Trinidad and Tobago is facing a serious crisis in education — as with virtually every other facet of the society and economy — because of the PNM’s gross mismanagement and lack of care.
With physical school having restarted on 4 October, The Checklist. organised a Panel Discussion on Education with
- former Education Minister (2010-5) Dr. Tim Gopeesingh
- UNC Shadow Minister of Education, MP for Tabaquite Anita Haynes
- former Ag. Principal of Preysal High School, Winston Jankie, and
- two students from Bishop Anstey High School East, Preity Ramsarran and Sadah Bandoo.
Seriousness of the Education Crisis
This educational crisis is extremely important to the life of Trinidad and Tobago, now and for the future.
MP Anita Haynes rightly remarked. “You are talking about the lives of the next generation of Trinidadians and Tobagonians. You are literally talking about the future of our nation,
“Therefore if you fumble the ball, if you are not able to do the right things now, our country will have a high price to pay in the future. Because you are then trying to fix a problem that you created many years ago.”
Dr. Tim Gopeesingh added to the charge,
“This government stands accused for dangerously ruining the education and the future lives of almost quarter million students whom we have in schools at the moment!”Dr. Tim Gopeesingh
Students challenged by online learning
We don’t often hear from students in these discussions, but these are the ones who are most affected.
“I actually had to counsel this student because my counsellor at school was so bombarded… The government really needs to have improvements made and in this pandemic the government should have a program to evaluate students who are in need, who are unfortunate.”
Fellow student Preity Ramsarran shared her experience: “For me the switch from traditional schools to online learning, it was a bit sudden because I expected to go back out to school, not knowing that the outbreak was so deadly and vicious. But for me online it was challenging because we had to deal with connectivity issues, teachers now adapting to their students, not everyone will be on, and we missed a lot of work at the start of the switch.
It was kind of hard for us students because they’d have to set up these platforms like Microsoft Teams or Zoom. Sometimes Zoom will cut off after a while and it would be so frustrating for students and teachers.
So leading up to the examination now is where some students would have adjusted fully and they would prefer online learning and they would also have devices. That would be for the students who have devices. But for students who have to borrow devices or go to a lab, it would it would have been a lot more difficult for them, because I know some in that position.”
“So I would say it was challenging for a few and coming up to CSEC examinations, a lot of students were unsure about writing those exams. Some weren’t confident in doing it because they didn’t adapt really good to online learning. It was frustration for some students.”
Sadah added her perspective, “I faced a lot of emotional and mental problems because being on a screen for the whole day it’s hard, for eight hours sitting. I can’t meet my friends. I can’t talk to teachers face to face, you know. I really miss the school environment.”
“Not getting the teachers’ guidance 24/7 during the school hours, you have to become independent in this environment. Sometimes the teachers are very bombarded with school. You would have to wait long for responses from them.”
PNM Mishandled Education Terribly
It is clear that the PNM have mishandled the education of our children terribly.
Former Minister Gopeesingh lamented, “Students, I empathise with you all. You’re now being educated in a time when I have to say, myself, that the Ministry of Education is at a loss to know what is happening to you all. And I’m sure that you all can see it and understand it yourselves.”
“The destruction of the education system now is not only because of the pandemic alone, you know. The problem started to occur from 2016, from then to now, when thousands of students even before the pandemic were unable to have a place in a school because the school infrastructure was bad and so on.”
Quite incredibly, the PNM reversed every progressive policy of the Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration as soon as it came into office. Its effects were felt immediately.
Dr. Gopeesingh noted, “Everything stopped when they came in. The two ministers for the 5 years made a mess of education. This present minister, unfortunately, she hasn’t been able to have a grasp of what is happening at the moment. So we are in a real terrible situation.”
He continued, “Regarding the SEA examination, when we came in, in 2010, 14 percent of the students out of who wrote the SEA out of eighteen thousand students who wrote, got less than 30 percent. In our five years we brought it down to less than one percent!”
“Within their first year of administration, 2015-6, more than 13 percent of the students again failed to get more than 30 percent! This tells you the incompetence of the government, the incompetence of Prime Minister Rowley, the incompetence of the Ministers of Education then, and unfortunately the present Minister of Education who is not listening to anybody.”
Anita Haynes added, “It just goes to show you, once you have the correct inputs into the system you will get the results.
“And our results are showing us right now that our students are simply not responding to the policies that would have been put in place. Because we’re getting 30 percent of students who are not making our passing grade in some of these areas. That means something for us as a society. And it means something for what would happen to them as adults in the system, if they weren’t able to cope within the education system.”
Kamla Persad-Bissesar’s Solution to the SEA problem
Certainly, the SEA Exam has faced much criticism in terms of the pressure it places on young children, and the effect it has on their future by placing them in secondary schools of sometimes radically different quality. However, the Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration tackled that problem head on.
However, the PNM dismantled the solution — just like the laptop programme. Instead, they are threatening a regressive policy which removes merit and equal opportunity for children around the country.
As Dr. Gopeesingh observed, “24 people who are lying, probably, to the government, writing and saying that we have to do away with SEA. But they have not put forward one iota of recommendation for what you do if you remove the SEA?
“We had two national consultations extending over a three to four day period for each one of these and we had eight district consultations in each one of the educational districts in the first year of governance.
“We had over 5,000 educators who participated in those discussions, and they recommended that we introduce morals, values, ethics, citizenry, character development, physical education, visual and performing arts, into the primary school situation, and even in the early childhood education system, starting then.
“They recommended that we have a Continuous Assessment component where we begin to check the students from standards three, four and five. So in our third year we implemented the marking system so students in standard four, the next year we did it for four and five, and we were moving to ensure that the students were looked at from an early age, where they would have been participating in the education program at a high level.
“That Continuous Assessment component part of it was the real solution to the whole concept of the one, do-or-die examination. But within the first year they removed that.
“They brought the exam back to March, when we had the consultation said that you’ll have the SEA examination in May, and so on.”
Winston Jankey shares some very interesting experiences: “Dr. Gopeesingh was the Minister who was in charge when they introduced that CAC monitoring system. I could tell you, I was in that system, and from practical experience, I was working not only in a St. George’s district but I was sent Port of Spain, much to my dismay at first, because they said there was a shortage of men, male CAC monitors in Port of Spain. So I had to end up going there.
“And would you believe, I went to some of the most depressed area’s schools, where I was actually afraid to go at first. And when I actually went in there and met some of those students and talked to the teachers and I would go there every week, because I never missed a day for any chance to slip away from doing the work. I was enjoying myself, monitoring the teachers and being the support officer on the side — the guide on the side, so to speak.
And I will tell you something, in a particular school near Besson Street police station which is regarded as a high risk area, I remember going upstairs with my briefcase to the classroom and the little girls in that school — it was a girls and boys school, actually, adjacent to each other — the girls would run down these stairs to come and meet me and help me with my briefcase when i was coming up.
And they would want me to be there with them during lunch hour to chat and talk about different topics like science and so on. And when the teacher was not there I would prepare word sleuths for them, so that they would participate in all sorts of activities, whether it be science or geography or agriculture and so on.
And next door, the school next door, the boys school, the teacher would call me and show me one day the enthusiasm that was clearly visible in the boys who would often stay away for any spurious reason from class.
He said, “Sir, if you see these children now. They work as a team. They’re very anxious to come to school.
They come and say, ‘Sir, when are we going to water these plants? When are we going to fertilize the plants? When we’re going to record our data?’”
So they were into this thing with a certain amount of zeal that he never experienced before. So that was a very, very good initiative on the part of Minister Gopeesingh to introduce the CAC monitoring. And I was very happy to be part of that.
So it is as Dr. Gopeesingh said. The last Prime Minister was really into human capital development. She was really about student-centered learning. And this is where we have to focus if we are going to move forward in education, because as it is now only the people in the so-called prestige schools can seem to benefit from this lopsided state of affairs.”
Anita Haynes observed how the do or die SEA exam reintroduced by the PNM hit harder during the pandemic. “I spent my entire first couple of months listening to heartbreaking stories from students who were not sure what happened, because they were the first set that had to do the assessment during the pandemic. They had the weight of their papers changed at the last moment.
“People were coming to us saying, ‘Well, what can we do? What can be done about our grades?’ It’s really terrible to look at persons who would have worked extremely hard and done all that they can do. And then because of the time that they wrote the exam, see grades fundamentally different from what they would have faced and if we had continued with a continuous assessment program.”
Again, from the start of the Rowley administration, they set back the system so that all children were much less prepared for the pandemic and fared much worse than they otherwise would have been.
Laptops: Visionaries to Beggars
Of course, this includes the nonsensical reversal of the laptop programme. As Dr. Gopeesingh observed,
“When Dr. Rowley’s administration took office in 2015 we saw a swift and precipitous reversal of all the gains we had made in education.Dr. Tim Gopeesingh
“And it is interesting to see that in 2021 now the Dr. Rowley’s government is now seeing it fit six years later to talk about ICT in education. And it is still only old talk. Because when this pandemic started, I would say in January 2020 when we raised the first issue in Parliament and wanted a debate in it, but Rowley and they took it up in March 2020 when it was two two months late already, and they were ill-prepared, they found themselves in the situation where students had to stay home now and they didn’t know what to do.
And the two former Ministers, Mr. Garcia and his colleague were unable to put into place anything for the students. We had left two ICT platforms where we were going to launch the e-textbooks in Maths and English, when the election was basically taken away from us in 2015.
“So we had already made plans for e-textbooks in Maths and English and Mrs. Persad-Bissessar also promised that the primary school students will be given tablets, which were not costly. And so if they had continued for the five years subsequent to us leaving or having been removed from office, we would have had approximately another 90 to 95 percent of students who would have had their laptops.
“Now they took one year at least to determine how many students were without ICT devices! One year! And that could have been done in one month’s time,
“Because you have 17 secondary school principals, but we have a number of principal and school supervisors one and two and three, and with their principles of these 485 primary schools and 134 secondary schools they could have gotten the information as to how many students were without devices, how many students lacked connectivity at their homes, how many teachers were without devices and how many teachers lacked connectivity at home.
“It took them one year to understand and appreciate that 70,000 students — which is an understatement, it’s much more — were without ICT devices. And then they began to beg the national community, the business community, to provide ICT devices for students. You could imagine that?
Winston Jankey agrees, “I can tell you what Dr. Gopeesingh is saying about the data for the laptop distribution and so on is quite correct. We could have supplied that information not within a month, but within a week or two!
“Because we have systems in place to ensure that we knew exactly the stats of all the students, their needs for school feeding, and their denominational backgrounds, and so on. Because I handled the CSO with statistical reports personally for the school on an annual basis.”
Dr. Gopeesingh continued, “A laptop was about $2,000 when we demitted office in 2015. It would have been probably close to about $1800 for a laptop if you had to buy 70,000 laptops. That would have been about $126 million. They were not spending money on any school feeding program, which was about $230 million per year. So they could have utilized that money to buy the laptops.
“And still even today there are 40,000 students without laptops. They said they have purchased 20,000. I don’t believe they have even distributed it. How many of the teachers were trained in ICT? We had trained about 6,000. They stopped the training over the last six years, so they found themselves in major difficulties.
Connectivity and Hybrid Learning
The PNM have been completely unprepared for hybrid learning and internet connectivity, reversing all the infrastructure that was laid previously under Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
“Why is it that it took six years, Dr. Rowley’s government has not worked with the providers of telecommunication to ensure that communities have the connectivity that is required for the students who had difficulties in logging on, many times. And why is it that the Ministry of Education did not meet these stakeholders and work with them as fast as possible to ensure that the connectivity is widespread across Trinidad and Tobago.
“So they have been sitting on their hands and just hoping that something will be solved.”
Anita Haynes opines,
“The current minister of education is very unwilling to consult and to speak with persons and to listen. So we get policies handed down but none of the key stakeholders speaking to the policy.”Anita Haynes, Shadow for Ministry of Education
“The teachers are just asking to be heard, asking for a voice, saying that no one has spoken to us with respect to this hybrid learning system, no one has asked us if the school is equipped if the teachers are equipped.”
Collapse of Textbook programme, NOSTT Open School Tuition, Counsellors, Service Commissions
Not only laptops, but also textbooks were affected as well. Again, Dr. Gopeesingh recalls, “When they came into office — Dr Rowley’s administration — not one textbook has been purchased over the last six years.”
Beyond the physical and infrastructural regression under the PNM was also the social and psychological.
As Dr. Gopeesingh observed, “We began to bring in educational psychologists, behavioral psychologists, clinical psychologists, student support services. So we had a full complement. They railroaded that and brought it back down to less than about 300
“So that when students need some type of counseling and help, even though they’re at home, these student support services officers would have been able to assist them on one-to-one dialogue over a period of time. And so this is another failure on the part of Dr. Rowley’s administration.”
Winston Jankey shared his experience: “It is really heartbreaking to see what is going on with the lack of consultation with the people at the Ministry of Education. And it is painful to a certain extent. because when even when I left and I was still in education with NOSTT program, the National Open School of Trinidad and Tobago, wherein teachers were given the opportunity to offer tuition free of charge to people who would have dropped out of the system so they could come back.
If they were working in a grocery or in a gas station and they did not get the appropriate grades to get a proper job we would give them lessons free of charge under that NOSTT program.”
“And that was starved of funding until it literally collapsed. As a matter of fact we the learner support officers and coordinators would have serious problems to get our monies. And we did not mind. We soldiered on in the interest of the children. And the same thing happened with Dr. Gopeesingh’s Continuous Assessment component program. He’s probably aware of that.
“As a matter of fact, I don’t know if he remembers, I met him one day in a store in Grand Bazaar and I told him, ‘Doctor, you know we not getting our money,’ And he said he will deal with those guys. And, well, he demitted office office and unfortunately some of the CAC monitors to this day, when this program was terminated, not through our fault, but through the Ministry of Education under Minister Garcia pulled the plug on the program.
“Some of the monitors have died and they have not gotten their money. Imagine that!
“And our termination letter was dated the 9 of September 2015. We are in October 2021. Can you imagine this? So this is just to show and illustrate how the Ministry of Education does things sometimes, if they’re under the wrong Minister of Education.
So if you don’t collaborate and talk with the stakeholders who are involved in education, you are going to run into problems. Hence the reason the laptop program flopped, and now according to Dr. Gopeesingh they are frantically trying to beg cap in hand for corporate sponsors to supply laptops to the students.
And they also do things back to front. A lot of these schools don’t have the equipment for internet service. A lot of the children don’t have internet service in their homes. So they are at a disadvantage, and that should not be the case in 2021,” noted Mr. Jankey.
In addition, management-wise, just like the Police Service Commission and the other Service Commissions, the PNM have failed the country again. “All four institutions [Service Commissions] are under serious pressure now because of political interference. And they are inefficient and they are not doing what they are supposed to.
“Imagine that the Teaching Service Commission meets probably twice per month for a half day period, and all the files are still manual files. So when you’re looking for promotion and so on and vacancies, how can they effectively function? It’s [troubling] that these institutions are allowed to continue in the same format. You [should] have them full time with full employment and digitalize the information for all the teachers and the students, in a rapid manner, and so that you could move progressively,” observes Dr. Gopeesingh.
The Kamla Persad-Bissessar Administration’s World-Leading programmes
How different our education system under Kamla Persad-Bissessar. As Dr. Gopeesingh reminds us, “We were a world leader in education between 2010 and 2015. Countries were asking us what are we doing. I remember speaking with the Minister of Education in Singapore, after I was minister for about two years, when he said in a newspaper in Singapore came out blaring that Morals, Values and Ethics would be now taught in the schools in Singapore. We had already started that in Trinidad and Tobago.”
“We were lauded at the Global Education Forum for being one of the leading countries in ] education. We were lauded by Presidential candidate, Mrs. Clinton, for our reforms in education and our early childhood education. And the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in a meeting in Barbados of Caribbean Prime Ministers told Caribbean Prime Ministers that Trinidad and Tobago became the first country in the world to achieve universal early childhood education, where we were taking care of the 36,000 children aged 3 and 4.”
“We had parenting and education workshops where parents came together with the children and assisted so we had over a hundred thousand parents who became involved in the children’s education. So we were on the move.”
Dr. Gopeesingh. “You would remember the words, ‘Serve The People, Serve The People, Serve The People’. So her vision was always at the forefront for human capital development and people-centered development. And in that context she ensured as Prime Minister, then, that the largest vote and percentage of vote for the different ministries went to the Ministry of Education, which was shared between Minister Karim and myself.
“From day one she promised the population that she would introduce ICT in education and that there would be one laptop per child entering Form One. When we won the election in May of 2010, we had just a few months to introduce the ICT program of laptops in schools. Well, it’s history now, Mrs. Persad-Bissessar in her administration, in our administration, we were able to deliver 95,000 laptops to students over a five-year period, to principals, school supervisors about 6,000 teachers.
“And we had over 150 ICT technicians. We had all 134 secondary schools with computer labs ranging from some labs at some schools at about five computer labs with about 50 computers per lab.”
“We had over 300 of the primary schools with computer labs as well. We were moving to make sure that the rest of the primary schools were given enough ICT opportunity with having their labs.
“We also ensured that all secondary schools had audio visual rooms with television, radio, interactive whiteboards. And we had trained close to about six or seven seven thousand teachers with ICT in education skills. And we were working with UNESCO and we formalised a program and a policy for ICT in education.
“So that after a while, with training of the teachers and the students becoming accustomed, they began to give their homework. I think the students were able to use the computers at home, interact with the teachers, interact with their colleagues as the two students were saying, they feel lonely at times. And this facilitated even the families of the students.
“We believe that over 300,000 citizens of Trinidad and Tobago became computer literate as a result of their children bringing these computers home. So the home lessons were being done. The teachers set their programs of study on the computers and this was working remarkably well.”
“About the connectivity, during our time each one of our secondary schools had connectivity and the 300 primary schools. With the exception of two secondary schools out of 134 which were very remote. And we had connectivity to such an extent that we had some schools with a 100 Mbps. Some schools had about 40 Mbps, some had 10 Mbps.
“We were working with the providers of telecommunications — Digicel, Flow, TSTT, for sure, and even Green Dot — and they have just a provider’s platform for the e-textbook learning and so on.
“They ensured that there was widespread connectivity to all these schools. And we were working towards improving the connectivity.
“We were very swift in ensuring that connectivity was there for each one of the schools. And we were moving towards each one of the classrooms having wi-fi connectivity so that each one of the classes could have had their classes going on at the same time.”
But it was also in the basic provisions, which the PNM so often deny our children, where Kamla Persad-Bissessar Government also shined. Dr. Gopeesingh explains again, “In 2012, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar instructed that we purchase textbooks for the students — for every child, in every form, in every school, in every subject, got a textbook for that particular subject. So if you had 10 subjects needing textbooks, every child in every class had it. And she ensured that we purchased almost close to two million textbooks for students during our five-year term of office.”
“On the mental health issue, Mrs. Persad Bissessar as Prime Minister, told me, ‘Tim, we need to increase the amount of student support services. The population must remember that Mrs. Bissessar was Minister of Education between 1997 to 2000, so she had a full understanding of what went on.”
“It is important for us to just refresh the memories of the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago that Mrs. Bissessar as Prime Minister then ensured in the education that we had continuous teacher training and development, whole primary and secondary school curriculum reform, the ICT education was at its best, we had the children understanding and testing, neurodiagnostic testing of children, we had organizational restructuring and transformation of the education system, student support services were at their best, parenting and education workshops, emphasis on early childhood education, which we were complemented for, being the first country in the world to have achieved that.
We were filling vacancies of moderators facilitators as Principal Jankey mentioned. We had a great emphasis on TechVoc education, CVQ1 and CVQ2 being done in addition to all the academics. And, I’m not speaking infrastructure, where we built those amount of schools. We had leadership training. We ensured that a lot of teachers were trained in ICT. So we were a world leader in education between 2010 and 2015. Countries were asking us what were we doing.”
Plans for the future
As Shadow Minister of Education, Anita Haynes has assured, “We remain committed to developing plans and policies for the future. We intend, once returning to office to return to our successful policies.”
Dr. Gopeesingh advised the students on the panel, and by extension all those reading and listening, “We empathize with your difficulties. We have been speaking about the experiences of your difficulties. Ms. Haynes as the Shadow Minister of Education from the party can hold the government accountable on education issues. Let your parents speak to the associations in the school, the Parent Teachers Association, let them speak with the Principal, the school supervisors.
“Bring your issues to them and I’m sure we as a party, the United National Congress, as a government in waiting, we would continue with Ms. Anita Haynes there and the rest of the team of people to assist you all. We will continue to implore for better facilities for you all, for your devices, for better connectivity, for your teachers to be present with you all, and to ensure that you receive the best education, that you deserve, and which is constitutionally enshrined.
“We will do all for you all because you are the future. You are taking over from us. You will be leading this country in the future, and we do not want your education to be compromised. We will do everything in our power. Ms. Haynes is there. I as a former Minister who is quite senior now, will do with my experience, give her all the help that she needs and will continue to give our party, the alternate government all the assistance in promulgating the policies and programs to ensure that education remains at the forefront, and for people-centered development to be at the forefront, and human capital development.
“Because if we do not develop your skills and talents and abilities, where are we going as a country? You have to have the leading positions. We are with you.
“And God bless you all, and continue to receive your education to the best of your ability in these trying and difficult times. Be your brother’s keeper and your colleagues’ keepers. Talk to them and ensure you keep on motivating them all along, because you all are in it together, and your friendship, even though virtual, will continue. And one day you will meet each other in person and you will be able to hug each other again.”
Acting Principal Jankey also had his advice to the students, “You have to keep your eyes on the goal. You are there to further your education at whatever cost. And we know the situation is grim out there with the lack of support from whence it should come. But as the other speakers said, hope is on the horizon. So you have to keep the fear and be resilient. And sometime soon you will be able to meet with your friends again and have that physical learning and face-to-face meetings with your teachers and you will get through this. But this is very important,we have to be resilient. Do not lose faith, and things will be okay in the near future.
It is right for us to give the students the last words on their education and their future. Preity remarked, “I know we already shifted online but some people, they haven’t even gotten online yet. And I think that they should set up something where students can have access to wi-fi devices because not each and every single parent can afford these things, you know. And it’s very saddening, actually, because everyone deserves an education and that opportunity.
“With this situation happening right now, that’s kind of being taken away from them, where they don’t have internet connection or devices.
“I believe all students should have access to laptops. And the government can help provide these laptops, because I know that under the Kamla Persad-Bissssar regime they gave out a lot of laptops during that time. Now that we actually need it, that we really do need it, we are not being given that.
“I think they really do need to start by doing these things. I think it’s really important because a lot of children out there are missing out on great opportunities and on their education.”
Sadah fully agreed, and added, “Education not only comes in the form of just a book, and a pen, and a teacher, it also regards the social, mental and emotional development of a student. I think the government needs to make some more adjustments and improvements, certainly.”
“The government could start off by helping students by giving educational grants, and these grants could help students by making them be able to go and buy their books. Even though the educational system right now is online, they still need their textbooks. They still need notebooks. They still need stationery supplies. I think the government should really really start giving away more devices, because I know a couple of friends, they do not have access to wi-fi. Some of them do not have devices and it is heartbreaking. Some of them are mentally [emotionally] challenged.”
“The government really needs to have improvements made. I think in this pandemic the government should have a program to evaluate students who are in need, who are unfortunate. They need to have a program where they can be able to give these brands, maybe Amazon gift cards, they could give them bookstore gift cards, they could give them these things that could allow them to purchase the necessities of this virtual, online system.
“I think that in addition to this, I would just like to say that we have resources in this country but it is not being used efficiently.
“I see this in all sectors, looking at what the government is doing, and there really needs to be improvement. Because my heart goes out to all these students right now who don’t have their support at home. They do not have their support coming from the government. They do not have support coming from their school. Because I can say my school is doing a really great job during this time. They are improvising.”
“But what about these schools who are not using their resources? Who have teachers who are getting underpaid, and discouraged to go out to work? All of these problems contribute to what kind of improvements need to be there. I think education is not only about a student learning, but it’s also about their development, making sure that they are not in the wrong direction, but in the right direction, and I think more really more improvements need to be made when it comes to this education system.”
The tragedy of our education system is something we must tackle right away. Every day, we are damaging our future through harmful PNM policies. It is time to bring back the good old days of Kamla Persad-Bissessar and the UNC and start to see a bright future for all our young people, once again.