Education in Belize: A Legacy of Inaction
by Gustavo Ramirez, Guidance Counselor / Education Consultant /

"A school is a place; people speak of 'going to school'. Yet a school is not entirely bound by its building." Peter Senge, Nelda Cambron-McCabe et. al. Schools That Learn

We are now living in the first month of 2016 and further into the 21st Century. I thank readers who follow my and Guidance Counselor columns, especially for their comments on each article. Thank you readers from Belize and from developed and undeveloped countries around the world. Your comments, positive or negative, regarding education systems in Belize reflect a genuine concern over whether or not schools educate students effectively today. They are, after all, the present and future of Belize, not the past.

I emphasize, as I did in previous articles, that a majority of us remain indifferent to the types education that our schools provide, or don't provide, students today. Keeping schools the way they always were, i.e. "like when I was there", is easy because it requires no additional effort from policy makers, parents, or educators. However, clinging to pre Independence (1981) colonial systems of education does not make time stand still in Belize, in a rapidly evolving world.

Updating our education systems, strategies, and practices is no longer simply an ambitious suggestion; it is now vital to improving student outcomes that will ensure that our jewel of a country survive and thrive. A legacy of inaction and indifference to today and tomorrow is costing us dearly. What are our visions for 21st Century Education in Belize? We are not keeping up with requirements for a global education in this new age. Why? Government's increased funding of education, or promises, and the creation of a university do not automatically improve education systems or make them more productive.

Previously, a reader asked me what needs to change in our schools today, and why. My response, like a knee jerk, screams loudly when we highlight the ever-slumping economic situation of our country today, its sinking tourism industry and fast-growing annual deficit; when we look directly into the face of today's frightening and unbelievable poverty across the entire country; when we question the rampant criminal behavior and murders (of locals and tourists) in both urban and rural areas; when we dare to question why a majority of small and local businesses have "closed shop", and are now replaced by non-natives; when we accept that Belize, once world-renown for being home to various cultures who live in peace and tranquility, is today listed among the top 10 most dangerous countries in the world; when we realize that a growing number of students, especially males, drop out of school each year; when we admit how very few graduates, high school or university, are afforded opportunities to establish a career in Belize each year; and finally, when we dare to challenge the fact that despite having full control our country's destiny, despite a growing poverty that has swallowed an entire middle class, we must pay exorbitant and outrageous monthly tuitions and fees, especially for imported textbooks, for our children to attend a high school. Each highlight screams overwhelming change. Yet, in essence our education system today remains fairly similar to the one of 50 years ago, when Belize was a British colony.

The aims and goals of schools should not focus only on preparing students to pass examinations. Rather, schools need to expose and help students learn how to think critically, instead of asking them to memorize information and grade them on well they remember it. A continuous development of critical thinking prepares and empowers students to face, tackle, and overcome what is negative in our communities, that which sinks Belize deeper and deeper into debt. We leave the next generation no choice but to overcome the many problems that we choose to ignore today. Let's prepare and enable them to fill new and older occupations that may exist, despite any preconceived notions we may have of those occupations. Let's provide them with multiple trade schools and vocational training that are just as vital as university training, sometimes more. Let's keep encouraging them to live Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy, and "have a dream".

There are several ways to measure the effectiveness of the secondary or tertiary education we provide in Belize. Determine what percentage of students who graduate become the professionals that we urgently need to help develop a small and undeveloped nation; that go on to become financially productive members of our communities and help the economy grow; that graduate but then become but a mere statistic in today's high rates of unemployment and/or crime; that become illegal drug pushers because there is no other available work they can find. A simple measurement tool is to poll local employers to ask them how many new employees (student graduates) today meet basic requirements of 21st Century jobs, i.e. in Belize's tourism, healthcare, financial, or communication industries, especially in the field of software and technology. The most important measure of a school's effectiveness is found, not in diplomas or exam passes, but in determining whether, after 12 years or more behind a desk, students are prepared for today's global way of living. How many students who graduate college feel prepared? Their opinions/suggestions regarding the preparation they receive can be helpful. Of course, if all the measurement tools reflect effectiveness in our school systems, there is no need to take any action.

How do we educate students in Belize today? Have schools changed goals and objectives from 25 and 50 years ago? Above all, what stands out is the restrictive cost for a student to attend high school today. High schools are still run by churches and funded partially by the government. Secondary education has never been free. Yet, each year graduating classes are prepared mostly to sit O'level examinations in a variety of subjects. The very same O'level examinations were used 50 years ago, under a different name, to measure a high school graduate's academic knowledge in one sitting. (Despite breezing through graduation in 1969, my O'level exam results were disastrous; however, I refused to let those test results end or determine my academic and professional career.) No examination pass guarantees the learning and preparation that a student needs to survive today. We compete to survive in a world of computers and technology, of new occupations that keep growing, of entrepreneurs who help keep us on the map, and of much-needed business and health professionals -- not in a society that rewards O'level examination passes. Thus, schools today need to focus on providing students with learning that helps them to adapt to a new and global way of living.

British Honduras, our name in colonial times, is now but a memory and not found on any map. Nonetheless, a majority of us still refuse to or admit that leaving a legacy of inaction is leaving a legacy of failure. One article cannot possibly list detailed problems and solutions to change our education system; but, this clarion screams out, for our very survival, that we update ineffective colonial education systems. Our children's future, Belize's future, depends on whether we dare confront today's challenge to update our education systems and provide 21st Century, affordable, quality, and effective education to students throughout the country. I strongly encourage government and church education policy makers to address these concerns today and reverse a legacy of inaction. Unlike an often-used/over-used Belizean saying, education reform is certainly not a "lee sea breeze that will soon blow over".

Author’s Note:

These articles are not intended to be comprehensive or complete. They are written and contributed in an effort to provide a “starting point” for valuable discussion among educators, students, and the Belizean community. If we discuss and review students’ learning capabilities and the ways in which we currently try to educate them, then we can learn from our mistakes as well as success. Way to go, fellow educators!