ST. LUCIA’S declining fertility rate is having a stark impact on the entire education sector; with there no longer being enough school age children to fully occupy an aging and increasingly decrepit education infrastructure, which is at the same time becoming more and more expensive to maintain.
According to Allison Jean, Permanent Secretary (PS) in the Ministry of Education, Innovation, Gender Relations and Sustainable Development, these conditions mean that school mergers happening across the island are a necessity, and St. Lucians should expect more of them to come.
“Mergers of the schools, is a response to the declining population but it’s also in response to the deteriorating conditions at some of the [school] plants.” Jean said in an exclusive interview with the VOICE Newspaper.
Bringing up a presentation she made to the Prime Minister, she said it demonstrated that despite the “lower populations at the schools,” the “recurring costs actually remain the same or increase because we still have to maintain the whole school plant.”
Expounding on her point, the PS stated “You cannot say that you’re only maintaining one side of the school plant. You still have to provide teachers, and if two children come to Grade 1, and three children come to Grade 2, you must have a Grade 1 and a Grade 2 class.
“Does that make any sense in an era when you have scarce resources?” she asked rhetorically.
St. Lucia’s fertility rate was 1.87 as of 2015 per World Bank statistics, a drastic drop of just over five points from 1960, when the fertility rate was practically 7. (6.97)
Jean said that St. Lucians must come out of the “traditional mindset”, where they believe that the country must not cut back on school numbers, even in the face of declining enrolment.
“We have to come out [of] the mindset that we must be traditional; [that] we have to maintain the traditional things.” Jean pointed out.
Using a hypothetical circumstance to explain her point, she said: “because we have over a hundred schools on the island now, if the population declines and you have 5% of the student population going to school, will we keep all the 100 plus schools?”
The PS then pointed out that the number of students writing the Common Entrance Exam has dropped drastically: “The learner population is dwindling. We’ve been shown statistics where in 2005 , I believe, we had over 5,000 students writing the Common Entrance Examination. In 2017 we have about 2000.”
This fact was pointed out in a VOICE newspaper article entitled: ‘The USE Conundrum’, where it was demonstrated that the number of students writing Common Entrance today, is smaller than the number who passed the exam in the era preceding Universal Secondary Education.
The Permanent Secretary also spoke about the prospective merger of Mon Repos and Patience combined, perhaps the most high profile case of school mergers on island today.
She said that due to the major needs of the infrastructure at Mon Repos, when one looks at the enrolment numbers of the two schools and their close proximity, a merger is more than feasible.
“When you look at the population of Mon Repos and Patience together, they can fit nicely into Patience. Patience is a stone’s throw away from Mon Repos. We can provide transportation to students who are living in the vicinity of Mon Repos to take them to Patience and back.” Jean explained.
She also pointed out that the Ministry is “contemplating looking at other schools” in order to merge them. She mentioned the Anse La Raye Infant and Primary Schools, as possible candidates for a merger, similar to the one done with the Choiseul Infant and Primary Schools some years ago.
The merger of the John Odlum and George Charles Schools also came up during the interview. Jean explained that that merger didn’t only come about due to dwindling enrolment numbers.
“That [merger] was not only because of the declining population. That was to deal with [failing infrastructure].”
She then explained that with the relative newness of the John Odlum school building, combined with the infrastructural problems at George Charles, it made sense to merge the schools and bring the George Charles students, into the John Odlum school.
“You have a new infrastructure, it’s better if you bring the students in to the newer infrastructure.” Jean stated.