Numbers don’t lie. Barbados’ ranking on the Human Development Index is now at number 38. Though this is still quite an impressive standing, it marks a downward trend since the mid-1990s. In any small business or Fortune 1000 company, this indicator would be a call for serious concern, action and remedial intervention. The evidence is there that Barbados continues to be stifled by project implementation deficit, sluggish systemic reforms and an entrenched conservatism that brings political will, desire and evaluated performance to an almost grinding halt.
As an educator, life-long learner and owner of a business built on sharing knowledge, I continue to be appalled and shocked at the primacy of form over content or the structure over substance that plagues the evolution of the country’s education system. This for me is a personal story of pain and anguish for I remember using a computer for the first time in my life in 1988 immediately after A’levels when I started to work at Barclays Bank. In the early 1990s, a colleague of mine, Gino, would go on to win the prestigious Barbados Scholarship and would later confess that when he entered a Canadian university classroom as a teenager, he felt stupid next to his Canadian peers because he was so far behind in terms of his computer literacy. Mind you, he was at the top of Barbados’ educational food chain.
So this is internal paradox that I am here interrogating. How is it that a country that ranks so high on the Human Development Index can rank so low in terms of global competitiveness or even our ability to facilitate business? In the 2013-2014 Global Competitiveness Report, Barbados ranks number 81 for our capacity for innovation and on the World Bank’s 2014 Doing Business Report, we come in at number 91, way behind St. Lucia which scores the highest in the Caribbean region at number 64. Numbers certainly don’t lie. “Houston, there’s a BIG problem!”
As alluded to earlier, I think the source of this problem lies in our poor record at education reform, our conservative nature and, frankly speaking, our arrogance. This was brought home to me by recent renderings in the local press of calls to ban cell phones at school, students being sent home because their skirts were not two inches below their knees and gestapo tactics of school principals sanctioning the searching of bags for cell phones to outright public beatings for late arrival at secondary institutions of learning. Believe it or not! It’s Barbados in the early 21st century with practices that are reminiscent of a bygone slave era together with an institutionalized stifling of young people’s creativity. Little do these principals and educators within our school system understand that their behaviors, rules, policies and organizational cultures, have a direct impact on our overall performance as a nation.
Unfortunately, what should have been heralded as the mega-project that would catapult us into the 21st century was strategically undermined at every step of the way by these very agents of reactionary blindness. They so stifled the Education Sector Enhancement Programme (ESEP), familiarly known as EduTech, that Barbados today remains uncompetitive in its school system from primary right through to the tertiary level. One will be amazed that teachers are still using green boards and chalk while most children possess a computer at home. The stunning astonishment was further compounded to me when a masters student told me in 2002 that she “could not think in front of a computer.” My heart bled knowing that this individual would return to the job market with a postgraduate degree to lord over her subjects all the while boasting of her academic achievements with the framed diploma on her wall to prove it. The scariest part is that these are the ones charged with the duty of making policy. So now you understand why Edutech 2000 was severely undermined and doomed to failure.
So we are now in an age of mobile technologies and buffoons masquerading as educators are outright banning the use of these devises in schools. How radical would it be to give each child in school a smart phone, a tablet, a laptop and 24 hour Wi-Fi access? How radical would it be for government agencies to channel 50% of their project funding to the University of the West Indies to develop software solutions in conjunction with the world’s best schools in order to come up with solutions needed by our people? Solutions like a single computerized ID card or an amalgamated system that links all our social bio-data required to access social services.
The pretense and continued ignorance in believing the myth that we have a good education system must simply stop. Wake up! Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard and Facebook was developed in a dorm. Should we continue to stem innovation and curtail the natural human instinct of curiosity, we will continue to see a downward trend in our global competitiveness, our facility or lack thereof for doing business not only with the rest of the world but sadly with ourselves. Ultimately our standing on the Human Development Index will continue to further decline. So, it’s not about whether a child is late for school or wears a skirt two inches too short or takes a cell phone to school. Discipline matters but the resistance to form and structure is the key ingredient to innovation.
This op-ed was written by Ian Walcott, a contributing writer to The Burton Wire. He is an international relations specialist and project consultant who shuttles between the Caribbean and Brazil.