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Change the Caribbean education system to TVET focused - Part 1

Published:Wednesday | March 14, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Hundreds of graduates from a HEART TrustT/NTA annual regional-certification ceremony at the Jamaica Conference Centre. - File

Ruel Ried, contributor

LAST YEAR I did a series of articles on this matter. But as the University of the West Indies (UWI)/United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisations (UNESCO) conference on Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET), March 7-9 at the Hilton in Montego Bay, came to an end at the same time that Prince Harry was getting ready to leave Jamaica, it is timely to put this issue back on the table.

I wish to congratulate UNESCO, UWI, HEART Trust, NTA, the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) and the other stakeholders for putting on this revolutionary conference, which sees UWI taking the lead to help reshape the Caribbean education system.

There has, in fact, been a TVET policy out of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) for some time, but we all know the story of the little action that emanates from CARICOM decisions.

The consensus coming out of the conference, among all the heavy weights in academia and training across the Caribbean and OECD countries, is that 80 per cent and climbing, of current jobs and those in the long foreseeable future, will require advanced technical education and skills.

This means we have to move away from the elitist grammar-type education system, syllabus-based curriculum that prepares students largely to matriculate to institutions like UWI and to graduate with general degrees to nowhere or back home to sit down waiting for the end of time.

Achieving full literacy

The good news, however, is that at the base of the system, we are very confident that we can achieve close to 100 per cent literacy at grade-four standard by 2015.

My first charge to our new minister, Ronald Thwaites, is to build on the foundation laid and add value to the system by 2015. We are working to use the Task Force Report on Education to inform a national education plan, with strategic plans covering five year cycles. We must have short-term, medium-term and long-term strategies. I think we can solve our literacy problems by 2015. This will not mean that all students will achieve the same outcome in TVET.

TVET is now career development and advanced skills in applications and research. This methodology is superior to the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) construct.

In fact, the Task Force Report on Education (2004) estimated that if we achieved a mean score of 85 per cent in the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT), we would target 60 per cent of our high school cohort gaining five or more CSEC subjects at grades one to three, including mathematics and English Language.

The mean in the Caribbean is about 10 per cent of students gaining five or more subjects including mathematics and English language.

Cynthia Cooke made the point how we have misused the CXC grade profile. There was no pass or fail, but profile I-VI. In the GCE A-level system, grades A to E are acceptable, but in CSEC we accepted only grades one and two, at first, and now grades one to three. But different jobs require different levels of certification (eg. gas station attendant versus an executive secretary, doctor or CEO).

But if we could only achieve 60 per cent acceptable performance in CSEC, what would happen to the remaining 40 per cent. It is to resolve some of this concern that Caribbean Certificate of Secondary Level Competence (CCSLC) was developed, moving away from CXC basic proficiency, and supported by employers, this concept has also ran into trouble.

Preparing students

The extension of the school-leaving age to 18 and introduction of the Career Advancement Programme is not a career postponement, as some would ill-advisedly suggest, but is to get more students to be fully prepared for the workforce or for further studies.

Those critics must tell us what these students who leave school at 14 and 16 are to do. We have pursued a model that has created an army of unattached youths and add some 30,000 to the pool each year.

We need to stop the flow now. We must fix the system and how we measure the performance of the education system.

Based on the model we set up to disenfranchise so many, we may have done a good job of it. Now is the time to fix it.

One thing we must do in short order is to ensure that we change the GSAT from being a primarily placement exam to being an effective preparation for high school education.

The literacy transition policy is key in achieving this objective. We must also reduce the number of subjects we are exposing students at any one time at the upper levels of grades 10 and 11

As my colleagues Cynthia Cooke and Howard Thompson alluded, we have to get our examination system right. They must be revised and made fit for purpose. We must determine what is fit for further studies and what is fit for workforce needs, but there is no point of graduating students at age 16 in the 21st century. We need all children to be in school until age 18 and made fit for work or further studies.

We also need a consensus on our curriculum and assessment system. We ultimately need graduates at all levels that have the right mix of knowledge, skills and attitude. In addition, employers need workers who are flexible, creative and entrepreneurial.

The smallness of our Caribbean economies means we need to produce more creative graduates (male and female) that will allow us to compete effectively in this global economy. Let's follow the models of Canada, Finland and other advanced countries of the OECD in getting it right.

The UWI and CXC have now agreed that 80 per cent of all jobs now require technical studies (They have finally caught up), specialised training for job specific functions and not general education.

This is one of the main reasons so much of our graduates can't find jobs or create their own jobs. The new investments in Business Process Outsourcing ( BPO) would not be accessible to Jamaicans if they are not trained for that specific service, thanks to the HEART/Trust NTA. University graduates have to be trained by HEART/Trust NTA for BPO jobs.

Five CSEC subjects without the job specific training will still not get you the job, the new jobs.

So as our new minister loves to say, "do it right the first time", we will have to radically transform our education system now to face this current reality.

On the other hand, HEART graduates have found it easier to find jobs, locally and globally, or technically trained graduates are now more marketable globally, more than 30,000 HEART graduates each year find jobs. This is a message to UWI, University of Technology and Northern Caribbean University. Make sure your programmes are geared towards TVET.

Ruel Reid is principal of Jamaica College and chairman, National Council on Education.