A COLLEAGUE asked me recently how I felt about the Ministry of Education’s $19,000 cash grant that is now being disbursed to all children in the public school system now. Without missing a beat, I replied that I supported it- if for nothing else than because we are in a pandemic and we had just faced disastrous flooding.
The foregoing disasters, however, are not the only justifications of a cash grant scheme, and more so, a cash grant scheme that aims to benefit the nation’s children. Certainly, $19,000 is not enough to support a child year-round. But, I can appreciate that it is a welcome “boost” in taking care of a child. I visited Mahaicony last week for the distribution of the cash grants, and I listened to many parents speak about their intentions to purchase electronic tablets- something that has not been a priority for them to buy simply because they did not have the disposable income.
As a student I understand that empirical data is needed to analyse the tangible impact of any intervention, but the qualitative data- the real, raw appreciation from people- has been a potent factor in helping me to understand why such an initiative is not a wasteful investment.
I do agree that there are some children and some households who might need the “boost” while others may not; and it is for this reason I can understand why there would be calls for some financial eligibility criteria before receiving this grant. The child of a small-scale farmer, for example, may have a greater need than, say, a big businessman. There are two things I recognise, however: the first is that such an eligibility system could potentially lead to concerns over a discriminatory disbursement and second, the money being distributed is not the government’s money- it is the people’s money, so why shouldn’t everyone benefit from it?
Now, there are also concerns that a cash grant is merely a cosmetic intervention geared at appeasing people for a short period without addressing the real challenges within the sector, such as the disproportionate access to education and educational opportunities. I will be one of the first persons to lament the stark disparities in our education system, especially-but not limited to-the divide between hinterland and coastal schooling. However, I do not believe that the cash grant is the sole mechanism being used to address these challenges.
I have written before about the provision of all textbooks and learning materials to pupils and students across the country, so that the disproportionate impact of the pandemic (and the resulting virtual schooling) could be mitigated. A noticeable effort has been made to create and distribute online content for schoolchildren not only for those who have access to Youtube and the Learning Channel on their televisions, but also through flash drives and CDs. These are just recent examples of interventions crafted specifically for the pandemic-mode education system.
With my appreciation of the cash grant, on one hand, it would be remiss of me if I did not try to also advocate for continued, improved, and/or new interventions to tackle our enduring education disparities and challenges. Beyond the sort of emergency response state into which we have been thrust, longer-term solutions should be crafted for the education system. We must think about how the same high-quality resources (whether it’s trained teachers, Information and Communication Technologies, or just simply, better infrastructure) can be provided to all children, in all schools.
It has been promised that the $19,000 grant will be increased incrementally and that by 2025, each child should be receiving $50,000. I have no qualms with that, so long as we have the financial capacity to do so (and I do believe we will because of oil and its associated benefits, and all of that). While we try to distribute this sum to all children equally (yes, even those in the private schools), however, let us not forget that other efforts must be made to ensure that there is equity among our schoolchildren as well. That means increased access to resources, and opportunities, coupled with interventions geared at preparing the nation’s children for a digital, 21st-century world.
Before I end this column, let me also acknowledge that improving the education system cannot be done in a vacuum. Beyond education, we must also think about tackling the challenges that contribute to inequality across our country. The unequal access to education and educational opportunities during this pandemic is just one illustration that not everyone has the same access to the same resources. I remain optimistic that we can get all of this right.
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