PREPARE TO LEARN

Panama 2015 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Marcela Paredes de Vásquez, Minister of Education of Panama, on creating an education system supportive of industry.

Education was one of the top priorities at 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 olds), 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 youth. 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 shape the educational milieu of the coming years. After the Summit of the Americas, we arranged a follow-up region-wide education conference, the Summit of Prosperity and Education, where we invited the directors and presidents of universities, as well as regional political leaders. Establishing a common research-area and increasing the mobility of professors and students were the main outcomes.

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 are below the Latin American average: the average pre-school attendance rate in Latin American is about 72% and in Panama it is an unjustifiable 66%. We also want to increase the intermediary attendance rate. Currently, more than one-third of high school age students leave before completion, unprepared for the work force. Juvenile delinquency is a persistent problem in Panama, which is an important factor in the high dropout rate. In both cases, one of the strategies is to increase the number of schools. There is much infrastructure that needs to be developed. We also want to increase the number of in-school hours from 5 to 6, or 7. We also want schools to be more attractive to youngsters. We will invest in sports facilities and cultural and musical activities. 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 have started investing in technical institutes. These colleges provide an alternative to university, and teach specific practical skills needed in the workforce. The private sector will contribute to the development of the curriculum. 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 remaining 30% will be personal and life skills. The private sector identified to us some of the key challenges to proficiency in the workforce. These included personal and language skills, in both Spanish and English. 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 probably take 12 years to be fully set in place. We will start with primary and elementary schools. We are planning to change the elementary school curriculum, with some classes delivered 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. They will have four months of intensive English preparation in Panama, then, they will be sent to English speaking countries, mainly the US, but also England, and Canada. There, they will take part in a four-month English immersion program. Lastly, they will have four months of training in the classroom with a tutor in order to practice both their English and scientific skills. 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 a program for professors of English, who will spend eight weeks on the English immersion program in an English-speaking country. The immersion program is tailored to teaching English as a foreign language. It is important for us to improve English language skills across all levels of education. Previously, professors had emphasized grammar, reading and spelling skills, but not speaking. We are hoping that the new programs will aid the development of the English oral communication skills of our students. Communication skills are the most important to have when entering the workforce.

How will you work to make Panama an intellectual destination, attracting students and talent from around the Latin American region?

Panama is the City of Knowledge. It is the hub of international airlines, telecommunications, financial companies, and banking centers; however, higher education has been a challenging aspect of development. Having the capacity to attract international students and faculty is a key objective for us. We have been improving the quality of our higher education system for the past five years. We will continue our efforts, and hope to have a flourishing higher-education sector going forward.

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.