Reflections on the 2019-2020 Education Budget

Schools should be seen as safe, healthy and transforming institutions which will allow the maximum development of cognitive, psychomotor and affective skills

By Jay P Bissessur

The budget for education is a substantial sum of Rs 17.1 billion, a slight decrease of Rs 0.1 billion from the preceding year. The soundness and effectiveness of some of the measures proposed for the education sector for the coming financial year need are considered in what follows.

Opening access to tertiary education undoubtedly paves the way for a more equitable and just society in the long run. At present free education at the tertiary level is benefiting 20,000 students. Investing Rs 600 million to finance free tertiary education is a socially sound measure. The vision of increasing tertiary enrolment rate from 49.5% in 2020 to 60% in 2030 is highly commendable. However, the number of students satisfying the ‘5 credits at one sitting at the Cambridge School Certificate examination’ in the year 2020 may hamper this objective. Statistics show that 70% of students did not meet the four-credit criteria for 2019 Grade 12 level intake. An estimated 80% are unlikely to meet the new qualifying criteria. It is imperative, first and foremost, to investigate the factors inhibiting students from achieving the 5-credit mark and to take remedial measures for enhanced performance.

It may not be wise to simply shift the underperforming students to the vocational stream as this stream demands both cognitive and psychomotor skills in addition to motivation and interest. The decreasing number of academic stream students calls for conversion of some state secondary schools into technical/vocational schools and valorizing them by ensuring properly equipped modern labs and teaching facilities. More scholarships in technical/vocational fields may also trigger increased enrolment. Currently funding in the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) is not substantial enough to put students on a par with the normal academic stream students. The creation of a Skills Development Authority is timely and will go a long way to imparting necessary skills for our students to adapt to the fast changing technological world of tomorrow.

The strong measures to combat drug use in schools are highly laudable, as is the decision to recruit school psychologists. But only 8 additional psychologists and 6 social workers will be employed. We definitely need more clinical psychologists (not general psychologists) to deal with students with behavioural and academic difficulties and deficiencies. It is unclear whether private secondary schools will employ discipline masters, clinical psychologists and social workers. The functioning of 34 Discipline Masters in 68 State Secondary Schools raises an issue of concern: will their roles not overlap or be in conflict with the present school administration? The assault of a lady teacher by girl students in a State school has only been dealt with by the transfer of the concerned educator to another school – a ‘panadol’ measure indeed! That is, it addresses the symptom and not the cause.

Parental influence and authority cannot be minimized in the overall development of a child. At present many parents have simply delegated this responsibility to the school, with the result that violence, bullying, drug abuse and indiscipline are on the rise. Isn’t it time to create a “l’Ecole des Parents” to revive parental involvement and make parents more responsive?

Nothing much is mentioned in the current budget for the further development of sports facilities in all schools, primary as well as secondary. It is a well-known fact that students tend to get rowdy, selfish and disinterested in academic studies if they are not given a chance to participate in individual and group games. The inter-college sports have come to a standstill with lower participation and poorer performance. It is high time to employ more Physical Education Instructors/Educators in both primary and secondary schools.

The sports complex at Côte d’Or has absorbed an astronomical amount of Rs 4.5 billion. This sum could have been better used to fund modern sports infrastructure and up-to-date equipment in all schools and tertiary institutions. This would certainly have triggered more sportsmanship, active participation and discipline among students. One suggestion is that after the island games are over, the complex could be kept going by holding inter-college sports there, for example; similar activities could be envisaged and planned to make it a valued asset for the country.

Here we wish to draw a parallel between a structure built over a weak foundation and a child whose early education is inadequate. Both are likely to feel long-term effects of this deficiency. Investment in the pre-primary sector is particularly insufficient. According to behavioural psychologists the maximum learning occurs in children from 0 to 5 years. There is already a huge gap in learning capabilities and abilities of children when they start primary schooling. And it is evident from statistics available that this gap keeps on increasing over the six-year primary schooling, leaving many pupils without basic proficiency in language skills and in the understanding and application of mathematical and scientific concepts. Hence these pupils develop poor self-esteem which may eventually lead to deviant behavior. This internalized labeling may be one of the main causes of violence and bullying in both primary and secondary schools. Hence there is an urgent need to substantially increase the budget of pre-primary education in the coming years to put in place strategies aimed at helping the youngest of our students start off on a strong foundation.

The setting up of the Special Education Needs Authority (SENA) goes in the right direction, favouring the inclusion of children with handicaps/ differently-abled children. Rs. 138m will be given to NGOs responsible for schools to cater for the children with physical and psychomotor handicaps. Will this amount be sufficient to cater for the needs of 72 specialised schools, 2656 students and 855 teaching and non-teaching staff? The lack of consultation with professionals in specialized education in drafting the bill has been hugely decried. And a huge disparity still exists between the funding of specialised schools and normal schools as also in the pay packets of teachers from these schools. Another valid objection is that only 20 public schools will benefit from special facilities like ramps, hand rails and toilets for less able students.

Distribution of tablets to Grade 6 pupils would have been more meaningful in enhancing the learning process instead of providing them to Grade 4 pupils. In addition, the pre-requisite of an appropriate connection to cater for the use of numerous devices simultaneously should be met before this tool can be of any significant use.

Schools should be seen as safe, healthy and transforming institutions which will allow the maximum development of cognitive, psychomotor and affective skills. Only then will they realize their main function of producing caring and responsible citizens. A budget is functional and relevant when it provides sufficient finance, guidelines and opportunities to make this become a reality.

* Published in print edition on 21 June 2019

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