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La Educación
Número: (123-125) I,III
Año: 1996

Attempts at Reform in the Post Self Government Period

The Development Plan for the period 1964-70 produced shortly after the country achieved self government was Belize’s first bid toward nationalizing the education system. The proposals for education reform included in this plan echoed many of the recommendations of the UNESCO Report of 1963. At the time, 95% of the primary school population was enrolled and the literacy rate was quoted at 90.5% according to the 1960 census. However, since 91% of the children did not go beyond the primary stage, it was necessary to provide them with the minimum tools to help them cope in the world of work. The following comments on the educational system were made in the Mission’s report:
...at present the entire educational system of the country has a distinctly literary bias which, it is no exaggeration to say, is quite out of conformity with the country’s needs. It is vitally necessary in planning the educational system to take cognizance of the fact that the bulk of the country’s adult population would be engaged in agriculture in the future. It should indeed be one of the tasks of education to prepare successive generations for this role they would play in the economic life of the country and to equip them for playing this role in a modern and scientific way... All this would imply the need for an entire reorientation of education reaching down to basic reforms in the curriculum of the school itself.... (93)
It continued:
All age primary schools are not providing adequately and satisfactorily for the older boys and girls who attend them. These are the children who will shortly be leaving school and who need very much to be guided towards their future occupations and to be fitted more positively and purposefully for the transition from school to the world of work and adult responsibility. (95)
The major recommendation in the Education Plan (1964-70) for the primary sector was the reorganization of all age schools into two schools, “a primary stage beginning at age 5 and lasting up to age 12, and a senior school from the age of 12 to the age of 14 or 15.” The curriculum of the primary school was to “lay the foundation in the basic, or tool subjects; and the senior curriculum would build on this foundation and, in addition provide pupils with the opportunities for exploring new interests and acquiring new skills, particularly in the arts and crafts.” Senior schools would be required to spend a minimum of quarter of their time to such courses as agriculture, woodwork, home management, and metalwork. These schools were not to be seen as vocational schools, but were designed to provide pupils with pre-vocational experiences and with a sound general education. Recommendations to support this plan called for:
  • the construction of three senior schools in Belize City—one each under the Anglican, Catholic and Methodist managements. Each of the schools were to have sufficient rooms for the teaching of woodwork and metalwork to the boys and home management to the girls.
  • the delay of the reorganization of all age primary schools in the rural areas because it would not have been practical in sparsely populated areas.
  • bringing education more into line with the environment and into a closer relationship with the real needs and interests of the children. Efforts would be made to make rural teachers more conscious of the place of agriculture in the future economy of the country.
  • training of teachers who ‘show the aptitude and interest’ in two or more practical subjects which were to be introduced into the senior curriculum.
Needless to say, these recommendations for primary reform ranked third in terms of priority, so many never came to fruition since secondary and tertiary education was the priority of the government at the time. The recommendation to break the all age schools into Primary and Senior schools never materialized. The establishment of three schools in Belmopan in the 1970s—an Infant, a Junior, and a Comprehensive School—was the closest the government came to implementing this recommendation. Other developments took place that were not necessarily the full recommendations of the UNESCO mission, but were in keeping with the recurring theme for a nationally integrated curriculum. Two junior secondary schools were opened in Belize City between 1969 and 1972. These were three-year schools that accommodated students between the ages of 12 and 15. The inclusion of woodwork, home economics, and other craft subjects in the curriculum gave the schools a greater vocational/technical bias. In effect they resembled the senior schools that were recommended in the development plan. Graduates from these junior secondary schools who wanted to further their education went on to the Belize Technical College, which at that time offered further education at the secondary and post-secondary level. By 1990, both of these junior secondary schools were converted to four-year secondary schools. While they continue to offer courses in the crafts, greater emphasis is being given to the completion of CXC syllabuses.

The proposal to bring education in the rural areas more in line with the environment and to make teachers more conscious of agriculture was repeated in the Education Plans of 1972-76. In an effort to address the issues of relevance and the quality of education for the children in rural Belize, an agriculture education officer was appointed and the Rural Education and Agriculture Program (REAP) was launched. The program, funded by CARE, Heifer Project International and the Government of Belize, had its basis in the philosophy of the integrated curriculum and focused on nine areas of study. It was not to be seen as a revival of the “school garden” approach, rather it should have integrated agricultural practices into the existing school curriculum. The program was launched in three districts in 1975 and was later expanded to include the other districts. In 1976, a compulsory course called REAP was introduced into the curriculum at the teachers’ college to support the program. In the years to follow, the course was made optional, then compulsory, then optional again, reflecting the lack of clear policies and consensus about the importance of the program and the course. This is perhaps the main cause of the problems experienced in the implementation of the REAP project. Others had to do with philosophy and management.

Since the foundation of REAP lies in the philosophy of the integrated curriculum, one would have expected to see efforts at “integration” in the REAP schools. Instead, the concept of the “school garden” prevailed and very little integration actually took place. One would also have expected the program to operate out of the Curriculum Unit since this was an effort in curriculum reform. Instead, it operated first out of its own offices and later out of the Vocational/Technical Unit, giving the impression that it was considered more a vocational program than a curriculum intervention aimed at making learning more relevant and meaningful. As a result, schools found themselves with two curricula to implement and no clear direction about how to manage them. Teachers also complained that the developers of the Belize National Selection Examination (BNSE), which was administered at the end of primary school, did not give consideration to the REAP curriculum, and as a result the performance of children (mostly from rural schools) was poor. Because of their concern for school results, teachers began to place the REAP curriculum in the back seat. There was further setback when external funding dried up, and, as is the case with most externally funded programs, the project lost its momentum. The program continues to operate today in some urban and rural schools with government funding, and is now known as Relevant Education for Agriculture and Production—same acronym, different meaning. REAP is a potentially sound program; however, its success will only be realized if clear policies are developed and care is taken to ensure its proper implementation.

The REAP experience should have alerted us to the problems externally funded programs and projects endure. Needless to say, a proliferation of curricula interventions followed in the next two decades and one can wager that many of them did not have any basis in the ideology or policies of the government at the time. As the UNESCO Mission 1983 commented, “education has been made to respond to external demands rather than to act as a supporting service to over-riding national goals” (11). Since its establishment in 1975, the Curriculum Development Unit has participated in a number of projects that were funded by external agencies. There was SHEP (School Health Education Program), PEP (UWI/UNESCO Primary Education Program), WIZE (Wildlife Inquiry through Zoo Education), PPTT (Posterized Program Teaching Technology) and a TESOL Project (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), among others. All these projects ended with their external funding, supporting the long-held view that programs that are planned and then passed on to the implementers without their consultation or input are bound to fail.

In an attempt to meet the changing needs of the system, there were other initiatives from within the curriculum unit, many aimed at developing more materials with local flavor and relevance. The Belizean Reader Series and a set of TESOL readers were introduced into the schools. The TESOL readers came out of the need for a series more sensitive to Belize’s diverse culture, and the realization that most Belizeans have a first language other than English. In addition, the education system has had to cope with an increasing number of children of refugee parents fleeing troubled Central American countries in the 1980s and 1990s. This has put considerable demands on schools to meet the needs of these pupils for language development.

The school’s broadcast program, introduced in 1965, was another attempt at making education accessible. The program first operated out of the Broadcast Unit, but was later transferred to the Curriculum Development Unit under the supervision of a schools broadcast officer. The printed materials developed to accompany the radio broadcasts were considered valuable support materials since textbooks and resource materials were scarce in most schools. As a result, these materials were used more than the radio broadcasts (Richards 1988). The availability of radios and timetable conflicts were cited as the major reasons why the broadcasts were not used. In 1989 an interactive radio course in English as a second language was piloted using a sample of 240 infant school children from six schools. An evaluation of the program revealed that it was worthwhile but required the recruiting of more experienced personnel to supervise and assist in its administration. A proposal to extend the project was developed by the unit; however, that and other broadcast activities went dormant in 1992 when the schools broadcast officer left to begin another appointment.

Lack of clear policy directions, lack of participation in project development by locals, overzealous recommendations that the country cannot afford to finance as recurrent expenditure once project funds dry up, are but a few reasons for the failure in past attempts at reform. Policy makers and planners should take note of these factors when developing new plans for education.

The Belize Primary Education Development Project (BPED)

The most recent attempts at reform is the BPED Project, which was launched in 1992 and supports the government’s development plan of 1992-97. This project aims to “improve the quality of instructional inputs in primary schools and increase student educational achievement levels by pursuing the following objectives: (a) introducing a new system for the training of primary school teachers in order to improve the quality and relevance of teacher training and increase the number of teachers with professional certification; (b) improving the quality, availability, and efficient use of educational facilities and resources for both teaching and learning; and (c) strengthening the planning and management of education to enable the government to develop policies and implement programs to improve the cost effectiveness of the expenditure on education.2 The project is divided into three major components: teacher education; education development, which includes curriculum development and assessment and evaluation; and planning and management, which also includes school facilities improvement (SFIP). This project has the potential for bringing about significant changes in education if implementors take note of lessons from previous experiences.

The Teacher Education Component

The proposal for changes to the primary teacher education system is considered a major initiative since previous attempts at increasing the number of trained teachers in the system and improving the quality of teaching have met with limited success over the years. Statistical records show a slow rate of increase of trained teachers in the schools—14% in 1962, 29% in 1974, 44% in 1984 and 47% in 1992 and there are growing criticisms of the quality of instruction in the primary schools.

The BPED project proposed a new system that it hopes will: (a) increase the number of professionally trained teachers in the system; (b) enhance the relevance and the quality of teacher training; (c) provide adequate salary incentives for teachers who successfully complete training; (d) improve efficiency in the training of teachers; and (e) train principals to provide instructional leadership at the school level.3 This proposal calls for major reform in teacher education, which touches not only on the training procedure but also on the content of the program and methods of teaching at the college. It also calls for strengthening the management function of the college through reorganization of the administrative structure and through training, and for expanding the college’s facilities to accommodate a resource center and additional library holdings.

With the implementation of the BPED Project, the 2+1 Certificate program (which was offered since 1954) was phased out and the new “Certificate Program with School Experience” was introduced. In this new program, student teachers pursue a course of studies lasting for 36 weeks followed by 15 weeks of supervised student teaching while managing a class on their own. After successful completion of the first level, and after two years of service in the school system, student teachers could return for the second level of training, which is another 36 weeks of intramural work. At least four reasons can be proffered for implementing the period of service between the two levels. Students would get a chance to decide whether they want to stay in the profession, managers could use that time to determine the suitability of the individual for teaching, more teachers with at least basic training would be in the classroom, and the increase in the government salaries budget would be gradual.

One of the most significant aspects of the project was the provision for implementing a distance education program for the initial training of teachers. Teachers could now opt to pursue the first level of training in their home districts, with the period of study lasting for two and a half years. The program was launched in August of 1994 with 70 teachers registered from the three districts in the initial phase—Cayo, Stann Creek, and Toledo. The program is receiving a considerable amount of funding and support, and is considered to be one of the strengths of the component. The continuous supervision of teachers while they pursue the courses is a strength of the distance program since teachers will be able to implement strategies immediately and supervisors will be able to determine whether there are observable changes in classroom teaching and management. The program also provides an alternate route to training for many teachers in remote rural villages who find it difficult to pursue the full time program in Belize City away from their families. This program should help to reduce significantly the imbalance in the percentage of trained teachers in rural and urban areas. The 1991-92 figures showed 62% of teachers trained in the Belize District with a significant fall to 40% in the Cayo and Stann Creek Districts and 28% in the Toledo District. As a result, it should also help to reduce the urban/rural differences noted in the 1991 population census, which quotes 21.6% of the urban population having reached a secondary level of education as against 6.5% of the rural population.

Because there is no clear teacher posting policy, rural schools have a high percentage of untrained teachers. The distance program should change this since more teachers who are willing to serve in rural schools and who require training can do so without leaving their schools.

Curriculum Development

The primary school curricula used prior to the launch of the BPED Project were developed in the 1970s and 1980s. Although they have been revised over the years, they required further updating and addition of new teaching-learning strategies and materials and activities that emphasized the child-centered approach to learning. There was also the need to incorporate those areas that were emphasized in earlier attempts at reform into the curriculum: agriculture education, environmental studies, and health education. The level of usage of curriculum guides in the primary schools and in the training college’s program was also below what was expected. This is reflected in the fact that many practicing teachers do not know how to use the guides. Use of the guides as part of the training program was minimal. The links that should exist between the curriculum and assessment practices was weak and resulted in the curriculum often being driven by the results of assessment. Almost all tests developed were summative assessments of students’ performance, with the results used for scholarship awards, certification, admission to secondary school, and job placement. The need for diagnostic tests to inform the teaching activity was not being met.

The issue of the availability and appropriateness of textbooks was another concern. Many primary school pupils were without textbooks, and where these were available, they were too expensive for parents to purchase. The BPED project therefore seeks to:
  • prepare a curriculum policy for the primary school and guide the preparation of curricula in the training of teachers in their use;
  • update the primary school curricula in the four core areas of mathematics, language arts, social studies, and science and develop guides or schemes for all grade levels as well as for multi-grade classes;
  • produce and disseminate revised teaching guides and instructional materials as well as socially/culturally relevant TESOL readers and other materials not available for purchase;
  • help prepare and conduct pre- and in-service training courses for teachers, principals and education officers to ensure that the curriculum and learning materials are appropriately used in the school; and
  • develop a language arts program for teaching English and other subjects to students who learn English as a second language. (SAR Report 9845-Bel)
The plan calls for the Curriculum Unit to receive assistance in the attempts at revision of the curriculum, the development of materials for teaching the ESL approach, assistance in textbook writing, design, and printing for locally produced learning materials. Plans also include a textbook loan scheme to ensure that a textbook is available to primary school pupils at the ratio of one textbook for every two pupils. Assistance to the CDU to develop their printing capacity was also included in the plans.

In recognition of the need for reform and the development of closer links with curriculum and assessment and materials production, the Education Development Center was established as an overarching agency that housed the Curriculum Development Unit, the Materials Production Unit, and the newly established Assessment and Evaluation Unit. The Assessment and Evaluation Unit now plays a major role in encouraging the use of assessment methods to provide diagnostic information for teachers, summative information at various stages to determine the extent to which curriculum objectives are being met, and evaluative information concerning the effectiveness of the school curriculum. This major focus on examination reform comes at a time when pupil performance as reflected by the results of the BNSE and CXC is on the decline, with performance in rural schools significantly lower than that of urban schools.4

Planning and Management

A Planning Unit has been established to increase the Ministry of Education’s capacity to make informed management decisions. A management information system has been set up that should prepare school mapping surveys to provide such information that would identify schools for renovation, expansion and amalgamation, and inform the system of the supply and demand needs for teachers. The program for renovation, construction, or expansion of primary schools has almost been completed within the past two years of the project. Some schools have been amalgamated with one significant case of amalgamation turning the schools from a denominational management to one that is community managed. District management teams have also been established to ensure greater parent and community involvement in the management of schools.