Education in Belize: New Models of Success
by Gustavo Ramirez, Guidance Counselor / Education Consultant /
belizeguidance.blogspot.com

The policymakers of Education in Belize consist of Government and Church leaders; and they are responsible for schooling/educating all students in Primary and Secondary schools.  Yet, despite the fact that Belize is now an Independent nation in the 21st Century, our Education policymakers continue to confuse students even more than they already may be confused, by insisting that students focus on old Colonial versions of success, rather than on the students’  21st Century visions of success.  Examples:  Upon completing high school students must pass Colonial Era based O’ level exams.  Originally, these exams were British GCE or General Certificate of Education that were used from back in the early 1950’s (long before Belize was Independent); but now the O’ level exams are administered by CXC, or Caribbean Examination Council.  Students who earn high school diplomas without passing O’ level CXC passes are not admitted into institutions of higher learning (university), nor do they qualify for good-paying jobs.  In examinations, students try to think and write exactly how they were taught in class, for fear of failing tests/exams.  In other words, students are encouraged to memorize answers, instead of using critical thinking skills that are very much required today. 

Challenges and Opportunities in the Belize Education Sector is a May 2013 report (43 pages) recently published by the Inter-American Development Bank; it “… discusses the current situation of the Belizean education sector and its progress over the last 10 years, its relative performance compared with other countries in the region, and the policies currently being implemented by the education sector in Belize.” The report is available at no cost online and has been reported widely throughout the local Belize media.  According to channel5belize.com the report places “Belize at the bottom of the academic ladder in Latin America and Caribbean”.  

As I have been insisting for years now to deaf ears in Belize, Education policymakers continue to insist on setting Colonial standards in schools, not standards that are in line with 21st Century ways of life in Belize.  Current Primary and Secondary school standards have hardly changed since Colonial Days of the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Worse, many parents add more confusion to their already stressed out teenage sons and daughters by pressuring them to earn high grades at school each term/semester.  Many parents will view their children as successful only if they bring home grades in the 90’s or high 80’s.  Sadly, this left-over Colonial attitude from parents and from many educators only adds to young people’s already stressed-out and burnt-out lives at school.  This vision of success (high grades only) leads to high drop-out rates today among young males.  On top of it all, this unwanted pressure comes at the worst possible time – when teenagers are at the especially awkward transition period between childhood and adulthood.  We will make it worse for students when “our” constant demand for success is what we adults stress it should be, not what “their” vision of success may be.

I highly encourage policymakers of schools in Belize (government and church) to take a close look at successful non-British and non-Caribbean school systems.  It would certainly behoove those who are in charge of managing our Education system in Belize to look beyond their noses, i.e. at Finland’s model of Education and successful school system.  It is the total opposite of Belize’s system of Education.  Yet, the World Economic Forum ranks Finland as third best in the world for Education competitiveness!  The strength of Finland’s schooling systems is unmatched.  Their teachers are extremely well-qualified and keep taking continuing education and self-development courses all the time.  Unlike in Belize, or other parts of the world, in Finland teachers are well-paid and greatly respected -- almost revered.  Unlike in most parts of the world, in Finland students don’t start school until they are 7 years old, and teachers teach a maximum of 4 classes daily, and they assign no more than 30 minutes homework each night.  Students do not take exams until they are 18 years old.  Yet, when it comes to educational proficiency and educational performance, Finland’s school systems produce students who demonstrate the highest literary proficiency rates in the world.  Moreover, more than half of all their high school level students go on to a university or institution of higher learning.  Why such a high success rate there, despite no testing, nor copying other countries’ systems of Education, nor constant monitoring within their schools?  What motivates students in schools throughout Finland to be successful and high-achievers in all areas of Education?  I wonder what Belize’s Church leaders, Education Department and Ministry of Education would say about Finland’s school systems…  Or, perhaps the learned and highly respected University of Belize would like to chime in with their opinions…

There are many and varying definitions of success in Education.  Is success for students the ability to memorize and score well in (external) examinations?  Is success being able to critically think for oneself instead of only mirroring (memorizing) what is written in textbooks and taught in the classroom?  Education policymakers in Belize, past and present, still have not indicated which is more important: having good memorization skills to pass examinations, or being able to think critically for oneself -- inside and outside the box.  

Currently, Belize continues to face many drawbacks, including extremely high rates of poverty, unemployment, and violent crimes.  Recently, 2013 PSE proficiency scores revealed that more than 50% of our young students, after completing Primary school, are trailing far behind (lagging/failing) where they should be, especially in Reading and Math, as compared to the rest of the world.  Despite all our current drawbacks, what efforts (other than allocating huge budgets for those for those who are “in charge of managing Education”) are we making to ensure that we are genuinely preparing our children for success in life – for “their” success, not ours?  Education policymakers, educators, and parents in Belize need to stop being so preoccupied with their very short visions of success for our children.  Instead, let us all be vigilant and careful of the constant pressure we impose on our children everyday through our remarks about what we think their progress should be at school.  Moreover, we should never use them as pawns to provide status and meaning in our own lives.  Parents should never gloat to friends and relatives over their children’s high grades each term/semester in order to gain acceptable/enviable social status in the community. 

Celebrating success is good; however, we weigh down our children with our constant demands for what we consider as success at school: high grades.  Our constant insistence on their getting high grades stresses them out, and adds more anxiety and depression to their already heavy loads at school.  Also, it lowers their self-esteem (how they see themselves) and makes them feel that we have no idea whatsoever of what their real needs and wants may be.  So instead, I encourage all parents and educators to celebrate more often with our children what “they” consider as success, even if for some it’s scraping by, or just barely passing a class each term/semester.  Each time we celebrate with them, “their success”, we encourage them to be resilient and independent at school and in life. 

So, what is the model of success for a young student today?  Is it scoring high grades (90’s and upper 80’s) in written examinations at school?  Is it passing CXC examinations?  No, it should not be based on passing examinations or getting good grades.  Nevertheless, we should encourage students (our sons and daughters) to aim high and not be satisfied to just scrape by with mediocre work at school.  But, if they work hard yet only achieve a barely-passing grade, or graduate from high school without passing any CXC examination, then that is their success which we should celebrate.  I encourage Belize’s Education policymakers, educators, parents, and the entire community to make every effort to constantly feed our young students’ internal motivational engines.  Spur them to “their” great success.  Let’s keep shining a light on students’ success, and in doing so make each success lasting and more impressionable.   Let us stop focusing only on Colonial Era standards of success, and focus rather on Belizean standards of success, and on each student’s success!

NOTE:   Our heartfelt congratulations go to staff and students in Fireburn Village in the Corozal District of Northern Belize!  We shine the light on your success during this past school year!  We wish you continued success throughout the new school year, starting in August.  Special thanks also to Grid Earth Project for providing the solar lights for all children in Fireburn Village to be able to read.