Not all Parliamentary debates end in furor or partisanship. One such recent event was Minister Hon. Samuda speaking to the future of the education of our nation’s young people, and he and Ronald Thwaites spoke to statistics, studies, and the reality of young persons entering high schools and reading at a Grade 3 level. This is by no means an isolated event, and with a population that reads considerably less than each preceding decade, it must be understood as a very serious problem for which a solution is urgently required.
The problems are by no means easy to find solutions for, as the causal factors differ across the country. I have been fortunate to have read a number of recent studies; however I will not name these as many persons are afraid of repercussions and intimidation if they are bold enough to speak out. Therefore many of the studies by academics are lost to this debate. So by and large let me identify from what I have read a few of the factors that influence poor learning from the infant schools that carry right through the system.
Some of these are poor or no parenting; absentee parents; noisy and violent living conditions; physical abuse; sexual abuse; an early introduction to shooting and killing of loved-ones; severe malnutrition; and the list continues ad nauseum.
The question of parenting or lack thereof is common place in urban settings that are dominated by garrison conditions, gangs,” turfing”, restriction of free movement of people, single parenting under adverse conditions, and parents involved in illegal activities. It may also exist in some rural communities.
I can foresee many activists being unwilling to address this one, but Minister Samuda this is reality. Adults share the same sleeping quarters, and sex happens. The sleep interruptions are many: sound systems; neighbours; gunshots; police and ambulance sirens; all described in the song “Johnny Dollar a quiet place” (Dave and Ansel Collins).
So inappropriate housing enters the arena of education as a root cause, and this confronts us with a great expense to relocate communities to acceptable and more private situations. A move from an overcrowded “big yard” to a house is a costly investment especially for the unemployed and under-employed. The small high rise apartments reproduce the very same living conditions that they were supposed to alleviate and do not achieve the results that were anticipated.
The really shocking result for me was the level of severe malnutrition that started at a very young age. The replacement of breast milk with powdered milk or drinks; inappropriate ingredients in the “family pot”; no breakfast or dinner; bag drinks and sweet snacks for lunch adds to the problem. The heavy sugary drinks combine to make brain under-development become a deterrent to attention and learning.
When combined with sleep deprivation and malnutrition, school becomes a place of rest and sleep as opposed to learning. Distractions therefore become symptoms and aggression is a part of what is translated as bad behavior. It is a circle of hopelessness.
Each day many students receive benefits for meal support , but this does not relieve the absence of a breakfast/dinner situation, and another child’s mind goes to waste due to inadequate nutrition.
The numbers and adequacy of teachers and school administrators presents a segment where the good are underpaid and the bad are overpaid. This requires really respectful discussions with unions and a considerable expenditure on remedial and advanced training. It also requires discussions on greatly different remuneration and benefits for those who can make a difference in classrooms of deprived children.
It becomes a chicken or egg scenario: do we allow the situation to continue and run the risk of a workforce that cannot comprehend a modern society; or do we discuss the real cost of a turnaround programme. It will be a giant investment which if not debated and solved will continue to spawn a half educated unemployable workforce who have access to guns. I doubt that it will be a popular debate in Parliament as the strategy will need to be radical and expensive.
I will only indicate a few of the major areas of expenditure that will have to be a part of this quantum leap:
- Entire communities will have to be settled in more spacious living conditions, and this will have a cost of trillions over a 10 year period (longer than two electoral periods).
- Few of those moved will be able to make repayments required for another 10 years after which they should benefit from more participation in the workforce.
- Specific schools (including full boarding facilities) will have to be established to quickly direct the specialist areas of deficiency of instruction and nutrition.
- Schools should have full sporting opportunities which will promote wellness and discipline, and a cadet or military academy values.
- Teachers and staff will demand much more remuneration including good housing to warrant their efforts, but should have firm performance targets.
- This may pose a problem in the political support “imagined” from the JTA and other unions. Teachers in the new dispensations may well be paid three to four times those in our traditional schools and this will require dialogue and inclusion (should an astronaut be paid more than an airline pilot?).
- Delinquent parents will need to be remediated or dealt with by the family court, and the measurement of firm responsibilities and accountability applied (this is a sure election loser in the first ten years).
- Ganja smoking and other drugs in the specific and critical brain development period needs to be curtailed (this will certainly lose an election).
This list can go on but I think the point has been made. Failure to tackle these obstacles will come back to haunt us. The opportunity to start a few of these measures is now under the much criticized SOE and ZOSO where much more was promised in social intervention. This could be tried simply as a test measure.
I recommend a mandatory school attendance and a greatly enlarged appropriate and nutritious school feeding programme wherever needed. This must be run by persons of integrity as the current system has too many loopholes for corruption.
I commend these few thoughts for your consideration, before the situation becomes irreversible.