When schools across T&T open doors to a new year tomorrow, students will once again get the use of laptops with Education Minister Anthony Garcia promising to deliver on 13,600 laptops within the first term term of the 2017/2018 school year.
The promise, if indeed realised, will be one of few measures implemented to give back from a ministry more recently characterised by decisions which reversed or cut back on promises made in the past.
The Government Assistance for Tertiary Education (GATE), a programme meant to help students to pay for tertiary education, but burdened by wastage, is no longer universal for instance. Instead, it is now accessible to those who truly need it, via a means test.
Access to GATE for several private sector learning institutions has also been removed, leaving students grappling to find ways to pay and institutions denying applications of new GATE students, while the University of the West Indies pro-actively instituted a payment plan to accommodate students.
Laptops, once distributed to individual students to take home and use as they wish, are now being distributed to schools for use on the compound.
Expenditure in the school repair programme has meanwhile seen a decrease of 331 per cent for secondary schools and more than 50 per cent for primary schools, with less schools being refurbished than previous years.
With the celebration of the country’s 55th anniversary last week comes a reminder that over 300 schools have past their 50-year lifespan.
The cost to replace these schools is approximately $200 million for secondary schools, $27 million to $90 million for primary schools and $12 million for Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) centres.
A decrease of over $2 billion in the investment in education between the 2016 and 2017 budgets are a reflection of overall decreases in Government spending, with the allocation for the education sector moving from $9.763 billion in 2016’s budget to $7.22 in fiscal year 2017.
Less money in the country’s coffers has meant less funding for key initiatives and recurrent expenditure and changes to suit.
The ministry has also faced challenges over non-payment to contractors, with a debt from the Education Facilities Management Limited of a reported TT$1.2 billion.
With budget 2018 less than one month away, Garcia now has a very specific agenda.
The ministry plans to complete the construction and outfitting of 16 ECCE centres, facilitate repairs to approximately 50 ECCE centres, continue and complete the construction of 20 primary schools and construct six new primary schools. The ministry also plans to facilitate repairs to 450 primary schools in the vacation repair programme and continue and complete the construction of nine secondary schools.
These plans, however, all depend on the quantum of funding allocated to the ministry under the Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP).
In an interview last week, T&T Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA) president Lyndsley Doodhai said given the reduction in allocations for education, it was expected that teachers and students would be faced with schools in need of repair come the new school term.
He said the effect of the funding decrease would have been that many repairs would have had to be pushed back.
“That is reflected currently, where we have a vacation repair programme consisting of 142 schools but there were many other schools that would have required repairs but could not because of funding.
“The effect would be that teachers and students would be forced to operate in an environment that may not be as best as it can.
In some instances, the health and safety and occupants of schools would be put at risk,” Doodhai said.
He said in such cases, TTUTA would have no choice but to advise members to remove themselves from such schools.
“The situations and outlook is not too bright in terms of physical conditions of the nation’s schools.”
As to the ICT policy, Doodhai said he was unaware whether a policy had been implemented but said he had not seen any evidence indicating that it had.
“There was no consultation with TTUTA, I am not aware of what is contained. That policy has not been rolled out to the schools as yet. Schools have not seen the effect of this ICT policy.”
He said there was still an issue of inadequate computer labs particularly in primary schools.
“The last government would have embarked on a programme to provide laptops for students for form one. This was stopped but nothing has replaced it,” he said.
“TTUTA would have been on record as being in disagreement of giving these laptops to students. We felt the money spent would have been better used in many primary schools where there are no functional computer labs.”
He said in many primary schools students were unable to benefit from computer literacy programmes and some schools did not even have Internet for administrative services.
Doodhai also said while volunteersim in schools was a good idea, it was yet another thing that had not been discussed with TTUTA.
NPTA: Ministry must be
guided by curriculum report
National Parent Teachers Association (NPTA) president Zena Ramatali, in an interview with the Sunday Guardian, chose to withhold comments on the ministry’s ability to provide infrastructure or an ICT policy for schools.
On school repairs, she said the NPTA’s expectation, based on what the minister had said, is that all schools would be ready by tomorrow.
“I have complaints but I wprefer to wait. I am waiting on Monday before I could make any further comments on school repairs,” Ramatali said.
However, she said Government badly needed to make changes to the school curriculum in order to improve results on exams.
“There is a curriculum report and a cabinet-appointed committee so the report is out and I would want to see the implementations of the recommendations in the report,” she aid.
“In terms of curriculum, the ministry should be guided by what is in that curriculum report.
When we look at how some districts are performing, it seems we have a lot of work to do in literacy and numeracy. I hope it would be implemented so we can see improvements on exams.”
Ramatali also said Government needed to implement a volunteerism aspect in the curriculum, as it formed part of sustainable development goals in education.
“We want to recommend that schools across the country institute a certain amount of hours in volunteering. I fully support it and encourage more work or at least an enshrined policy.”
eroding PP progress
Former education minister Dr Tim Gopeesingh has described the governance of the Ministry of Education as a “national disgrace.”
He said both ministers, Garcia and Dr Lovell Francis, had reversed all the gains made by the People’s Partnership administration over the previous five years.
“The technocrats at the ministry worked assiduously to accomplish so much and we are seeing a swift and precipitous decline in all the gains.”
Gopeesingh said Garcia had “stopped the laptop programmes, removed the homework centres, the facilitators and moderators and had not provided new textbooks for students.”
“He has grass growing around the schools and he has done absolutely nothing about them,” Gopeesingh said.
He said the Student Support Services system, which should be assisting in reducing violence in schools, had also seen a reduction in personnel.
“The ICT development they speak of at a national level, but at a school level they have taken away the gains students had made.” He criticised Garcia’s statement that all the schools would have been reopened on time, but acknowledged that he too had similar problems ensuring all schools were reopened after the vacation period.
“It’s a total mess in there. We have called for the Prime Minister to have him removed,” Gopeesingh said.
“People believe I am making noise but it is painful to see you worked long for five years to make improvements and it takes a woodworking teacher to disassemble things in a short space of time.”
Gopeesingh said the Government needed to complete the 78 schools under construction and continue constructing new schools in the country and ensure schools are brought to a level where teachers and students can study in an amiable environment.