MAKING THE GRADE

Panama 2015 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to HE Marcela Paredes de Vásquez, Minister of Education, on the outcome of the Summit of the Americas, the importance of bilingual education, and Panama's plan to improve higher education.

HE Marcela Paredes de Vásquez
BIOGRAPHY
HE Marcela Paredes de Vásquez holds a Master’s degree in electrical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, as well as postgraduate courses at the Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá (UTP) and Instituto Argentino de Capacitación en la Rama Eléctrica (IACRE) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She has held numerous senior academic positions in universities since 1983, has been published widely in university presses, and is member of key Panamanian and international scientific and educational committees.

Education was one of the top priorities of the recent Summit of the Americas. How would you assess the results achieved during this international event?

Equity and prosperity were the main themes of the summit, and to achieve either, education is vital. A common region-wide education agenda was established at the Summit. The agenda prioritizes the continued further education of professors and teachers, improvements in early-years education (0-3 years old), capacity building in science, math and technology curricula and increasing the quality and inclusiveness of education. It is hoped that these steps will develop talent and build innovation and creativity into our young. In Panama, we are planning to invest in a number of technological colleges, in order to develop the technical skills of engineers and technicians. Our region-wide agenda was presented to the presidents of the respective states, and it was agreed that regional-cooperation through common programs and projects would set the educational milieu in the coming years.

What is your assessment of the current status of the education sector in Panama?

President Juan Carlos Varela has outlined that education should be a government priority. The targets and goals we have are very specific. First, we want to increase the number of preschool aged children in education. We also want to increase the intermediary attendance rate. Currently, more than a third of high school age students leave before completion, unprepared for the work force. In both cases, one of the strategies is to increase the number of schools. We also want to increase the number of in-school hours from 5 to 6, or 7. Another challenge we have is giving our students who finish high school other opportunities aside from university to be successful in life. That is where our plan to invest in technological institutes comes into play.

What is the importance of creating a strong synergy between higher education and the labor market to stimulate entrepreneurial skills among Panamanian students?

Our Ministry and the Ministry of Labor have a number of joint projects in place. For example, the ENADE, which is our institute for informal training. We also collaborate with technological colleges and universities in order to develop strategies to meet the requirements of the labor market. We are looking into models to follow, such as the technical institutes in Singapore. 70% of the curricula will be technical and practical and the other 30% will be personal and life skills. The institutes will teach in both Spanish and English, and prepare students to find a well-paying job. It is hoped that it will be no longer necessary for companies to source talent from abroad, as the Panamanian workforce becomes competent across a wide range of highly skilled roles.

What is the Ministry of Education's strategy to introduce a bilingual education system in Panama?

A complete, bilingual system will take 12 years to be fully set in place in the country. We are planning to change the elementary school curriculum, with some classes in English and others in Spanish. We plan to do this is by preparing our elementary school teachers to become bilingual. We will have a one-year training program in English for our teachers. We expect to start the program by 2016 in private schools where it is hoped that 1,800 teaching staff will register for the program. We also have an immersion program for professors of English. It is important to us to improve English language skills across all levels of education.

What are the key objectives that you would like to achieve by the end of 2015?

Maintaining the infrastructure of our institutions, increasing in-school hours, and investment in technical institutes and the bilingual skills of our students are the government priorities for education in 2015. We hope to see the first technical institute and the bilingual pilot schools up and running by the end of this year.