Theodore Lewis

Professor Theodore Lewis

Canada is a country we hold dear; a place that is a major pole of the Trinbagonian diaspora. Who hasn’t been to Toronto? The country is known as being welcoming to immigrants, and this humanism is reflected in its approach to education. Cultural pluralism is a key tenet of Canadian democratic philosophy. I think we could learn from it. Education is an important proof of the quality of democracy and human rights in a country. Recent data (2018) show that a higher percentage of people in the Canadian labour force had tertiary level qualifications than in other OECD countries

Canada is currently in focus as a globally significant exemplar in education because it is a consistent front-runner in international academic Olympiads. We know that Finland and Singapore are iconic where education excellence is concerned, but with Canada we are talking about a place to which our citizens can readily relate. PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) is a worldwide study by the OECD of the performance of 15-year-olds in mathematics, science and reading. In PISA 2018 the performance of Canadian children amongst some 80 countries was as follows: Mathematics, 12th, with an average standardised score of 512; Science, 8th, with an average of 518; and reading, 6th, with an average score of 520.

Canada is comprised of ten provinces and three territories, and each of them has developed its own educational apparatus, reflecting historical peculiarities. In each there is pre-school for children ages four to six, universally available. Schooling starts at six, and children must attend school until age 16 or 18, depending on the province or territory. Typically, the elementary grades are one to six, junior or middle school grades seven to nine, and secondary grades ten to 12 (ages 16-18).

Being a plural society, the country seeks to foster understanding and awareness of its diverse cultures. The education system includes religious-affiliated schools (notably Catholic schools, which are fully funded by the government). Ontario has 29 Catholic school boards which run 1,500 schools serving more than 500,000 children. Other religious schools, of Islamic, Jewish, Sikh, and Buddhist faiths are private and require a fee.

Ontario is a useful representative example of how the education system functions. The province’s goal is 75 per cent of pupils achieving a mastery standard in reading, writing and mathematics. The elementary curriculum is structured around the Arts, French, STEM, social studies, history and geography. Native and international languages may be requested by parents for their children. Further, schools offer experiential learning opportunities such as job shadowing in grades seven and eight.

Compared to our country, the transition from elementary to secondary schooling in Ontario, as elsewhere in Canada, is uneventful. Unlike us, it is not a life-altering decision point. Each child who has completed the requirements of the eighth grade (age 13) simply moves on to the ninth grade in a junior, middle, or high school, in the progression to grade 12.

In Ontario, the child who enters the ninth grade now begins the journey to earn credits for the High School Diploma. Thirty credits are required to complete this, 18 of which are compulsory and specified. They include credits in English, mathematics, science, the arts, Canadian geography, Canadian history, and French.

The final target of schooling in Ontario is the Secondary School Literacy Graduation requirement, which all students must meet to earn the Ontario Secondary School Diploma. Pupils are expected to take and successfully complete the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test in Grade 10 .

Recent (2015) data show that 92 per cent of adult Canadians had earned a secondary school diploma.

On completion of secondary school requirements, the Canadian pupil has two basic options, direct engagement with the labour market, or further education.

In Ontario, the high school graduate who wishes to go on to university must complete six Ontario Academic Credit courses. These courses can be completed during the regular high school programme, or on graduating. There are 24 ranked universities in Ontario.

For pupils seeking technical/vocational further education in Ontario, there are 24 publicly funded colleges of this nature known as Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology (CAATs). They offer “career-oriented, post-secondary education and training”.

The differences in environment in which young citizens find themselves in Toronto versus Port of Spain are stark. We are a Third World place, in which employment prospects are bleak even for the best graduates of the school system. The jobs on offer in our youth labour market are devoid of complexity in the best of times. We are not nearly as competitive as Canada in realms such as manufacturing and IT. We have for years had a dormant construction industry, unlike Canada where the supply of new homes, apartments, or high-rise office space, cannot keep pace with the demand. It is for these reasons that much of what we do in schools, especially in urban areas, constitutes warehousing of pupils. We do not have a green sector of the economy as does Canada. We have very cramped post-secondary educational prospects for school leavers. After UWI and UTT the options dwindle quickly.

We blame local pupils for poor performance, while more than 90 per cent of high school graduates in Canada leave school with a credential that can earn them a livelihood commensurate with an existence in a First World country.

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Although it comes at an unbearably high price, the COVID-19 pandemic brings opportunities for change that have been long needed but have hitherto gone to waste.

My headline today is not a typographical error. As suggested below, it is still uncertain whether the Government’s policy of siq, that is separate, isolate and quarantine, is a sound enough response to our COVID-19 crisis. We just don’t know yet.

COVID-19 is shaking civilisation to its core. Over one million persons are infected in 200 countries and over 55,000 have already died. Economies, industrialised and developing, are reeling. Global supply chains are being broken and the threat of shortages hangs in the air.

When we will have overcome the COVID-19 multi-pronged attack on Trinidad and Tobago, we will face associated problems ranging from the economy under severe stress such as it has never been before, with unemployment at a crisis level, disruption of the education system leaving all stakeholders confused, and possible shortage of foods.

The action taken by the Government over the past two or three weeks with respect to control and containment of the COVID-19 virus, which has been in line, by and large, with the action taken by other countries, ought to be supported if we are to weather this virulent epidemic.

It is a well-established truism that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

On the basis of and in recognition of this reality, conversations are taking place among various professional and sectoral elites about how not to let this moment pass without taking advantage of it.