The educational system and concern
Eight years of primary and four years of secondary schooling is offered by the Belize education system. Although the number of preschools has steadily increased over the last decade, preschool education is not compulsory. There are a few post secondary institutions including the NationalUniversity (University of Belize). This institution evolved from the merger of four former government funded tertiary institutions, and the University College of Belize (Longsworth & Mason, QADS, 2005). The cost of tertiary education is borne primarily by students and/or their parents, even though government provides support to tertiary institutions.
For pupils between 5-14 years old, primary education is compulsory. Moreover, ‘at the secondary level, there were 44 schools with total enrolment of 15, 359 and teaching force of 1,060 of whom 293 or 27.5 percent are classified as graduates with professional training’ (Longsworth & Mason, QADS, 2005). With professionally qualified teachers at this level, this number is a dramatic decline. There are government and grant-aided schools that are fully financed by the government and also a number of denominational grant-aided schools. The Roman Catholics manage a number of schools in the primary school sector.
Government pays 100 percent of all teachers’ salaries, develops curricula and standards, and trains teachers under the church/state partnership. ‘Government also contributes to the cost of capital expenditure and assists with school maintenance for grant aided schools’ (Longsworth & Mason, 2005). Given the substantial level of financing it provides to schools, some have questioned the merits of the government taking over the financing and management. What is often debated is government’s ability to fully fund and manage all primary schools.
One factor for the low enrolment rates at secondary level is the lack of available space in schools at this level. Additionally, the high private cost of some schools is another factor that was suggested by recent studies. Moreover, in the rural areas, students have to travel several miles to access schools and the transportation cost prevents many from attending. Nevertheless, the most significant factor causing decline in secondary enrolment rates seems to be the socio-economic factors. I tend to agree with Young and Melnick’s (1988) account that ‘the impact of poverty and its attendant problems tends to be more severe in inner-city environments than in other geographical settings...’(Ainscow & West, 2006). For example, ‘in one case in Belize City a government funded secondary school opened approximately three years ago…students pay very little, as such, neighbouring schools that are not fully funded by the government and require the students to pay tuition fees have lost a lot of their students and are at risk of closing down. Therefore, students who were unable to afford these denominational schools are able to participate in secondary education because it is almost free’ (Longsworth & Mason, 2005).
Two public examinations are administered on an annual basis at the primary level. To all students completing primary education, the Primary School Examination (PSE) is administered and to all students completing the middle division of primary education, the Belize Junior Achievement Test (BJAT) is administered. As stated by the Quality Assurance and Development Services (QADS) in the Ministry of Education (MOE) Belize Report, ‘the PSE consists of criterion referenced measures in English, Mathematics, Social Studies and Science’ (2005). Then, ‘the results from the BJAT are provided to schools in a report containing each student’s scores as well as an analysis of the school’s performance compared to other school’ (MOE/QADS, 2005). External examinations provided by the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) is the only public examinations or regional examination offered at this time.
At the completion of the secondary education, one can take these exams but it is not compulsory. For employment purposes as well as matriculation to higher education institutions locally and/or regionally (Caribbean), the results from these examinations are used. More recently, Kerr & West (2010), whom I tend to agree with, as in the case of Belize have also argued that ‘in reality, exam success is at best a proxy indicator for educational quality and there is ample evidence that improving scores…does little to influence either post-school choices or opportunities’ (Kerr & West, 2010, p. 38).
However, Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) and formerly the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC), presently the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC), are two examining boards that offer Advanced (A) level examinations in Belize as international examinations. Belize has always been demanding by trying to ‘narrow the gap as they would usually mean in terms of results’ (Kerr & West, 2010, p. 14) and also by putting pressure on the achievement of examination success due to the rapid competition in the region. Colleges receive awards annually for producing students that show outstanding performance in the regional examinations. Kerr and West (2010) ask a similar question; will this create a more equal system in terms of results and access to resources and opportunities needed to get good results for Belize (Kerr & West, 2010, p. 14)?
The impact of ongoing challenges and educational priorities
Despite some developments in certain areas, there still remain ongoing challenges that cause school failures in relation to accommodating the mechanism of the 1999 Education Strategy. Longsworth and Mason (2005) suggested that there is a need for the following:
(i.)‘Greater commitment by government that can translate into adequate resources and access to funds to address access especially at the preschool level;
(ii.)Strengthening of the supervision and monitoring of schools;
(iii.)Increasing teacher training to reduce the large number of unqualified teachers that are in the system; and
(iv.)Greater involvement and strengthening the roles of parents and communities in education, etc.’ (Longsworth & Mason, 2005).
Fortunately, Longsworth & Mason (2005) articulate a much more positive account that ‘the School Performance and Improvement Plans (SPIP) have made significant improvements in schools that have implemented it; hence SPIP must be a requirement for all education institutions’ (Longsworth & Mason, 2005). In this regard, there would appear to be sound evidence in support of the argument that ‘school improvement interventions should be designed carefully, taking into account what is known about successful school development… educational policy needs to focus on those things that schools can have an impact on’ (Kerr & West, 2010, p. 48).
Many children, who enter the school system at the primary level, as previously indicated, do not complete the cycle and the difficulty increases. Pupils repeat at various stages of the education system, Infant 1 and First Form in particular. Highlighted below are a number of the factors which contribute to the low completion rates within the school system.
1.1 Institutions modus operandi and policies in education
Overall recurrent expenditure per primary and secondary school child has been rising in recent years. Although over the years, official expenditure on education has been somewhat constant. A greater shift of the financing to parents has been the cost-sharing norm between the Ministry of Education and institution contributors. Consequently, education is becoming beyond the reach of many households (most evident at the preschool level). This burden has made it difficult for parents and communities to support education adequately. Poverty-stricken parents are unable to feed their children properly and provide adequate health services even with children in schools fully financed by government. Longsworth and Mason (2005) stated that ‘in these circumstances, children whose parents cannot afford costs of instructional materials, school uniforms, tuition fees, and activity fees tend to go to school irregularly and, in the long run, drop out of school’ (Longsworth & Mason, 2005).
In addition, parents are unable but also seem to show little interest to educate their children faced with restricted resources, and uncertain returns from education. It is arguable that these factors have negative effects on pupil’s school involvement and their accomplishment in the end. However, the efforts to provide universal access to education in Belize have been plagued by the legacy of an elitist education system (Longsworth & Mason, 2005). What, then, is the level or readiness of students entering primary and secondary schools? I would be inclined to agree with Longsworth & Mason (2005) that ‘this question continues to be answered by the high repetition rate at these levels’ (Longsworth & Mason, 2005). A policy shift by government to provide for preschools has been the requirement for children to have a jump-start for primary school. Likewise, leaving very little to be pumped into early childhood education, the heavy costs for primary education continue to take the lion’s share of government’s expenditure. The efficiency and quality of the schools remains a huge challenge not least because private providers of schools have very little in terms of accountability systems to deal with. Schools supervision has been deficient at numerous levels, and frequently a school would be operating for years without being visited by supervisors. There is a lot that must be done to hold management responsible for the provision of education services.
1.2 School-Based components
Regarding the reasons for high drop-outs, several school-based factors have been cited. There are in most Belizean schools, low completion rates among primary and secondary pupils. A major factor is the cost of school-based instruction. Many poor pupils go through the accompanying frustrations that affect their academic performance, and end up losing interest in education; ultimately they drop out of school. Another factor which discourages pupils’ participation in school is the curriculum. The match of the curriculum to the needs and interests of students is low, and hits at the centre of motivating students, hence, reducing their performance and attainment. Again, in the long run, some children give up on education and drop out of school (Caribbean News Now, 2010). Another problem occurs when teachers lack training and build negative attitudes; studies of school drop-outs indicate that these factors also ‘drive’ pupils out of school. Some children dislike school because the environment is not conducive to learning. Absenteeism, poor performance, and non-completion of the education cycle are obvious results of this.
1.3 Community-Based and Home components
Child labour has become vital for family survival as the level of poverty increases. Measures should be set in place and emphasized for the betterment of all the lives of the children involved and the society at large. It has also been suggested that ‘the government and its partners in education must continue to promote early childhood education… with viable policy initiatives… to salvage the education system from this inefficiency’ (Longsworth & Mason, 2005).
How to reduce school failure and what agenda/policy can prevent school failure?
It is worth noting that there is no silver bullet when looking at the factors towards reducing school failure. Solutions require a coordinated approach, including resources that go beyond the school. It needs incorporation of efforts from students, teachers, parents, administrators, community-based organizations, businesses, as well as the government. The ministry of education (MOE) Action Plan 2005-2010 (Belize Education Reform Targets, 2005) cites key areas that are guided by current reforms and includes the ongoing and planned strategies for improvement:
- Early Childhood Education and Development – the first and highly prioritized area where there is the urgent need to increase access opportunities. Building the needed foundation for further learning is a critical stage of children’s development.
- Teacher Training –this addresses the large numbers of untrained primary school teachers, also the poor quality and need to create better opportunity for training. Longsworth and Mason (2005) emphasize that the development of the Belize Institute for Teacher Education as an arm of the Ministry of Education ‘will focus on ensuring that while access to training is increased, quality is not lost in the process’ (Longsworth & Mason, 2005).
- Adult and Continuing Education – basically to consolidate and review existing programs, rather than initiating new ones.
- Curriculum and Assessment – the school curriculum must remain relevant at all levels of the education system. MOE has to ensure as well that ‘the plan addresses both curriculum and assessment needs while seeking to reform the current system thus promoting improved educational standards’ (MOE, 2009).
- Technical and Vocational Education -for economic improvement and social development, it is clear that a well trained work force is critical. As MOE’s action plan states, ‘this realization evidently led the Government of Belize to seek to invest in the development of Technical and Vocational Education Services’ (MOE Action Plan, 2005).
- Special Education –Longsworth and Mason add that ‘the principle of Inclusion and the principle of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)’ (Longsworth & Mason, 2005) are two main principles that governs the provision of education for children with special educational needs. As a result, ‘maintenance of special schools and classes, resource classrooms and home schooling is an integral part of MOE’s plan of action (MOE, 2010).
- Higher Education –this should contribute to ‘the development of knowledge, enterprise, leadership, governance, participatory democracy, and poverty alleviation.
- Policy Development – it is therefore, ‘a great importance that the available documents be reviewed and formalized in the system as one single National Education Policy document used to inform the planning and the delivery of education services’ (Longsworth & Mason, 2005). Longsworth and Mason (2005) mentions that the Ministry must develop one document which will capture the key policies under the title – National Policy for Education (Longsworth & Mason, 2005).
It seems then that the government has some clear ideas about what needs to be done. Now it should find the means to implement it! Other participating Caribbean territories along with Belize have selected to address the problem of ‘school failure’ by way of developing policies and programs. Evidence shows that in the case of Belize, just a few preschool age children are registered in preschools, as such, ‘educational foundations have been weak, resulting in school failure’ (MOE Action Plan, 2005). Hence, in collaboration with international organizations such as UNESCO and UNICEF, ‘the unit Quads will ensure relevant quality education through the development and monitoring of the implementation of national standards for the performance of students, teachers and schools’ (QADS, 2005). This would be a good first step.
Conclusion and moving ahead
Classroom teachers have pointed to serious limitations in children’s reading, speaking and comprehension of the English language (the official language of Belize), especially with majority of students entering at the primary level. Although it is a challenge, ‘we need to try to understand where young people are coming from and how such understanding can help us with the task of school improvement’ (Rudduck, Chaplain & Wallace, 1996, p. 172). Socio-economic factors have prevented the involvement of many children in various levels. At the district level, training continues, which ensures greater participation. In keeping with the firm belief that “It is only through Education that we will provide our people with the knowledge, information, skills, values and attitudes required for personal and national development (MOE, 2010)”. In some cases children themselves have to cautiously examine the opportunity costs of education in poor households. In my own experience, I was one of eight children in a family with limited means.
Nevertheless, I still had the objective of furthering my education. Despite the fact that my father left during my ‘teenage’ years, I remained positive and stepped in to fill the responsibilities. These hardships helped to mould me into a positive person. I firmly believe that education is the vehicle that will lead to a better life. I also entered the political arena at the tender age of 19 and served three terms in the local government. As a result, I have leveraged the political tools along with my teaching experience to further enhance students’ life and development at secondary level institutions in Belize. Nonetheless, where parent (s) and children have negative attitudes towards education or do not see its immediate benefits, the consequence is a high drop-out rate in that situation. The level of performance as well as interest of children in school will always be proportional to the circumstances of the immediate learning environment. Children need someone to stand by them and encourage them all the time that they can achieve greater things in life (Ministry of Education, 2011). Therefore, when this vital component lacks in the lives of most of the children, their vision is intercepted by other interests such as child labour and early marriages among others. It is worth noting that, among all other stakeholders, parents and guardians and the society at large have the responsibility of encouraging children to develop and preserve an interest in education for the betterment of their future.
The Belize government has developed an action plan (2005-2010). This was in consultation with ‘Ministry personnel and experienced educators to improve, support, empower and provide a system of education that represents and produce excellence in Belize’ (Longsworth & Mason, 2005), which is still ongoing presently. Is Belize now beginning to make progress? Greater investment in early childhood education and other levels of education will continue to be the focus on the way forward for Belize. I certainly agree that ‘the government and its partners in education must continue to promote early childhood education and in addition come up with viable policy initiatives, including affirmative action to salvage the education system from this inefficiency’ (Longsworth & Mason, 2005).