By George Alleyne
The Government's continuing emphasis on education as demonstrated in the Budget Speech of Minister of Finance, Prime Minister Patrick Manning, which will see education free from the pre School to University or tertiary level will, in the long term, prove to be its greatest weapon in the fight against anti-social behaviour and outright crime.
But in the same way that Government has moved swiftly and with purpose to establish the University of Trinidad and Tobago it must act more speedily than planned on the construction and staffing of pre Schools and end quickly the absurdity where low income parents have to pay as much as $50 a month for each child they wish to enroll and keep in an Early Childhood Care and Education Centre. It is nothing short of a national disgrace that poor parents, for example those of Beetham Gardens, some of them hustling a meagre living in the la Basse, have to pay the $50 fee.
They do it because they do not wish their infant sons and daughters to continue to be part of the culture of poverty, which locked them and their parents and parents' parents before them into lives of deprivation and hurt. It is the irony of our age that tertiary tuition will join that of primary and secondary as of January 1, next year in the vineyard of free education, even as deprived families must find $50 a month for their toddlers to attend pre School or be forced to keep them at home.
Meanwhile, it is not enough for the nation to pat itself on its collective back and shout: "Look at what we have achieved, and look at where we are heading" if at the start of the journey it ignores the $50 handicap faced by low income families, in particular, as they position their children to place their feet on the first rung of the ladder to upward mobility. And despite protestations to the contrary, scores of the pre School teachers are ill equipped.
Two things must be done and urgently, in addition to the plan by the Minister of Education, Senator Hazel Manning, for the construction of 600 pre Schools. Government should take steps to have the present $50 fee eliminated, through an increase in the existing grant to Servol, which manages several of these pre Schools, and it must use the Early Childhood Care and Education Centres it has built and those it plans to construct, as adult education centres with specific focus on the parents of pre schoolers attending the Early Childhood Care and Education, institutions.
It will give the parents a sense of self worth and position them far better than at present to supervise their children's homework as they progress to primary and secondary schools and, ultimately, University, whether the University of the West Indies or the University of Trinidad and Tobago.
In the process not only would they be less likely to develop an inferiority complex with respect to any widening gap between their own levels of education and that of their children, but also their sons and daughters, in turn, will be spurred on by their parents' demonstrated commitment to the upgrading of their own efficiency.
In his Budget Speech, Minister of Finance Patrick Manning stressed that the People's National Movement Government's "strategy for human resource development is being guided by three essential principles: Increased Access; Improved Equity and Equality of Opportunity; and Enhanced Quality." And dealing with Early Childhood Care and Education, Manning would point out that the Administration's goal was to achieve universal Early Childhood Care by 2010.
He would go on to tell Parliament and the nation that "a high-intensity training programme" was currently being implemented to train 1,500 Early Childhood Care Education teachers. The plan, clearly, is that with adequately trained teachers staffing the Government's Early Childhood Care Education centres and employing long accepted techniques of song, drama, play, word pictures and drawings, inter alia, there would be an enhancing of the process of introducing the children to the exciting world of learning. In turn, this would contribute to the encouraging of the children to love the learning environment.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education, even as it sets standards or qualifications for teachers at these centres, should shy away from ignoring valid contributions, which have been and continue to be made by teachers at existing Early Childhood Care Education Centres and provide them with the opportunity to further develop their skills. Particularly, those who work in pre Schools in the communities in which they live and whose contributions cannot be measured simply by standard ECCE textbooks and examinations.
The provision by Government of educational opportunities - Pre School, primary, secondary and tertiary education - all of them free to Trinidad and Tobago nationals and/or residents (with tertiary education at approved institutions free from January 1, next year) is the way forward.
Seven years after the end of slavery, a Lord Elgin in a dispatch to Lord Stanley on August 5, 1845 could say with unconcealed patronising contempt: "It remains for Great Britain to raise the emancipated slave morally and intellectually as well as socially - to obliterate animosities, which distinctions of blood, colour and condition have contributed to imprint in characters well nigh indelible...."
Government, in pursuing educational goals, is doing what the British never intended to do.
All Trinidadians and Tobagonians will benefit, whatever the ethnic or social group and in the process rather than fall by the wayside the result of a misguided view of themselves and society, all will have a chance at upward mobility and to view the Promised Land.
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