Letter 3 from Belize: Education

October 11th 2008

My teaching friends at home will read some of this with great interest. Whatever preconceptions you have about what constitutes the minimum conditions for education, dispel them now!

Belize does have a Ministry of Education, but I’m not sure what it does to earn its keep. Most schools in the country are managed by one of the many Churches, and they take full responsibility for overseeing their administration. The primary function of the Ministry is to pay the teachers’ salaries. Most of the other expenses have to be met locally, and that includes providing buildings, furniture and teaching materials. Hence a scene like this, where the British Army has stepped in to provide tents to replace a burned down school in San Isidro.

That’s why the money raised by our Kimbolton Charity Rides has provided a lifeline for some of these remote schools. In fact, I know of at least two new schools that were almost entirely financed by money from the UK. Sadly, that includes San Isidro.

To qualify as a teacher

Amongst the 15 schools administered by the Claretians, three are blessed with a variable percentage of fully qualified staff. All the others, mainly plantation schools, are staffed by teachers who have no more than an Associates Degree (A levels), and many with only a High School education (GCSE).  The Government requires that all teaching staff should achieve about 45 credits per year of CPD workshops, but Fr Dominic has had to send out over 100 letters to staff in his schools who have neglected their duties.

Getting things into perspective

I’ve been trying to do that ever since I arrived here. The problems in UK schools, for example, are minuscule (let me repeat….M-I-N-U-S-C-U-L-E) compared to the stuff that is going on out here. Fr Dominic is desperately trying to do a rescue job on staffing, and bring some measure of discipline amongst the 200 or so staff. Yes, we are talking about the staff here, not the 4000 children in their care! Some of the teachers have secured their jobs through nepotism, favouritism, political affiliation or because they are simply willing to fill an unpopular post, and many of them do not complete the ongoing training required by the government. There are some problems of absenteeism, especially out in the bush, and teachers may take days off for the slightest excuse. If there is a funeral of a teacher’s relative in another school in another district, the staff may simply vote to close the school for the day and all attend the funeral. The question is: do all the staff then attend the funeral?
Out in the bush, they will sometimes cut a chunk off the timetable at the beginning and end of the day, starting late and finishing early.  Out of sight, out of mind!
If you add all the natural crises, like bad weather and destroyed bridges, that can affect attendance at school, you can appreciate that a fully functioning school can be a rarity. The school at San Isidro, which was burned down, has been closed for over four weeks, waiting for their tents. The High School at Georgetown was inaugurated a couple of years ago, but without any buildings to house it. It is still camping out in an assortment of temporary sites, including the village church.
At the PTA in San Pablo (the most distant and remote of our schools) they have a major problem attracting staff and retaining them. The village currently has no running water or electricity. Items on the agenda included:
1. How to harness safe drinking water for the children. Guttering on the school roof to catch rainfall?
2. The importance of wearing ‘slippers’ (flip-flops) at school. Most children go barefoot.
3. Keeping the play area scrub-free, to minimise the chances of snakes and scorpions invading the area.
4. The issue of young teenage girls doing exercise. In the Q’eqchi Maya tradition, an intact hymen is a girl’s most important asset, so parents won’t allow 13-14 year olds to participate in PE classes.
5. The issues of sexual exploitation in a remote community in the bush, and how to handle suspected cases.
And the meeting was conducted in three languages (Q’eqchi, Spanish and English) which means everything was repeated three times/repeated three times/repeated three times!
After the meeting, the leader of the community persuaded me to have a look at their malfunctioning solar panels. These should generate electricity for the water pump, school and the church. And you can imagine the words of wisdom I could offer!! What on earth is a load controller? How do you put a water pump in reverse to de-silt it? If the surge protectors have been knocked out, how do you wire around them to get the system going again?

Teacher safety

At a PTA meeting in the school at Seine Bight, the issue of teacher safety came up. Given that the village police officer was present, I should have expected something unusual. The principal was pleading with parents not to come to school and immediately accost teachers, either verbally or physically. They should seek a meeting with the principal first and talk the matter over. Further to that, he pleaded that parents should never come in brandishing a machete or a firearm! The police officer reminded them that it was an imprisonable offence. He also went on to highlight the importance of obeying the 6pm curfew for young children. Irresponsible parents (mothers gambling and fathers drinking) were letting their children run wild in the village.

So dear friends in the teaching profession, when the drinking fountain is running warm instead of cold, when the greatest hazards in the playground are the unsightly sweet wrappers, when the critical issue with girls’ PE is whether or not they have the right kit, or when a parent threatens you with no more than a wagging finger, remember to count your blessings!


About Frank Burns

Looking for the extraordinary in the commonplace………taking the road less travelled……..striving for the ‘faculty of making happy chance discoveries’ in unremarkable circumstances. Click on the Personal Link below to visit my webpages.

Posted on October 11, 2008, in Letters from Belize and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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