Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Thursday, August 13, 2009

It's All In Your Mind: Is Education Barbados' Achilles Heel?

Barbados has long been admired for what it has achieved with so little in terms of natural endowments. It has the highest rank of any developing country in the UN's human development index. I touched on this some 20 months ago (see Human Development). I wrote then:

Bajans may tend to be complacent or arrogant about what they have achieved after some 40 years of independence, but they need to retain some modesty. They may want to puff up their chests and claim that the rest of the region needs to bend and praise them. Attitudes need to change: some would say that a sense of excellence needs to be recaptured. It is only a short step from mediocrity to failure. An economy based on a fragile and somewhat fickle demand, as is the case with tourism, is no guarantee of long-term success. Factors outside the country's control can easily derail progress, whether it is the weakness of the US dollar, or rapidly rising oil prices, or natural disasters.

That was before we realised that the world was heading into its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. I am no Professor Nouriel Roubini (aka "Dr. Doom") and I can admit freely that I did not see the harsh economic times coming, either in depth or duration. Like many other people, I was hoping that it would be another small hiccup--we'd had them before, and stock market 'bubbles' float and get burst. I had been through a real harsh downturn in the UK in the mid-1970s/early 1980s. I was also just off living for nearly four years in one of the poorest and most under performing countries in Africa. So I was not really tuned in to the relative pain that was likely to hit this side of the Atlantic.

A basic pillar of Barbados' success was the enviable reputation for its high rate of literacy. The latest data come from the UN's Human Development Report, 2007/8. (Although I often do not trust Wikipedia, its presentation of the data is the most easily understood, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_literacy_rate.) Barbados is effectively ranked in joint first place--the statistical differences for the top four countries is tiny.

However, I read a press report that made my eyes pop out. It told me that education officials were now saying something that I had also noted when I first arrived--though it was based on a range of contacts and observations, not a survey. The message was clear: Barbados' educational success is at real risk (see the Government Information Service (GIS) report, Dire Need To Improve Literacy Rates, Minister Says). Minister of State in the Ministry of Education, Patrick Todd, made a chilling admission on July 28, during the opening ceremony of a reading workshop entitled "Using Deep Comprehension Strategy Instruction to Create Great Readers and Lifelong Learners". When I read the opening sentences of the report, I was startled:

"Recent data collected by the Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development indicate that many Barbadian children still face the very real possibility of entering adulthood as functional illiterates."

The GIS report continued, "According to him, this downward spiral must be reversed if Barbados is to compete on the world stage and Barbadians are to enjoy a satisfactory quality of life."

The dagger was twisted when Deputy Chief Education Officer, Dr. Idamay Denny, also spoke at the opening of the reading workshop. She too expressed concern at some decline in the literacy rate on the island which "once stood at 95 percent and was something to be proud of".

The current debate in Barbados on immigration issues has a clear nexus with educational concerns. One of the factors driving migration to Barbados is its relative success in the Caribbean region, which was based on his improved educational results. But such improvements cannot alone keep an economy ahead of others. It's a savage irony that Guyana's educational system was and remains very successful--at least, statistically. Only Barbados (99.7%) has a higher literacy rate than Guyana (99.0%) using the HDR data, when looking at Caribbean counties. While the UN HDI cautioned that the rate quoted for Barbados should be interpreted with caution since it is based on outdated census and survey information, we will note that but not belabour it. Guyana's data (and I am sure others') are also flawed.

In Guyana, the Ministry of Education and more than one Minister of Education have acknowledged that the levels of illiteracy in that country are a serious cause for concern. While they have not made direct reference to the UN literacy figure for Guyana, by implication they recognize that it bears no relation to the reality. Earlier this year the ministry launched its ‘Fast Track Initiative Literacy Programme’ on what was described as a “mass scale.” It was targeted at improving literacy in the school system as well as among adults and out-of-school youths.

So, high literacy has helped propel Barbados forward, but similar rates of literacy have not stopped Guyana plunging downward. In other words, when other things are working against your body, your head alone cannot change things. It's hard to know what is going wrong if you have an educational system that seems to be so right. We know that a raft of bad economic and social decisions also come into play, as well as a bundle of accidents that bring good and bad luck.

But, when it is clear and acknowledged that your educational system is on the slide, and maybe going down fast, you know the slippery slope you are on and it's hard to know how to stop. POor education usually goes hand in glove with poor other things, and poverty itself. Is that what is on the horizon for Barbados? It may be if the decline is not addressed quickly because the world already knows too many lost generations.

The nasty twist is that during an economic downturn, jobs are at a premium. So too are skills. One of the most evident skills on show is level of education. If it is seen to be lower than before employers will tend to see where they can get better educated people. If they are not available locally, then they will try to get them from overseas. Conversely, if economic conditions at home are faltering, there is a natural tendency to look abroad--we see this with the migration flows to Barbados. But, if the perception is that the educational skills being offered are not good enough, why would an employer want to take on a foreigner, with a range of other issues that that will bring? So, declining educational attainment is a terrible two-edged sword.

Education, health, and immigration (in alphabetical order only) represent three lightning rods for public concerns and conflicts with the decision of elected officials. Barbados was already engaged on one--health. It is now well engaged on another--immigration. It looks set to begin engagement on a third--education.

Studies of clinical depression often highlight the increase in stress and the onset of depression being related to the existence of at least one personal crisis. It is often related to job loss, family turmoil (love, birth, death), loss of home, and threats to life. Any one of these is considered to be bad. In combination, they are often viewed as 'lethal'. In the body political-social-economic, we may have the equivalent crises points staring us in the face. Can the body take the strain?

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