For Belizean children the month of September is met with great anticipation as it ushers in a new school year. The customs of back to school play out as children get measured up for new uniforms, preview new textbooks and other stationeries and prepare for new learning experiences. Children are excited as they prepare to reunite with old classmates as well as meet new friends. Unfortunately, many children across the world will never know this experience. The right to go to school and to have access to an education is still not universal in many places. As a part of the National Committee for Families and Children’s (NCFC) public awareness efforts, this article will expand on Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) -the Right to an Education. There is certainly a critical role for parents and communities to play in supporting the education of children, however, this article, which is the first of a two part series, will expand our understanding of the responsibilities of the State as signatory to the CRC and highlight the practical ways in which government endeavours to make Education accessible to all Belizean children. “Rights” are things every child should have or be able to do in order to develop to their fullest potential. These rights are all interconnected and of equal importance. All children should have access to a good quality education as this is a critical component in their development and survival. Education unlocks opportunities that can break the cycle of poverty by affording children the means and tools to explore and capitalize on their individual potential. Education also equips children, who eventually enter the labour force, with the requisite skills to increase the nation’s productive capacity. Therefore, national development is directly linked to the success rate of the Education System. The Right to an Education is an important right for any nation state to comply with because of the socio-economic benefits to our children and country in the long term.
Equal Opportunity for whom?
Nation states have a responsibility to ensure that the right to an education is provided to all on the basis of equal opportunity and in a progressive manner to afford all children access to the benefits of a good education.
Although this tenet is what all nation states aspire to provide for all its children, reality, most often than not, paints a distinctly different picture. Developing countries such as Belize often have to juggle limited resources to meet the needs of its people. Simply put, the Government’s budget may not be sufficient to provide the broad range access the Convention aspires for. This lack of resources is one of the major barriers to providing equal opportunity education. The issue of poverty and its far-reaching tentacles is often a contributing factor for children being withheld or withdrawn from educational opportunities. This dictates that there are naturally vulnerable groups of children who require special measures to realize this right. These include girls who are often forced to lead domestic lives that lead to poor scholastic outcomes; and boys who leave school and are lured to the streets to lead alternative lifestyles in order to survive. It also includes rural children who may face discrepancies between the rural and urban based education systems such as the challenges of transportation for children in remote villages and the lack of some basic infrastructure in their communities, such as electricity and water supply, which hinder children from fully focusing on their education. It includes children with disabilities, who require additional support to access the education system, and other specific groups of children who may be discriminated against such as orphans and children with illegal status.
Equal opportunity education also calls into question those barriers that limit any person or group of persons to education of an inferior standard. In general equal opportunity requires that the principle of non-discrimination guides education policies and practises. Special provisions must be made for those who may encounter greater challenges in accessing education and safeguards must be in place to ensure the quality of the education they access. So what does this mean for Belize?
Education in Belize
In an effort to ensure its commitment as a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the state has a responsibility to attack the barriers that impede children from accessing and exercising their right to an education. As such, the Government of Belize continues to progressively fulfil its obligation to Belizean children by implementing various programmes and initiatives which aim to provide a social safety net for families and address issues of poverty and economic empowerment which directly impacts the family’s ability to care for its children. The Government of Belize strives to allocate a substantial amount of its budget towards education and an increasing amount in human development.
Education is free at the primary level and financial assistance is offered to secondary school students through the High School Subsidy Program and BOOST, which are offered to families with school aged children. Vocational education opportunities have increased through the programs such as ITVET and the Youth Apprenticeship Program that target students with an aptitude for technical and vocational training. The Ministry of Education has also outlawed corporal punishment in primary schools and embarked on supporting teachers with positive discipline techniques to be used for classroom management. Although the amount has decreased due to financial constraints, University students also continue to receive educational grants to subsidize the cost of tuition and fees.
Children not only have a right to access education, but the Government of Belize must also ensure that its children receive good quality education. As such, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, through the Quality Assurance Department, is continuously working to strengthen the quality, relevance and scope of education in Belize. With the support of UNICEF the Quality Child Friendly Schools Initiative is on-going and has helped schools to become more proactive in focusing on children as the main beneficiaries of education and in improving their management.
While the initiatives above highlight what the Government of Belize has been doing to strengthen access and opportunity to and the quality of education, Belize still has a long way to go to ensure that all Belizean children exercise their right to a good quality education. Countries like Belize, who are signatories to the CRC and who strive to comply with the CRC recognize that even though there are resource constraints the government must aspire for progressive provision “to the maximum extent of the available resources”. Simply put, this means that provisions will be put in place to gradually increase the access to education based on the resource available. In order to be incompliance with the CRC in realizing the right to education for all children, Governments must take steps to:
- Make primary education compulsory and available, free to all
- Encourage the development of different forms of secondary education including general and vocational education
- Provide financial assistance in cases of need
- Make higher education accessible on the basis on capacity
- Take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and a reduction in dropout rates
- Ensure school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child’s human dignity
Governments have a responsibility to prioritize the needs of children, making them paramount to all. They must understand that investing in the education of its children and attacking the barriers that impede access and quality is more than just an obligation under the CRC. It is an investment in human development which must be progressively sustained because itultimatelystrengthens the foundation and fabric of the society. The Government of Belize has embraced this philosophy and continues to improve the delivery and quality of Education to all children. While it is customary to think of children as “future leaders” their preparation requires positive actions in the present. As children prepare to resume their studies, parents and communities are therefore challenged to now explore the ways they can contribute and offer additional support to children and increase the likelihood of their successes.