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Twenty million dollar education loan motion debated in Senate

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Posted: Friday, December 6, 2019. 11:58 am CST.

By Aaron Humes: The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) loan for US$10 million for the second Education Quality Improvement Program (EQIP II), intended to fund the construction of a laboratory in Belize City for the teaching of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics and expand teacher training at primary and secondary level, has been introduced in the Senate.

The bank will disburse the loan over five years from the date of signature of the loan contract and repaid over 25 years less a five and a half year grace period.

President of the Belize National Teachers’ Union (BNTU) and Senator for Trade Unions and Civil Society, Elena Smith, complained that not enough information was made available on the project. She noted though that none in the education corps would complain about increased training and provision of a new space for teaching of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, collectively known as STEAM.

As explained by Minister Patrick Faber on Wednesday, “A major portion of the loan is going to be used to build a state of the art steam laboratory. It’s going to be located in Belize City and it is going to cater for the entire nation, in terms of helping us in advancing steam education in this country. We are getting experts; in fact, our people are already training with MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in Boston.

They were in country to engage with us so that when I tell you this is going to be at another level, it is really going to be there.” Opposition Senator and educator Dr. Louis Zabaneh stated that in researching for this debate, he could find no report on the performance of the first EQIP program, introduced in 2014 and funded to a similar amount by the IDB.

But, he cited the IDB’s report in preparation for the first EQIP program that identified high repetition and low graduation rates, as well as lack of education philosophy and quality standards, low partnerships with schools and so on. “It is not enough have a certain number of teachers trained; that seemed to be the explanation from the Minister of Education…the impact of teachers…is what matters,” Zabaneh said.

 He added that information is needed to track not only those who leave primary school early, but those who advance to secondary school, 50% of whom drop out and land on the streets. Net enrollment in Belize is close to 25 percent, Zabaneh said citing United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) figures. He called for prioritizing use of funds, stating that the push for infrastructure has come at the expense of education, which nonetheless is still among the largest slices of the national budget at roughly 26 percent – though much of it goes to teacher salaries. In the House, Opposition Leader John Briceño had questioned, “here we are going another project where again consultants are going to come in and highly paid, but at the end of the day what are the actual tangible results that our students are going to be getting from spending another 20 million dollars on another project.”

Others such as Rt. Hon. Said Musa and Oscar Requeña – one a former Minister of Education, the other a school principal – questioned whether the improved training will lead, for instance, to better results on standardized tests such as the Primary School Examination (PSE) taken in Standard Six, a point repeated by Zabaneh in today’s debate. Dr. Zabaneh, former president of Galen University, suggested that the curriculum is “overloaded”, that studying 10 to 12 subjects at primary level has contributed to physical and mental stress for students and teachers, the former to understand what they have learned and the latter to deliver it. Business Senator Mark Lizarraga pointed out that there is a disconnect in the equality of gender in education in favor of girls over boys – “the boys are being left behind,” he asserted.

He added that with the results of the first exercise, it would be easier to see where the system has moved, and that the name of the game is “bang for our buck.”

 The Prime Minister had conceded that the system isn’t perfect, but these kinds of initiatives make it better: “It is a constant battle. It is a constant struggle and every time there is a signature program such as this one can in fact be pioneered by the government of Belize I believe that is a time for celebration.” And both Zabaneh and Smith commended the inclusion of funds for evaluation of the project.

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