“Lack of education is as serious as lack of food; the illiterate person is a starved spirit”

(Pope Paul VI, Populorum

Progressio, n35, 1967).

We have a duty of care to ensure that our citizens are literate so that they can participate effectively in society. We need up-to-date statistics on the number of illiterate persons/“starved spirits” in T&T. Literacy is a fundamental human right. Illiteracy is an obstacle to development. It adversely impacts on an individual’s life in so many ways, eg health, employment, welfare, financial status. As UNESCO states, “Literacy empowers and nurtures inclusive societies and contributes to the fair implementation of human rights.”

Tuesday September 8, is International Literacy Day. The theme this year focuses on “Literacy teaching and learning in the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.” The focus is “especially on the role of educators and changing pedagogies. The theme highlights literacy learning in a lifelong learning perspective, and therefore, mainly focuses on youth and adults.

“The recent COVID-19 crisis has been a stark reminder of the existing gap between policy discourse and reality: a gap that already existed in the pre-COVID-19 era and negatively affects the learning of youth and adults, who have no or low literacy skills, and therefore, tend to face multiple disadvantages. During COVID-19, in many countries, adult literacy programmes were absent in the initial education response plans, so most adult literacy programmes that did exist were suspended, with just a few courses continuing virtually, through TV and radio, or in open air spaces.

“What is the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on youth and adult literacy educators and teaching and learning? What are the lessons learnt? How can we effectively position youth and adult literacy learning in global and national responses and in strategies for the recovery and resilience-building phase?” (UN)

Recently our prime minister promised a “radical reform” of the country’s education system. Change will only come if everyone is on board – parents, educators, and the wider community. Radical reform must include a revised, shared vision of the kind of knowledge, skills and abilities a T&T citizen needs to survive in this fast-paced, technologically driven 21st Century. If education is people-centred, then what would radical reform mean for the concept of integral human development? And how would we address our aging/inadequate infrastructure, our poverty stricken sections of society, and our educators who would need training and relevant materials, to ensure that what we put on paper, can be successfully implemented?

On the night before Independence Day, I sat on my porch to experience the thunder, lightning and relentless rain. I was in reflective mood after the virtual National Symposium that Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, Dean, Faculty of Law, UWI STA, and the Commission which I Chair, CCSJ, had held that day —entitled: A time for healing —Understanding and Reconciling Race Relations in Trinidad and Tobago. As the heavens “opened”, I wondered whether God was sending a message to us in T&T that it is time to stop the destructive race-baiting, eradicate racism, and get on with the task of nation-building.

Each one of us in this blessed country is unique; made in God’s image and likeness; with talents and gifts that are just waiting to be realised. Racism installs blinkers on our eyes, preventing us from seeing the innate potential of each person. I know from my many years as an educator in the UK, struggling to get teachers, principals etc to meet the educational and other needs of black children, that the evil of the various forms of racism can have a devastating effect on the perpetrator, those on the receiving end, and on society at large.

Let’s “reflect on and discuss how innovative and effective pedagogies and teaching methodologies can be used in youth and adult literacy programmes to face the pandemic and beyond” and “analyse the role of educators, as well as formulate effective policies, systems, governance and measures that can support educators and learning.”

Today “773 million adults and young people lack basic literacy skills; 617 million children and adolescents are not achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics; During the initial phase of the pandemic, schools were closed disrupting the education of 62.3 per cent of the world’s student population of 1.09 billion; Adult literacy and education were absent in initial education response plans, therefore many youth and adults with no or low literacy skills have had limited access to life-saving information” (UN).

Bring on the “radical reform”!