“It’s not about politics, it’s about education,” said Secretary Sharyn Paio.
Paio was speaking after recently returning from an education workshop in Singapore, which she attended along with Terry Utanga - the Ministry’s human resources management director.
At the workshop, both education officials were given insight into some of the latest learning tools, so it was a little ironic that CI News was asking for her opinion on recent stories that highlighted the opinions of some that education is severely underfunded in the Cook Islands.
“We’re trying to compete with the giants,” she said.
The problem, she said, is that there’s a level required to maintain basic education, and her fears are that the nation is slowly falling below that level.
When working as a teacher at Tereora College in 1994, Paio said the school ran on an operational budget of approximately $20,000.
In a letter this week published in CI News, written by Rarotonga resident Olivia Heather, she challenged the notion that parents need to send their children overseas, citing her own experience which included a number of years at Tereora.
Paio recalls teaching the young Heather – now a Chartered Accountant – and attributes the school’s success during that era to a “high calibre of teaching”.
Roughly two decades later , this is still a priority for the Ministry in ensuring better educational outcomes for the young and opportunities for the country as a whole, she said.
Currently, the school’s roughly $160,000 budget is spent in three areas – electricity, communications and printing, leaving approximately one third for minor maintenance and resourcing, such as textbooks and information technology equipment.
An additional $20,000 is provided courtesy of the New Zealand Aid Programme in support of ICT initiatives, and further cash injections are sometimes available every March should surplus funds from the year’s budget be available.
Roughly 14 per cent of the government’s budget went towards education in 2013, representing 3.4 per cent of the nation’s GDP.
Those figures are well below what is allocated in New Zealand, where 16 per cent of overall spending goes to education, comprising 7.6 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
But comparisons with big countries can be misleading, like comparing apples and oranges.
So Paio has cross checked the data with other Pacific nations – the results: not including the Solomon Islands, the Cook Islands consistently ranks the lowest in the region in terms of spending as a proportion of GDP.
But evaluating spending as a proportion of GDP can also be deceptive, Paio agrees, so she looked at another measure: analysing spending levels per student.
Still, the Cook Islands finds itself on the bottom.
She said currently $3281 is spent per student here, compared to $7000 in NZ. And according to the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States spends over $10,000 per student, while the OECD average is approximately $8,000.
Despite what the funding statistics suggest, Paio said the country is doing well and based on data she’s seen, students here are performing as well, if not better, than their counterparts in New Zealand.
But if the Cook Islands wants to keep up, she said Government needs to make a firm commitment to education.
Based on the numbers, it’s clear that education could use the extra dollars. But if government allocated the money, where would it go?
Paio said the ministry has the programmes and systems in place, but lacks the resources to adequately deploy them. “At the moment we are just treading water.” up-skilling - a priority area - and training for teachers and principals can help remedy that.
Presently, she said the Ministry has committed 80 per cent of their human resources budget to up skilling teachers.
“That’s what we believe is the key to improving student outcomes,” she said. “Buying textbooks isn’t always the solution.”
Offering technology as an example, she said the Ministry’s online learning school ‘Te Kura Uira’ has begun providing students with an e-learning experience, however bandwidth and connectivity issues continue to impact on schools in the outer islands.
“It’s not just about getting more computers, but about opportunities for teachers to integrate ICT into their teaching programmes to enhance student learning,” she said.
Additional priority areas included guidance support and additional counsellors to help students in need.
In terms of non-specific education spending, Paio said students and staff will benefit by having extra money allocated to the Cook Islands Investment Corporation for the maintenance of schools, which have been described by Tereora Principal as a “disgrace”.
Government should be commended for its commitment to build a new school called ‘Apii Nikao’, merging the arson-affected Avatea and Nikao Maori Schools, but resources need to be allocated for a long-term commitment – perhaps a 10-year property plan that dedicates resources for the maintenance and replacement of existing buildings.
“There are a lot of conflicting priorities for the government,” she said, acknowledging the difficult decisions that need to be made every year when drafting a budget.
“But unless we educate and develop the people, you won’t be able to grow the economy you also want to develop.”
Education funding the key to development, says secretary
It’s not an easy decision, but the head of the Ministry of Education says the government needs to decide if education is a priority area for the nation’s development, and if so, it needs to be backed up with resources and a long-term plan.
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The Cook Islands News Team