While most people would agree that providing free textbooks to primary school children, and particularly the needy, is a fantastic idea, the manner in which the Government of Belize is going about implementing such a program is of serious concern to the Belize National Teachers’ Union (BNTU). Government officially launched the nationwide free textbook program on Monday morning, and by Tuesday the BNTU had issued a statement expressing four key concerns.
The BNTU first concedes that “The policy/concept is a good one,” but it goes on to say that “…it is grossly flawed.”
What makes the program so flawed? According to the BNTU, the decision was “sudden” and “without proper or recent consultation or notice.”
On Monday, when Education Minister Francis Fonseca launched the program, he stated that even though the argument can always be made for wider and deeper consultation, he was “satisfied that the consultations have been meaningful and adequate, and the evaluation process credible and reliable.”
The BNTU says, however, that to their knowledge, the key stakeholders—school managers, principals, teachers, parents, union, local bookstores and publishers—were mostly left out of the loop, and it emphasizes that education decisions must genuinely involve all stakeholders, especially teachers, who are the ones interacting with students on an individual basis.
It also takes issue with the fact that the Government will press ahead full steam with the implementation of the program for the new school year, without a test phase.
“As a continuation of good and recommended practices, most new and untested projects and initiatives in education, health and other human endeavors are usually done through a test pilot project or through phases to ensure for periods of adaptability and adjustments,” the BNTU says. “This sudden decision and short period notice before implementation in September, will not allow for an adequate period of review and adjustment.”
On Monday we had asked Minister Fonseca how his Ministry feels about a more transitional approach at implementation, especially in light of the crunch that government and schools will face over the next two months in mobilizing the massive amount of books—as many as half a million—and implementing school tracking systems, as well as the limited time remaining to train teachers.
“The first year of any program can properly be described as a transitional year, so it is going to be a transitional year, but we are satisfied that we have in place a proper plan, a proper management system…to effectively manage the program,” Fonseca replied. “It is going to be a learning curve, so that throughout this year we are going to identify the weaknesses of the program; and work with teachers, principals and general managers to correct them so that in following years the program can be more effective and more efficient.”
The third concern that the BNTU has expressed is regarding the workshop schedule for teachers. The union says that the Ministry’s plan is to have workshops for as many as 2,500 elementary school teachers in August 2007 in the midst of other teacher development and enhancement workshops, staff meetings, which, the union says, “is over ambitious and a tall order to achieve.”
The final concern the BNTU has is with “the disrespectful and threatening language and punitive actions being directed at teachers and school managements, which,” the union says, “could have dire legal and contractual consequences.”
As we reported in our midweek edition, Minister Fonseca and other Ministry officials have underscored their position that the program is not optional for government and government-aided schools. Students in these schools will not be required to purchase any other books in the five core subject areas for which Government is providing free textbooks, which are Math, English, Science, Social Studies and Spanish, the officials said.
Chief education officer in the ministry, Maud Hyde, had elaborated that if school managements want students to have additional books, they would have to bear those costs—not parents. She also said that any public school teacher who demands or uses textbooks that are outside of the program could have his/her teaching license revoked.
The BNTU says that it “…will not sit idly by in accepting vindictive measures and the threat to our teachers.”
The Government is making an initial investment of $6.5 million of public funds to launch the free textbook program, which should encompass over 60,000 primary school students. That amounts to an average of roughly $100 per student.
The books would be provided to students at the start of the new school year, but students will have to return all books, except for the workbooks, once the school year ends.