Enhancing Education in Belize: Achieving Inclusivity and Quality

The content originally appeared on: News Americas Now

By Lilia Burunciuc

NEWS AMERICAS, WASHINGTON, D.C., Weds. March 6, 2024: Education is a powerful driver of development, the foundation for a country’s future, and one of the best ways to reduce poverty and inequalities, improve health, peace, and stability.

Belize’s vision is that its education system should be inclusive, accessible, of high quality, technologically driven and capable of fostering the development of productive citizens. To drive this vision, the country has made significant investments in this area in recent years. Yet, there remains a pressing need to better understand whether allocated funds have been spent efficiently and whether citizens are getting value for money in the sector. This was, in a nutshell, the purpose of the Public Expenditure Review conducted by the World Bank at the request of the Government of Belize.

The Review presents important findings.  Belize’s spending on education is among the highest in the region, accounting for 20.4 percent of the country’s total public spending in 2019, about 5 percentage points higher than other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, excluding high-income countries. However, quality and access to education remain a challenge. Projections using 2010 census data indicate that both primary and secondary school enrollment rates have declined over the last decade, even before the arrival of COVID-19. While new census data is needed to understand more current insights, many of those enrolled in school are expected to repeat or drop out before graduating.

Those who remain in school are not achieving satisfactory levels of performance. During 2018–2019, almost one-third of primary school examination takers averaged ‘inadequate’ across four subjects: English, Mathematics, Social Science, and Science. Worryingly, this is an increase from 22 percent in the 2013-14 period. In the same period, the percentage of trained teachers rose significantly at all levels: in preschool, from 24.4% to 57.8%; in primary schools, from 56.4% to 86%; and in secondary schools, from 27.0% to 69.5%, with potential implications of increases in salary expenditures.

The Review highlighted that Belize’s education sector could benefit from increased accountability. Currently, the sector measures the performance of its schools minimally, and the results are not publicly available. This leaves teachers, students, parents, and decision-makers in the dark about performance. Moreover, support tailored to weak-performing schools appears to be lacking and there are no consequences for persistently failing schools.

There is also lack of measurement for students’ learning in Belize. The only national assessment available was the Primary School Examination administered in the last primary grade which has been stopped since the school year 2019-2020. Since this examination is Belize-specific, it cannot be compared with other countries.

The Review further noted that certain schools have high repetition rates as a way of managing low-performing students. However, research shows that students who had to repeat grades are more likely to drop out of school compared to other students. Repetition is a costly and marginally effective policy. It is estimated that in 2019, 4.5 percent of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Science and Technology’s total budget was spent on students’ school repetition.

Overall, the Review finds that Belize’s high public sector wage bill limits its fiscal space significantly. As of 2022, the public sector wage bill accounted for 41 percent of total public spending, with the education sector accounting for almost half of that bill:  22.5 percent.

What Can Be Done?

The new competency-based National Curriculum Framework, launched in July 2022 by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Science and Technology with a focus on depth and quality of learning and teaching is an important step toward addressing many of the issues raised by the Review. Its implementation will take sustained, well-coordinated efforts on multiple fronts over a significant period, as our experience has demonstrated in other countries.

To complement these efforts and support the bigger transition of the education sector in Belize, the Public Expenditure Review shares several recommendations. These include:

Promoting a culture of accountability with a focus on quality and continuous improvement. Publicizing performance measures, empowering parents and communities with information, engaging champions from the education sector, society, local community and the church.
Making sure assessments are updated in line with the new competency-based curriculum and considering participation in regional or international assessments so that Belize can compare itself with other countries. Assessments can be done earlier so that the results can be used to help lagging students early in their education.
Establishing policies for supporting and managing weaker performing schools, updating teacher management policies in line with the competency-based curriculum and analysing the relationship between teacher qualifications, training and performance.
Implementing best practices, such as tutoring, module-specific repetition and piloting initiatives to move away from repetition to more effectively supporting lagging students.
Leveraging the power of analysis: monitoring and evaluation for timely assessment of how well programs and initiatives work. Use the results to inform course-correction in a timely manner, as well as learn from the lessons generated both inside and outside of Belize.

When writing this blog, a phrase came to mind: “Prepare a child for the road, not the road for the child.”  It holds tremendous truth. We live in an uncertain world, faced with catastrophic weather events, pandemics, conflicts and economic downturns.  While we cannot protect our children from all aspects of this unstable world, we can equip them with the right knowledge and skills to navigate through such uncertainty.

Having shared the results of the Review last week in Belize, we stand ready to work with the country’s leadership to improve the education outcomes. We also stand with students, teachers, and community leaders who will need to be at the forefront of these efforts. The journey might not be easy, but every step could be worth it, especially when we think of the end result: a child well prepared for the road ahead, and a country well prepared for the future.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Lilia Burunciuc is the World Bank Country Director for the Caribbean. The Belize Public Expenditure Review was launched on February 29. The Report looks at key sectors of public spending in Belize: public sector employment, public investments, climate change, education, health expenditures as well as overall fiscal management.