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A world leader in education

Article - October 2, 2014
Trinidad and Tobago has earned its reputation as one of the world’s greatest innovators in education.
During the Caribbean country’s 50 years of independence after British colonial rule, Trinidad and Tobago has taken on board the basic structure of the UK’s education model and molded it to the needs of Trinbagonian society through a series of reforms and initiatives.

A task force was set up to propose changes and, gradually, the education system moved away from the static multiple choice basis of the Common Entrance examination – the national placement exam for secondary schools – to a more fluid model focused on language arts, mathematics and creative writing, with a written examination. The culmination of this was the creation in 2001 of the Secondary Education Assessment.

The Continuous Assessment Component (CAC) was introduced to give children the opportunity to excel in areas other than the traditional mathematics and English language. Subjects included within the CAC include science, mathematics, physical education, visual and performing arts, drama, dance, and technical and vocational skills, as well as the teaching of values, morals and ethics. During the 2013-2014 academic year, the CAC contributed 20% of the final SEA marks for Grade 4 and 5 students, and it is anticipated that the CAC will contribute 30% to final SEA scores in the 2014-2015 academic year.

Students sit the Secondary Entrance Assessment at the end of primary education. At the end of five years, they take the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exam, equivalent to a high school diploma. Students can then opt to complete a further two years of study at secondary school to obtain the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examinations for university entrance; this is equivalent to Advance Placement courses in the U.S.

It is a more holistic approach to education that has in part helped T&T to become one of the most educated countries in the world, with a literacy rate of 98.8% in 2011 according to the CIA’s World Factbook figures.

“Trinidad and Tobago is a small country, yet it is a world leader in terms of education,” says Dr. Tim Gopeesingh, the Minister for Education. “Over the past four years I have been engineering a transformation for a paradigm shift in education. I developed a strategic plan for 2011-2015 focusing on a 16-point agenda. To date, I am proud to say that we have accomplished 80% of the promises made within that plan.”

Free and compulsory schooling has been in place since the 1970s and a national consultation to amend the Education Act will increase its current compulsory age from six to 12, to the new age which will be from five to 16. Undergraduate university places are government funded at the five tertiary educational institutes in Trinidad and Tobago; University of the West Indies, the University of Trinidad and Tobago, the College of Science, Technology and Applied Arts of Trinidad and Tobago and the University of the Southern Caribbean.

In partnership with the World Bank, the government launched the Basic Education Project, the main goals of which were to improve the quality of teaching and infrastructure, while also eradicating inequality and providing primary education for all. At a total cost of $121.7 million, it was a resounding success and paved the way for the Ministry of Education’s Universal Early Childhood Care and Education Curriculum (ECCE) for three to four year olds.

By the end of 2015, it is forecasted that every child in Trinidad and Tobago will have been brought under the ECCE umbrella. Twenty-nine new centers had been built across the country up to June 2013, and the construction of 24 new schools are being constructed under phase one and 26 will be constructed under phase two, commencing in the last quarter of 2014 under a joint government and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) scheme known as the Seamless Education System Program, which was launched in 2010 and is coordinated by the government’s Program and Projects Planning and Management Unit.

The main goal of ECCE is to provide quality early childhood care and education for three and four-year-old children from disadvantaged families and to strengthen the capacity of primary schools to provide quality education to students with a wide range of learning needs. The program also includes the ongoing training of teachers from primary to tertiary level, an area in which Trinidad and Tobago’s training and certification level conforms to Caricom and Organization of American States criteria. Professional development and training programs have been put in place for teachers at state and state-assisted schools, while 68 public-private partnership agreements have been put in place with privately run ECCE schools.

“We have a total of 200 early childhood education centers that we must fill with young children. We are going to expand this number to 300 very soon. There are 38,000 students under the age of five who need access to education. We will achieve this goal with the collaboration of the private sector. We will be one of the first countries in the world to achieve universal state-funded early childhood education all the way up to and including undergraduate education,” says Dr. Gopeesingh.

But perhaps the Education Ministry’s boldest and most rewarding ambition is to provide each and every secondary school student in the country with their own laptop computer. Over 8,000 teachers have also received training courses about the best way to make use of the computers in the classrooms. As part of the ministry’s challenge to integrate ICT into the education system, the National Library and Information System (NALIS) provides integrated online resources for secondary school students throughout the country.
“One of the main things the Prime Minister promised the people was that every child would have a laptop when entering secondary school,” adds the minister. “Since 2010, we delivered close to 75,000 laptops to students between grades 8 to 12, also known as Form I Students in Trinidad and Tobago. We have also provided laptops to teachers, headmasters and supervisors. In addition, we have developed a communication strategy between the ministry, other stakeholders and the schools. We believe that technology is key in education; therefore, we have invested heavily in it. Most primary and secondary schools have tech labs that are serviced and maintained constantly by trained technicians. When I came in as minister we had 125 underperforming primary schools. We managed to reduce that figure by 100. Also, 100 schools that were just performing at minimum standards are now excelling. We have improved academics across all areas and scopes.”

As a result, Trinidad and Tobago has been selected to spearhead a project to establish a virtual classroom of the future in each Caribbean country. The education ministers of 13 Caribbean and Latin American nations and the Assistant Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) attended the Virtual Educa Caribbean Symposium 2014 in Port of Spain in May, where the classroom of the future was displayed by Samsung and local partner Telecommunications Services of Trinidad and Tobago (TSTT).

Virtual Educa Secretary General, Jose Maria Anton, announced to the delegates that the OAS and Samsung would work with them to establish a virtual classroom of the future in each Caribbean country.

The virtual classrooms will be networked and managed by Trinidad and Tobago, which has already established two such centers at Presentation College in Chaguanas and Clarke Road Hindu Primary School in Penal. Eighteen more are to be created within the next two months.

OAS Assistant Secretary General, Ambassador Albert Ramdin, stated that for the regional network of virtual classrooms to be established in the six-month target date, OAS would need to be informed by four participating Caricom states of the selected schools and their locations. The aim of this project is to create a network of those schools and showcase the value of Virtual Educa to other countries, demonstrating how it would be done, modernizing and innovating education systems by March 2015.

Vice-President of the Enterprise Business Team at Samsung Electronics, Jongshin Kim, disclosed that his company is very keen to support this unprecedented educational project by providing hardware, software and technical support, as well as expertise on how to build a smart school project. This is regarded as a critical stepping stone to establish the next stage of the future education system, pioneered by Trinidad and Tobago.

The government also cast its net far and wide to make use of international education experts, who were brought in to revise and reform the curriculum for primary schools. As a result, 20 smart classrooms have been selected for a pilot program to optimize training methods under the centralized Center of Excellence for Teacher Training.

There has also been a drive to increase the emphasis on Caribbean Vocational Qualification (CVQ) under a technical and vocational program rolled out in 2010. Mechanisms have also been put in place to ensure that children with specific needs receive the attention they require. A pilot scheme of early neuro-diagnostics testing has been undertaken to offer support to learners at all levels.

The efforts of Trinidad and Tobago and its international partners were recognized by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the second edition of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and ALAS Foundation awards in Washington in May, which are held to mark advancements in social welfare programs for children in the Latin America and Caribbean regions.

“We want more children to have the best possible start. The IDB has taken on an important role in leading this effort, investing in childhood development in Latin America and the Caribbean. And we’re seeing a lot of positive changes [including] a push to universal access and seamless education in Trinidad and Tobago and so much more, so we hope that we can be your partners and work with you,” Mrs. Clinton told the assembly.