Montserrat’s current Education System is the product of over seventy years of changes. The current system has served us for three decades, and as many political leaders will boast; is the pride of this land. This system has graduated countless students. It has allowed our youth to pursue education at the tertiary level, and it has enabled them to obtain a foothold on to their dream jobs. However, despite the successful ventures that are often trumpeted, this system is fraught with challenges, many of them at foundation level. These challenges need to be addressed, and viable solutions need to be developed, as the education of our youth is the future and backbone of this land. For reasons of brevity, the three greatest issues I face as a student will be addressed. These issues are situated at the foundation and pillars of our system, and have been not only a nuisance, but a threat to our education system and the lives and future livelihoods of my fellow pupils.
The first of my grievances deals with the philosophy of education. More precisely, that the way we package our education system is in direct contradiction with the purpose of education. The second of my pains concerns the blatant lack of the fruit of professionalism in our system, in equipment and staff practice, and my third and final issue concerns the fact that the system itself doesn’t allow for a holistic education of our youths, as it often lacks subjects core to many career paths.
The education that we receive encompasses many subjects; Math, English, Physics, Biology, and Chemistry just to name a few. Teachers attempt to pack our heads with vast amounts of book knowledge, often unsuccessfully, and at the end of our education they pat us on the back, hand us a slip of paper and effectively tell us to go get a job. Quite often throughout a student’s life the basic narrative is repeated," Get your CXC’s done, then get a few college degrees so you can go get a job." However, it is well known among our ranks that the majority of the jobs available will not ask for half, or even a quarter of what we have learned.
Don’t believe me? Go ask a bank teller how trigonometry is applied in his daily work life. Ask the secretary how many times per day she employs Pythagoras’ Theorem. I wonder how often a psychologist needs to refer to the formula for anaerobic respiration to tell someone she needs to control her anger. The funny thing is, by and large, the only people who will need their full education are the teachers themselves, to pass on their knowledge to further students. But don’t get me wrong, I am in no way suggesting that we abandon half or our syllabus to teach skills like balancing chequebooks or filing tax returns. And yes, I accept that many career paths do rely heavily on a thorough and systematic education.
However, the issue I am raising is that though we act as if school’s sole purpose is to prepare you for your job, we full well know that the majority of what we teach has no practical foundation in the workplace. Instead, students should be told that the purpose of teaching is not only to equip us for a job, but to encourage an academic hunger, to produce a genuine interest in learning. We youths need to know that the purpose of our decade in stuffy classrooms is to engage our mind in the joys of learning about our big, beautiful world. Curiosity in the classroom should be king, as it is the father of knowledge. The office will not ask you to discuss the various stages of mitosis, but our eudaimonia as thinking human beings in today’s scientific world demands that we are familiar with these ideas. A student’s education ought to enable him to engage intellectually with another human being, instead of only equipping him to have an occupation.
So how might we correct this contradiction between the purpose of education and the way our education system has packaged it? Teachers can often remind students that they want us to be rounded individuals in an increasingly changing society, able to effectively reason our worldview. Teachers can also restructure their teaching methods to engage a student’s curiosity. Ask as often as possible why a student sees differently, and ask them to construct a case as to why their opinion might be valid. Students can be asked to engage in written arguments about certain topics. For example, a student might not be interested in Chemistry. The teacher could then ask the student to write an argument on how lacking knowledge of Chemistry improves his life. True education in essence, nurtures a student’s inner seedling of curiosity and questioning of the given, often stifled by teachers who are frustrated with their meagre pay and substandard working conditions or who themselves lack this curiosity about the world around them. In conclusion, our students need to become sons and daughters of the intellect, reading and engaging in the world of thoughts and ideas.
My second grievance with our current system concerns the lack of the effects of professionalism found throughout our education system. While writing this, I am reminded of an incident which occurred earlier this very day, for which a less compassionate teacher might have sued. Today in our Chemistry class, our teacher had to prepare a dilute solution of hydrochloric acid for a lab assignment. She had a 37% solution and wanted to dilute it down to about 2%. The teacher wanted to show us the strength of this acid and walked to the back room followed by a classroom of curious students, wanting to see something blow-up. When she opened the plastic jug, explaining that she hadn’t been provided with proper equipment (a dark tinted glass jar), the toxic fumes began to flow out, forcing our teacher to work quickly with the acid, while holding her breath. She poured out some in a beaker, and then put it down quickly yet cautiously, to travel across the room for a breath of air. She returned and continued, holding her breath again until she could stand it no longer, and then walked from the fumes for another breath. This continued until she had obtained her 2% solution, and then she calmly explained to us that she had been doing this for years, as the school couldn’t afford a fume-hood. Lack of basic equipment!
This lack of resources is rife throughout daily school life. Not enough chairs in a class. Not enough lined paper for a quiz, so tear the paper from a book. Photocopier at the office is no longer working. No cafeterias. Not enough school buses. Where are the fruits of professionalism?
The lack of professionalism doesn’t end here. Teaching methods are often inefficient, and teachers do not package education in an appealing manner. Don’t get me wrong though, the teachers I have come across are by and large hard-working individuals, but there are a few whose actions are not worthy of the title. Certain teachers betray signs of sexism, preferring girls over boys, while others engage a class in discussions irrelevant to the topic, perhaps in a bid to capture the students’ waning interest. Uncommitted teachers who fail to get the work done, forcing even the whole class at times to take extra classes. Then there are teachers who excessively use corporal punishment, perhaps taking out the stresses of private issues on the pupils. These practices need to be eliminated!
So how might we combat these problems? Doubtless, a lot of these issues are rooted in strategic failures at The Ministry of Education. Commonly cited results of strategic failures include the absence of a decent school bus service, the lack of science equipment at the Secondary School, the lack of basic classroom equipment such as dry erase markers and chalk and the faithful attendance of cockroaches and bugs to classes. The staff’s quality is lacking as well, as some staff members often display a lack of basic manners and social skills. Despite this, no serious initiative has been set up to counter these issues which take root in failures in management and policy. Solving these strategic failures often requires a great deal of re-staffing, or some serious repercussions at the Ministerial level, as incentive to do the job the electorate voted them in for. Ultimately, these strategic failures are rooted in lack of foresight and planning, as these must take place to develop any strategy. Initiatives to improve the Education System must take place only after extensive strategic planning, or we welcome a greater possibility of failure.
My third and final grievance with the Education System concerns the lack of core subjects for many career paths in our curriculum. Probably due to our small population, the Education System has opted out of a curriculum that offers many distinct subjects, in preference to a system that focuses on the main career paths and provides the general subjects necessary to pursue such an occupation. However, though the core idea of this is valid, it is not fully implemented and consequently many subjects vital for certain career paths have not been included. Take for example, the lack of a drama class in our school. This lack is a strategic failure, as the ability to create dramas, plays and musicals is key to keeping the Montserrat Cultural Centre’s seats filled. Also consider the lack of an art class at the Community College. Is it sensible to pursue a culture based tourism initiative when we have no college level art education? I might add the lack of a programming class, but I rest my case here.
How might this issue be combated? The obvious answer is to rethink the subjects the system offers in such a way that the curriculum caters more effectively to students who wish to pursue relatively uncommon fields. Once again, this issue brings us back to strategic level failures. The Ministry of Education should use their resources more effectively, as many countries have done more with less.
In conclusion, the three main issues that I have raised are solvable; being largely planning failures. Our people have dealt with greater issues in the past, so it would not surprise me in the least if these problems are effectively countered. I might stress again that the Ministry of Education needs to combat these and like issues effectively, as these challenges concern the future of our island; our youth. How else can we move forward? As a final word, I add the words of the Montserrat Secondary School’s motto, “He who does not progress, retrogresses."