

President of the National Parents-Teachers Association Grenville Taitt says he is “disturbed’ by the new development and spoke of his group’s concerns over the implementation last year of the CAP pilot programme. Taitt says CAP, a key element in the reform programme has been a failure. “Maybe we don’t interpret things properly,’ he said sarcastically.

A government minister has also expressed some concern over the decision to provide a secondary school place for every child.

Tobago Affairs and junior Finance Minister Dr. Morgan Job says the government’s campaign lacked focus. “I don’t understand why it is a good project to expand that system to all the children.”

Job has been very critical of the education system developed by the former Peoples National Movement (PNM) administrations over the last 30 years saying it had been “an unmitigated disaster.”

“People need to say unambiguously that what we have called free education has been an unmitigated disaster, especially for people in the lower caste,” he added.

The Self-Esteem Foundation, a non-government organisation (NGO), in a report handed to the government this month, highlighted several factors constraining the education system including limited resources, inadequate physical facilities and declining standards in law and order.

The media too have joined in the debate. In editorials, the main daily newspapers have noted that education “has always been a powerful political issue in his country.”

The Express newspaper noted that much of the support retained by the opposition PNM can be attributed to its accomplishments in widening primary and secondary education during its early days in office.

“It is not surprising therefore that the UNC (United National Congress), in its first term in government, has also latched on to the education issue as one of the platforms on which it hopes to be returned to office.”

But the paper reminded the authorities that they should learn from the PNM’s experience with the massive expansion of junior and secondary schools, that “more school places do not automatically result in a better education system.”

The Newsday newspaper said there was need for clarification of the government’s position since both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Education seem to be giving different views on the matter.

Newsday said that while the education matter “may make good election year material” the heightened “expectations of students and parents-guardians will in the end be under siege.

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