Itís that time of the year again when thousands of our children will be graduating from pre-school, primary school, high school, sixth form and university. In the case of primary school we are looking at 7,000-plus Standard Six students Ė arguably the largest primary school leaving class ever.
At the pre-school level, parents will be harassed to groom their children for fancy graduation ceremonies, even as the cost of primary school continues to mount. And for many at the primary level this quite possibly will be their last such hurrah Ė their last walk down the aisle, so to speak.
The truth is, less than half our children are completing secondary school Ė that most basic yet most essential of education attainment. And the truth is there are not enough spaces for all those 7,000 plus potential Standard Six graduates. At some high schools on this side of town where we are located, southside,100 students routinely enter their first forms, but four years later a mere 20 or 25 of those students are graduating. And that is not the exception.
And for those lucky few who are graduating from sixth form or even the national university, jobs will be hard to come by. The job market is so depressed, the economic outlook so bleak, that students may be better off borrowing to stay in school. Better to assume debt and defer job hunting on the prayer that things will get better.
Those lucky to find a job will have to settle Ė settle for employment in fields that require less than their qualifications. They will be paid less. But thank goodness they will be paid, if only a little.
The quality at some of our schools is distressing. Teachers tell us that children are sitting the PSE who canít really read that well. Seriously canít read to save their lives. Reading what passes for a written paragraph for some of these children will break your hearts, they say.
And we havenít even mentioned mathematics and science and social studies.
Indeed, itís a sad, sad state of affairs. And as usual, there is enough blame to go around. Parents are not doing enough, some too busy trying to make ends meet. Some teachers are not making the grade. And the reality can be overwhelming Ė kids are aging, keeping them back year after year is not exactly practical. What to do! The government says they are trying, but the news just seems to be getting worse.
There is talk of a brand new initiative called Quality Child Friendly Schools Initiative that is supposed to be unveiled on Monday by the Ministry of Education. Some say itís going to solve our quality issues, especially at the primary level. Weíve heard this song before, but we wonít pass judgment. It wouldnít be fair.
We are just pleased that some attention is being given to the issue of quality in education. We are also pleased that there are 13 new PhDís in education. We know that such levels of attainment must have taken some real commitment and sacrifice. We trust that their skills will be utilized to the fullest, without fear or favor. And we pray the attention to quality is not just a fad, a passing fancy. The tragedy in some of our schools requires immediate and sustained action.
In the meantime the access issues in education cannot be ignored. 7,000-plus primary school-leavers. And again, for many, no high school to attend. In some districts, not enough spaces available. And for many of those fortunate to get into high school, money will be a problem.
Admittedly, the issue of quality in education is not a problem that will be fixed overnight. Where the issue of high school spaces is concerned, the solution seems straightforward to us Ė build more schools, and optimize the use of existing ones. But again, this is not something that can be fixed in the immediate future.
But what we believe can be fixed almost immediately is the issue of the high cost of secondary school, if there is the political will to so do.
Study after study shows that our students are just not able to pay the gargantuan bills at secondary school. With many fathers gone, and many mothers unemployed or barely employed, the estimated $1,200 it takes to pay school fees and buy textbooks for a child is just not easy to come by.
Meanwhile, the government of Belize routinely spends $5,000 a year to house an inmate at the Kolbe Foundation. In a couple years time those same youths whose parents canít afford to send them to high school in 2012 will end up at Hattieville Ė where government will have to foot the $5,000 tab.
Thatís the upside down world we live in, in 2012. We canít find $1,200 to send the child to high school, but we can find $5,000 to house that same child at the prison. Twisted priorities, we say.
The time has come, we submit, for government to truly absorb that prohibitive secondary school cost. Almost 20 years ago the United Democratic Party, while in opposition, campaigned on a promise of free education. They won, but free education never really materialized during that 1993-98 term. We recall there was something called free tuition.
But times have changed. This is now the UDPís third term since that summer filled with promises. The Africans say the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. They say the next best time is now.
We are collecting many tens of millions from the harvesting of our oil industry, and the newly nationalized telephone and electricity companies are also paying dividends. We discovered oil in 2005, and hundreds of millions of revenues later, what do we have to show? What greater cause is there than saving the lives and nurturing the dreams of our nationís youths?
And we donít need another study to do that. Those whose families can afford to pay for them to attend secondary school should. But for those who cannot, government should step in. We know: the excuses will be plenty. But while we rationalize inaction, thousands are being condemned each year to a life of poverty and crime.
And yes, we know itís costly. But to not do anything is costlier. It is time for universal secondary school access. It is written. Amandala