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May 25, 2004

Education Summit challenges status quo

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It was billed as the “Education Summit” and was preceded by numerous public consultations and a healthy advertising campaign. Following an official opening on Monday night, the three-day conclave got down to business this morning. Despite annoying problems with the venue’s audio system, the opening plenary session set the tone for what should be a critical review of everything from pre-school to U.B. News 5′s Patrick Jones reports.>

Patrick Jones, Reporting

After months of countrywide consultations, the Education Summit opened with high expectations for a new direction in education. Minister of Education Francis Fonseca says feedback from the series of meetings is the basis for the discussions over the next three days.

Francis Fonseca, Minister of Education

“We felt that all the stakeholders in education have been talking about common issues, common challenges that they face, but that we weren’t talking enough to each other, so that the teachers, the unions, student, the churches, the state, all of us recognise that there were significant challenges that we face in education. But we were not communicating properly with each other and sitting down at the table together to look at meaningful ways in which we could address those issues and challenges.”

The way to an improved educational system was jump started by Belize’s ambassador to Cuba Assad Shoman, who used his keynote address at the first plenary session to suggest that Belize could benefit significantly by studying the Cuban experience and adopting workable methods.

Assad Shoman, Belize’s Ambassador to Cuba

“The first thing you have to understand about any theory that you study is that you have to apply theory to the particular conditions in each country, or in each locality. So now these ideas, for example all teachers know and students know that the number of children to a classroom is key to be able to give the kind of individual attention you need to give to students. So right now Cuba is implementing twenty maximum in a primary school classroom, fifteen maximum in a high school situation. Now I?m not saying that we can achieve that tomorrow, but it?s certainly a goal that we want to aspire to.”

But aspirations alone are not going to bring about the changes necessary to make a difference in an education system that is struggling to keep pace with demand. Fonseca says the real work will start when the talking ends on Thursday and that whatever comes out of the summit will be for the benefit of the entire nation.

Francis Fonseca

“The goal is to have the students and the people of Belize benefit from the education summit. Really our young people, today in Belize we have over eighty-three thousand students in school from pre-school to university; eighty-three thousand, an amazing number of people. And if we can really focus on helping those people to improve the quality of their own lives, imagine what can be done in terms of them going back into their communities, going back into their own families and trying to lift the quality of life of their families, of their communities. Inevitably that will lead to a better quality of life for our people and our nation.”

And while our natural response might be to say that we can’t afford the resources needed to make meaningful changes in education, Shoman says the alternative will cost even more.

Assad Shoman

“Unless we achieve it, then the economy will get worse, the conditions for people will worsen, not improve. As I said in my talk, even a high school diploma that in the past used to be a wonderful thing, you think that with that you must get a job, that doesn?t guarantee you anything now-a-days because the economies are constantly shifting and changing, and there are different kinds of skills and abilities that you need now, not only to get a job and to work productively and to create jobs for yourself and so on, but also to live harmoniously in this changing world, and this society.”

And to achieve what he termed “education for all and by all,” Shoman says we must be willing to move mountains if necessary to ensure that every child has the same right to the best quality education this country can offer.

Patrick Jones

“Ambassador let me get your personal opinion on this, on our education system. Is it so broken that we have to get a new one as opposed to performing surgery, if you like?”

Assad Shoman

“Well, I wouldn’t want to categorise it one way or the other, I believe that we cannot throw everything out and start completely new. I believe that there are many things that we have with us now and many people that we have with us now, including of course teachers that are excellent, that are a good basis for building on and for working. More than rebuilding completely or substituting one thing for another, what we need is what I think we are trying to do here in this conference and everything that built up to it because I know there were consultations in communities all over the country–to take a hard look at what we have to compare that to the objectives we set ourselves, to see how we need to change, what we need to change in order to achieve that objective. And to be totally honest about it, I mean not to feel that anything is a sacred cow.”

Patrick Jones, for News 5.

Today’s session dealt with access to education. On Wednesday the summit will tackle the issue of investments in education and on the final day, participants will discuss the issues of quality and relevance.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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