NOT ONLY has education and training received the biggest slice of the budget for the second year, but the Government has allocated more to education than any other area – including national security – in the last four budgets.
For 2016 to 2019, expenditure for education and training was $9.8 billion, $7.2 billion, $7.2 billion and $7.4 billion, totalling $32 billion. For the same period, national security’s was $10.8 billion, $7.6 billion, $6.2 billion and $6.1 billion, totalling $30.7 billion.
All should welcome this prioritisation. While there is no explicit right to education in our Constitution, few will deny it is something that should be provided to all. Furthermore, education is essential if we are to increase productivity. Spending on education is no mere subsidy; it is an investment.
These are some of the reasons why the Government’s cutbacks in relation to GATE, scholarships, and UTT have been controversial. But a look at the long-term pattern paints a different picture.
According to Education Minister Anthony Garcia, the increased education allocation in 2019 will help his ministry target the provision of facilities for children with special needs, among other things. Such a focus is sorely needed. For instance, when it comes to autistic children, the State’s education facilities are lagging behind international standards.
“In a world where we have access to limitless information on education and special needs, TT has remained stagnant,” Dr Radica Mahase, the founder of Support Autism T&T, said last week. “Even today there are not any educational facilities, private or public, that have really modernised their approaches towards those with special needs.”
Any kind of education system must have measures in place to guarantee access, equity, and quality. Sadly, when it comes to children with special needs in this country, this is not the case. According to the findings of an informal poll of Support Autism’s membership, 61 percent are currently not at school.
And this is a substantial problem. Children with special needs include those with deficits of hearing, vision or mobility; who are educationally disadvantaged; who have significant learning disabilities; who have emotional or behavioural difficulties, and who are gifted and talented. The last comprehensive estimate of children with special needs remains 16.1 per cent of children aged three through 16. But this figure is from 1984. A 2013 UWI analysis suggested the figure could be 37 percent.
We welcome the increased spending, but for it to make a meaningful difference it must trickle down and touch our most vulnerable students. The National Advisory Committee on Education, which was appointed last month, should be engaged and mandated to provide recommendations on the way forward. As Henry David Thoreau said, “Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.”