Rethinking Education in the Caribbean

Rethinking Education in the Caribbean

Over the past 20 years, Caribbean education has been through several reforms and changes, most of which have sought to address perceived deficits or problems in the system.  In very few cases have these efforts sought to fundamentally rethink the function of education in society and articulate the goals of education with the re-shaping of the post-independent Caribbean.  Many of these reforms became projectized initiatives shaped in accordance with prevailing paradigms promoted by the multilaterals and donor agencies.

Historical background
The evolution of Caribbean education systems has followed a path of progressive expansion of access to increasingly higher levels of education from the advent of public education in the post-Moyne Commission period to the post-colonial era.

Taken in historical perspective, it can be argued that this linear progression represented an extension and modernization of the inherited educational paradigm (Bacchus; Miller; Jules).  At every stage of our national development, education provided the human resource scaffolding that facilitated the modernization thrust.  The diagram below summarizes this argument:

educational paradigm

In a very general historical sense, it was the attainment of universal primary education that facilitated the struggle towards Independence and the transition from plantation economy to more inclusive modes of production.  In like manner, the move towards a service economy requires universal secondary education as the new educational standard that will guarantee the human resource capacity to successfully make this transition; and it is universal access to tertiary education that will facilitate our participation in the information economy.

This historical perspective is central to the arguments of this article.  Education cannot be business as usual, and we must always, and in every historical epoch, continually interrogate the purposes of education.  We need to periodically ask WHAT IS EDUCATION FOR? and what do we expect education to achieve at each crucial stage?

The answers to these questions will help us ensure that our education systems in the region are actually producing the quality of persons with the competencies required to put us on a path of sustainable development in a ruthlessly competitive global arena.  It was VS Naipaul who reminded us that “The world is what it is.  Men who are nothing; who aspire to be nothing, will always be nothing” (Bend in the River).  Above everything else, it is education that will make us something and which will provide the wind beneath the wings of our ambition.

International trends in education and the globalization process

The unfortunate reality is that the post-colonial project in education has never fundamentally questioned the colonial inheritance.  We have accepted and expanded education systems whose organizing principles and structural frameworks have assumed that a principal function of education is to sort and classify people.

A good example of this is the achievement of universal secondary education.  Access to secondary education was previously predicated on very selective criteria which were performance outcome-based but co-related to available space in secondary schools.  The common entrance examinations effectively sorted students so that the highest scoring students were given the privilege of access.  With universal secondary education, access is theoretically granted to every child but we have not revisited the working of the secondary education system to ensure that the “one size fits all” is changed to one of multiple pathways to success catering for the far more variegated input into our secondary schools.  The issue of quality and standards also needs to be taken into account – in some countries, access is guaranteed for all but on attainment of appropriate standards with remediation and support available to help students reach these standards.

Ironically, a major driver of educational progress in the Caribbean in the past 20 years has been international trends in education that have been pushed and promulgated by the intellectual financial complex (World Bank, UNESCO, and major donor agencies).


There are five main reasons why we need to redefine education in the Caribbean:

1.    Tinkering with the system no longer works; we need a new vehicle of human empowerment and social transformation
2.    The implications of the internationalization of education in a globalized world
3.    The rapid obsolescence of knowledge in the information revolution
4.    Our education systems are no longer working
5.    Education is too rapidly becoming a panacea for all problems

Tinkering with the system
There is a point at which tinkering with an education system can no longer work. Education systems are eco-systems within which changes made to one dimension, carry implications for other dimensions that necessitate corresponding adjustments if the system is to function effectively and efficiently.  For a change in curriculum to have the desired impact and result, textbooks must mirror those changes, teachers must be oriented to them, instructional methods must accommodate, assessment and examination modes must test accordingly… even classrooms might need to be retrofitted to provide more conducive environments for new and different learning.

We are at a historical juncture in the Caribbean when we must take careful stock of where we are, where we seek to go and how we intend to get there.  So much has happened internationally in the global economy, in society and in technology and so much has happened on the regional front as well that necessitates deep reflection on our options and our possibilities.

Taking these challenges into account, the Caribbean today needs an education system which is an effective vehicle of human empowerment and social transformation.  To create this we must first ask ourselves “What must Education achieve in the contemporary Caribbean?”

Tinkering with our present education systems has not worked.  A couple hundred millions of donor and tax payer dollars have been spent in the last 20 years on projects of all kinds in curriculum development, education administration reform, primary school improvement, secondary education reform and more, but the system is yet to show levels of improvement commensurate with these investments.  Additionally, this does not take into account the even greater sums spent on physical infrastructural expansion and enhancements.  It is not that many of these projects have intrinsically failed; it is more that we have failed to create the synergies and apply the lessons of many of these projects to drive systemic transformation.  A perfect example of this is the recent USAID funded project – Caribbean Centres of Excellence for Teacher Training (CETT) which set new standards for the teaching and learning of reading at primary level in eight Caribbean countries.  Despite the amazing results obtained, there are still challenges in having the CETT methodology universally adopted across the primary education system even in the pilot countries.  We are failing to apply and universalize the lessons of projects that have worked well.  When we do seek to incorporate them, we do not take sufficient account of the systemic ramifications that need to be addressed in order to guarantee successful implementation.  Equally importantly, we fail also to digest the lessons of those initiatives that have not worked and so miss opportunities for understanding the factors which contributed to that result.

Besides the inherent limitations of tinkering with reform is the need to base reform on meta-perspectives of the changes required.  Attention to quality in secondary education will not yield the anticipated dividends if we don’t fix primary education; and primary education is stymied in the absence of attention to early childhood development – (note one speaks of early childhood development and not simply of Early Childhood Education because early stage development is a much wider construct than just education, involving nutritional status issues, child and maternal health etc).

 Implications of the internationalization of education in a globalized world
The most immediate consequence of the internationalization of education is its emergence as a major industry.  Privatization and the inclusion of education as a tradeable commodity in the WTO negotiations have contributed to intense global competition for market space especially in the tertiary education sector.

Value of British Educational Services

The table above illustrates the value of education services in the British economy in 2004 as estimated by the British Council.  The value added by examination and professional bodies totalled £151 million comprising fees paid to awarding bodies for examinations taken abroad by overseas students whether in the UK or abroad (Johnes 2004).

The financial strength of this educational industry is indicative of its educational reach.  Intense competition among universities in the OECD countries in particular has created a western intellectual hegemony that is able to determine trends and dictate the paradigm.  Challenges have been mounted by some of the Asian Tigers including countries such as Singapore, Dubai, and Malaysia, involving considerable investment in trying to establish global centers of intellectual excellence.

The essence of the internationalization process is that it leaves little room for small states in particular to fashion an educational paradigm that is significantly divergent from the dominant global one.  The rapid spread of international schools which now cater for primary level education predicated on OECD models are testimony to this reality.  Increasingly notions of national curricula are yielding way to “foreign” or international curricula that literally prepares a student even from the primary stage “for export” (packaged as seamless entry) into tertiary education institutions located in OECD centers.  This is in direct contradiction to the effort by many nation states to utilize curriculum at primary and secondary levels to help shape nationalist identification and build citizenship.

Obsolesence of knowledge and the information revolution
A third reason is the impact of the information revolution and the increasing pace of the obsolescence of knowledge.  Information and computer technologies have completely changed the game for education.  Research and access to information is now instantaneous and the technologies have facilitated the hybridization of knowledge to an unprecedented extent.  As a result it has been estimated that by 2020 the knowledge base could be changing every two hours!  Whatever the exact pace of change, it is sufficiently rapid to mean that traditional syllabuses and curricula will no longer serve as adequate registers of received knowledge. Additionally, without access to knowledge in critical fields like healthcare and wellness, the knowledge of modern remedies for kids, such as CBD oil for kids, may be an unrealized need that could provide net benefit to local societies.

A major implication of this paradigm shift is that the age old question of what is to be taught will shift to what are the competencies that are required to certify mastery in any particular knowledge domain.  Content will give way to competence; analytical skills will supercede memorization; and interdisciplinarity will reinforce key competencies.

Our education systems are no longer working
Because we have not approached reform in a truly systemic manner, the knock effect of problems in one sub-sector creates other problems in another – inattention to early childhood development is impacting performance in primary, the deficits in primary education translate into weak performance at secondary and the absence of core competencies required for excelling at tertiary education.

Ironicially, Caribbean government spend a much larger percentage of public money on education than many developed countries and education in most Caribbean countries educational expenditure as a percentage of GDP is higher or on par with many OECD countries, but performance is not commensurate to that investment.

Comparitive Spending on Education

At the secondary education level, the number of students obtaining acceptable grades in 5 or more subjects is less than one quarter of the cohort sitting the exam (and an even small percentage of the age cohort).
CSEC Examination performance 2009

In the 2009 CSEC exam, only 21% of the candidates sitting the examination achieved acceptable grades in five or more subjects; 52% of them either did not pass any subject or received acceptable grades in one subject only.  Attention to quality and performance is the most urgent of the imperatives facing us particularly at secondary level.

To compound the difficulty, to most of our young people – digital natives consigned to analog schools – school is simply boring and learning has no excitement.  Chalk and talk no longer is able to keep the attention or focus the concentration of students whose personal lifestyles are increasingly multi-sensory, multi-tasking and short attention span dynamics.

Our teacher preparation processes have not kept pace with these challenges and in too many countries an insufficient proportion of the teaching service is neither trained nor prepared to successfully deliver instruction to the new generation student in distinctly different conditions such as we face today.  The teaching service needs to be re-energized.

As a result of the weakness of teacher preparation, our modes of instruction urgently need to be modernized.  Isolated examples can be found all across the region of enthusiastic teacher using innovative pedagogies to stimulate and challenge their students.  Some of these examples use whatever is available in their community and environment to make learning fun; field trips for history, environmental science; household materials in science; student seminars with professionals in business and the world of work; job attachments in a range of areas.  Some use simple ICT technologies: PowerPoint-aided lectures; Youtube videos; Internet web sites to enhance teaching and engage students.

Education has and is now widely seen as the panacea for all social problems
The fifth reason why we need to redefine our education systems is that education is now widely assumed to be the panacea for all social problems.  The escalating demands for adding all kinds of subjects to the curriculum have almost reached a point of curriculum overload.  It has become a simplistic formula in public policy circles that for every problem we must shape an educational infusion to administer to the schools!  So in the face of the drug threat, let us teach drug education; with the spectre of HIV-AIDS, let’s do HIV sensitization in schools.  There is no question that education has an indisputable and major role to play in social transformation and that it must be relevant to the challenges of every era, but we cannot expect that it can solve all problems.  The school cannot be the symbolic and substitute arena of action for every socio-economic problem while we do nothing in other spheres of public policy to fundamentally address the issue.  Put simply, no amount of drug education in schools will succeed if the law enforcement agencies allow drug dealing with impunity on our streets and drug dealers are allowed to accumulate and flout their wealth.

The transfer of responsibility (one can better say the abdication of responsibility) from other public and civic agencies and the family to the schools is placing unreasonable demand on teachers.  How can teachers be held absolutely accountable for educational outcomes when they are unable to focus on their core responsibilities and must instead become surrogate welfare officers, substitute parents, maintain order and discipline against an encroaching tide of criminality that has permeated the entire society?


These challenges appear daunting but at CXC we believe that the solutions are simple.  The scope of what needs to be done is immense but it can be manageable if we take a systematic and systemic approach.  There are 4 pillars that are foundational to the solution:

1.    Agree on a philosophy of education in the contemporary Caribbean
2.    Establish a seamless education system
3.    Make learning fun
4.    Attune our assessment to key competencies and global competitiveness

A philosophy of education in the contemporary Caribbean
Articulating the philosophy of education is an essential first step which establishes the vision and purpose of education.  Accepting that education is central to any national development strategy and taking account of the unprecedented changes that have taken place in the world over the past decade in particular and the grave challenges as well as opportunities posed to developing countries, we must start with basic principles.

The articulation of that philosophy of education must ensure that there is consistency between the regional and the national.  These two agendas are not inconsistent because the regional must provide the architectural framework within which we can productively establish our particularities

At CXC we have been promoting two essential principles to inform this philosophy: the Statement of the Ideal Caribbean Person and the UNESCO Imperatives for Learning in the 21st Century.

Philosophical Underpinnings

The Ideal CARICOM Person was adopted as far back as July 1997 by Caribbean Heads of Government but has not been aggressively promulgated.
Pillars and Foundations

While the Statement of the Ideal Caribbean Person describes the type of person that our education system ought to produce (in language that is far too obtruse!), the UNESCO Imperatives for Learning specifies the abilities that ought to be developed.  Each of the four imperatives carries very clear implications for curriculum and the competencies that need to be cultivated.

Establish a seamless education system
As has been argued earlier, educational quality cannot be resolved by focusing on only specific stages.  Educational quality is not a compartmentalized thing – it requires consistent effort across every level of the system.  Attention to quality at each level is like the passing of a quality baton in a lengthy relay race – only when it is successfully passed can we expect exemplary performance in the succeeding level.

In order to realize this, our education system needs to be reshaped as a seamless system in which opportunity is open to all with varying pathways to success according to interests, capability and development pace.  The paradigm of Education for All promoted at the international level by UNESCO and adopted by the multilaterals with significant input from civil society internationally has created a positive environment for the realization of this solution.  The notion of access to education from the cradle to the grave has now moved into the policy mainstream.  A seamless education system is one in which there is an adequate articulation of levels and the rationalization of the competencies and outcomes expected of every stage.  Unlike the inherited post-colonial paradigm, it does not naturally assume wastage as one moves up the educational ladder but facilitates continuous learning through different pathways.  It is interesting to note the many anecdotal cases of Caribbean persons with incomplete schooling whose future appeared to have been constrained in the region but who, on migration to the United States, have progressively and successfully improved their education and qualifications because of the opportunities available in the multiple pathways of the US system.

Make learning fun
A major challenge is to engage young people in education in ways that they find exciting and which inculcates a strong desire to learn, to think critically and to improve themselves.  We can only achieve this if we are ultimately able – at every level of the education system – to make learning fun.

To make learning fun requires a simultaneous reinvention of curriculum and the encouragement of new pedagogies of engagement and discovery.  In every knowledge domain, our curriculum must embrace familiar Caribbean reality as a launching pad for discovery and for questioning in order to help our students to both understand and to transform that reality.  The focus on Caribbean realities must not, however, represent an introspection that excludes an understanding of the global and the international – in this regard, we must be guided by the slogan of “thinking local and acting global”.  Caribbean people are among the most migrant populations in the world and this dimension of our reality necessitates that our education be world-class and globally- acceptable.

This requires greater levels of inventiveness and stronger competencies of our teachers whose own professional formation must be changed to empower them to utilize these new approaches.

The current technologies of play which are so addictive to young people – Nintendo Wii, the Internet, mobile phones, Gameboy etc – must all be turned to educational advantage.  The power of ICT can exponentially improve the pace and quality of learning and facilitate students taking greater responsibility for their learning.

Assessment attuned to competencies and to global competitiveness
As the value of education increases in a highly competitive world, qualifications and certification becomes even more high stakes.  Hanson (1994) asserted that “the individual in contemporary society is not so much described by tests as constructed by them”.

If we say that the purpose of Caribbean education is to produce the Ideal Caribbean Person and that this person should have the ability to learn, to be, to do and to live together, then our assessment processes must reflect these competencies and attributes.  Assessment can no longer simply be a test of academic ability or retention of knowledge; it must attest that the candidate demonstrates the knowledge, skills and competencies reflective of the total person.

Within CXC we have begun the process of reviewing the suite of examinations that we offer, their articulation with each other and how they fit within the Caribbean Qualifications Framework.  We are also benchmarking all of our products – from syllabuses to examinations – against international best practices to ensure our own global competitiveness and we are seeking to develop international partnerships that will help us leapfrog into that next level.

At this juncture in history, the human race is facing almost unmanageable problems many of which are the consequence of our own greed and insensitivity to nature.  The threats are environmental (from climate change to sea rise, to increased natural catastrophe), political (escalated conflict, sharpened intolerance), social (drug abuse, health pandemics, social disintegration), economic (virtual meltdown of the world economic system, deepening poverty, unemployment) and the list goes on.  In virtually every sphere, the problems beset us.  And in the midst of all of this, the fragile archipelago of our Caribbean sits like a fleet of fragile boats buffeted by the international storm and incapacitated by its own limitations.  There are many things that need to be fixed and fixed urgently, but the preparation of the next generation is one of those responsibilities and challenges that cannot be postponed.  And this ultimately is the urgency and the necessity of reinventing education.

Dr Didacus Jules is the Registrar of the Caribbean Examinations Council. He was the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education in Grenada and St Lucia at various times in his career. Dr Jules also serves on several high-level education committees in the region.

Johnes, G (2004): The Global Value of Education and Training Exports to the UK Economy. Lancaster UK, British Council.