WASHINGTON, USA — For hotel manager Ruth Stevens, finding sufficiently skilled school leavers in her native St Vincent and the Grenadines is problematic. The disconnect between the skills they have learnt in school and the job-market is just too wide.
“When we have students that come out of the colleges, and we hire them to perform certain tasks, we realize that we will have to give them some form of support in terms of skills and job readiness,” Stevens explained.
And, she is far from alone. It’s a challenge employers across the Caribbean find repeated year on year. This is just one of the findings from a new report, ‘Quality education counts for skills and growth’ published by the World Bank.
Quantity rather than quality
In recent years, governments across the Caribbean have invested heavily in increasing both primary and secondary enrolment rates. And many countries in the region now enjoy universal coverage for both schooling levels. However, despite spending nearly 11 years in education, school leavers within the Caribbean often struggle to find formal employment.
Why? Here the report offers some suggestions, highlighting four key areas where system-wide changes are needed:
• Early childhood education is essential to a child’s development as it builds the foundation for primary schooling. But, unlike primary and secondary education, as yet there has been no national push for pre-school education. This has resulted in huge variations to education services and often meaning children from rural areas or lower income families miss out.
And these families were high up in the minds for delegates from the Caribbean Growth Forum, who met in Nassau in June.
“Most of our islands here do not have national policies on early childhood development. There’s no leadership, no investment, no financing being placed there. It must become a national issue,” proposed one delegate passionately.
• Currently, fewer than 15% of school leavers in the OECS move on to further education. In order to improve productivity and competitiveness in the Caribbean, high level skills are needed. Consequently boosting tertiary education attendance is key.
• Attracting qualified teachers is a “chronic challenge” for the Caribbean, and is particularly pronounced within the core subjects – English, Maths and Science. With such a predominance of unqualified teachers, pass rates for these subjects in particular have suffered. In 2009, fewer than 50% of students region-wide passed CSEC (Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate) exams in English and Maths.
• Poor accountability: With a highly centralized system, there is little decision-making authority within the schools themselves. International studies have shown that giving schools the ability to make certain decisions themselves is closely linked to education quality.
How to prepare students for the future?
Closing the digital skills gap will be key if graduates are to flourish in the quickly evolving Caribbean labor market. As traditional trades and sources of employment disappear, twenty-first century technology is taking their place, but employers regularly complain that school leavers do not have the appropriate skills for a digital workplace.
For Bernadette Lewis from the Caribbean Telecommunications Union, it’s vital that the region’s youth are sufficiently supported to realize the potential of information and communication technologies (ICTs).
“It calls for a certain amount of education and awareness,” she explains. “We have seen tremendous talent in the area of young people, making innovative use of ICTs […] but there’s little support.”
Noting that critical soft skills such as ICT are best taught within a formal education setting, the report highlights a need for them to be maintained within the private sector. Learning is a life-long activity, and as such, both public and private sector involvement is needed to support learners throughout their career.
What’s more, with the private sector who are most attuned to the changing skills needed for work-place success, the report also promotes employer involvement in curriculum discussions. Such a more would not only ensure students learn key career skills, but foster partnerships to improve job chances once students graduate.
But before any of that can begin, the report highlights a stark need for data collection. While it’s known that skill gaps exist, currently there is not sufficient data to inform policy makers or support efforts to enhance the region’s education system.
Education and the economy
The quality and relevance of education is paramount to achieving economic growth. In fact, national test scores even have a bearing on gross domestic product (GDP), with a ‘single standard deviation difference in test scores between countries’ equating to around 2 percentage points in annual long-term GDP growth.
Today, unemployment rates for 15-19 year olds in the Caribbean are between two and four times the adult average. School leavers struggle to find formal employment because their education doesn’t sufficiently prepare them for the job market and employers are then left to train up those who they do hire.
Systemic changes with the education sector are therefore needed if learners in the Caribbean are to be given the opportunity to realize their potential.