Students at Ebenezer Thomas Primary School joined the thousands of pupils returning for the 2023-24 school year across the territory this week. Above, a sixth grade language arts class practises critical thinking skills. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

Public school students returned to classrooms on Sept. 11 for a new semester as education officials worked to curtail worries about insufficient infrastructure, mould and a teacher shortage.

“I must express my deep concern regarding the conditions in which our teachers are expected to teach and our students are expected to learn,” Education, Youth Affairs and Sports Minister Sharie de Castro said last week in the House of Assembly. “It is evident that our aging school structure has suffered from inadequate maintenance for quite some time.”

However, Ms. de Castro also said a comprehensive maintenance plan is in the works.

“The ministry has shifted its focus toward resolving the root problems rather than merely addressing the symptoms,” she said in response to questions from opposition member Myron Walwyn during a Sept. 5 HOA meeting. Though maintenance challenges remain — including issues that delayed the return of students to Joyce Samuel Primary School until next Monday — the EYAS Ministry has been working to tackle those issues even as it simultaneously addresses an urgent teacher shortage, she said.

Ms. de Castro also provided updates on supplementary programmes and other education matters as she fielded questions from the opposition.

Teacher shortage

Amid a world-wide teacher shortage, staffing concerns are not limited to this territory, according to the minister.

“It is no secret that teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers due to low salaries, lack of financial incentives, high workload, limited resources, and challenging working conditions,” she said in response to a question from opposition member Stacy “Buddha” Mather. “Compensation to educators has been widely challenged considering teacher workloads and the extent of the responsibilities they’re expected to execute.”

She added that the dissatisfaction caused by these challenges has led many to leave the profession.

Heading into the school year here, 59 new teachers were needed to ensure a full complement, with 24 at the primary level and 35 at the secondary level, according to the minister.

Of those who left, 13 retired, 12 took a leave of absence, 23 resigned, three decided not to renew their contract, and eight were promoted to other positions in education, she said. Though departing teachers cited a variety of reasons for leaving, the most common was insufficient remuneration, she said.

15 more to go

To fill the open positions, Ms. de Castro added that ministry officials have pursued a “robust” interviewing process in recent months.

They managed to hire 44 educators and are still working to fill the remaining 15 spots “expeditiously,” according to the minister.

“The ministry expects to see significant changes upon the completion of the [government’s ongoing] compensation review, which will support our request for additional funding in the upcoming budget cycle,” Ms. de Castro said.

She later added that $300,000 was allocated in the latest budget for a comprehensive review of the education system, and extensive stakeholder conversations have since taken place about the strengths and weaknesses of the current system.

The ministry received a report at the end of last month that is still being considered, she said. It has not yet been made public.

Overseas recruitment

Mr. Mather also inquired about efforts being made to recruit teachers from overseas.

Ms. de Castro replied that her ministry has been reviewing its regional partnerships with universities and teacher training institutes to attract new graduates.

She added that officials are also re-evaluating the processes for onboarding and allowing entry for overseas educators, as well as support programmes for their acclimation to the territory’s education systems and culture.

“The ministry is also working assiduously to increase the teaching pool locally and reduce the dependence on overseas teachers given the global teacher shortages,” she said, adding, “The ministry has also prioritised access to scholarships and grants to support aspiring educators during their training.”

Educators are particularly needed in math, social sciences, art and music for both primary and secondary schools, she said.

Summer programme

When Mr. Mather inquired into the budget for the Department of Youth Affairs and Sports’ summer programme, Ms. de Castro noted that it was recently reinstituted for the first time since 2013. The 2023 budget included $190,000 for organisational costs to support youth development through summer programmes, and $200,000 for after-school programmes, she said.

Through three summer camps this year, a total of about 450 children participated, she said.

She added that the government fully supports non-governmental youth programmes but acknowledged that it did not provide additional financial resources to them.

After-school programmes are set to start on Oct. 2 for academic tutoring, STEAM and grassroots sports, she said.

They will be offered at all public primary and secondary schools on Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada and Jost Van Dyke, but parents must register for enrolment, according to the minister.

Special education

Mr. Walwyn later asked Ms. de Castro about the reason for discontinuing scholarships to the Vanguard School in Florida for differently abled students.

The minister said that all new scholarships were suspended after the 2017 hurricanes, but all students studying overseas at the time — including those at Vanguard — received funding to complete their programmes.

The scholarship programme reopened in 2019, but no scholarships went to Vanguard students, according to Ms. de Castro.

“I have been advised that the reason behind this decision was the high cost associated with funding such scholarships, which, after receiving a discount, amounted to $44,000 per annum per student in 2019,” she said.

She added that investments in training local practitioners proved more economically viable during the recovery. This also allowed more students with different needs to access support in the territory, according to the minister.

No students with special needs have applied to attend secondary school outside the territory since 2018, she added.

If there were an interest, she said, new policies would need to be developed to ensure equitable access for applicants.

“By investing in the rebuilding of the Eslyn Henley Richiez Learning Centre, the goal is to offer comprehensive support and educational opportunities for all students within this community who are differently abled,” Ms. de Castro explaned. “The aim is to create a state-of-the-art facility equipped with the technical expertise required to meet the sensory and educational needs of the students.”

Contractors broke ground on the facility on Aug. 25, and it is scheduled to be completed in 18 months.