May 4, 2001
The new Minister of Education's declared intention of setting up a national education advisory council is welcome. There have been similar councils before this, although exactly how much influence they exerted on education policy is not certain. The success of this kind of arrangement depends first of all on the quality of the advice rendered, and secondly on the willingness of a minister to listen to that advice and act on it.
The problems of education in this country are not simple, and contrary to popular view there are no simple formulae for fixing them. Many Western nations are engaged in heated debate about their own education delivery process, and some, like the United Kingdom have been in a virtual experimentation mode for two decades and more. The advantage that these countries have over Guyana is that they have reliable statistics to hand as well as quality research on which to base their policy strategies. We, in contrast, cannot even come up with a dependable figure for literacy levels, and for reasons which are only too well known, educational research is somewhat thin on the ground.
The great success story so far is the improvement in the school building stock both under the Primary Education Improvement Project negotiated by the former PNC government, as well as the Secondary Schools Reform Project (SSRP) negotiated by the PPP/C government. New school buildings, however, do not guarantee better education delivery, and from the crude indicators supplied by the CXC results, we are not doing much better now - at least in the core subjects - than we were ten years ago.
Clearly the shortage of qualified and experienced teachers is a recognizable factor accounting in part for the decline in our education system, but there are other factors at work less readily identifiable. By implication the SSRP seems to regard two of these as being competition and grouping children according to ability. The Ministry of Education's new panacea for declining standards, therefore, is the imposition of absolute uniformity, with an absence of streaming in the first three years of the secondary level and the abolition of the Common Entrance exam. Pupils will attend the secondary school in their catchment area.
This follows the example of the uniform comprehensive system with its national curriculum and absence of streaming created in the 1960s and 1970s in the UK. The problem is, however, that even in Britain the system is acknowledged to have failed, and that country is now accelerating the process of dismantling it. Specialist schools, as they are called, were introduced some time ago, and if the proposals in the British Government's recent green paper on education are eventually implemented, then forty-six per cent of all maintained secondary schools would become specialist schools. When Education Secretary David Blunkett was pressed as to whether this was not the reintroduction of selectivity into the system, he replied somewhat disingenuously that it was selection by aptitude rather than ability. The Conservative Leader of the Opposition William Hague was moved to observe that given the educational trends, he believed he would live to see the re-introduction of grammar schools.
Thus while the UK is attempting to introduce greater diversity into its secondary school system, we are attempting to do the opposite by ordaining the introduction of a uniform model from thirty years ago. This does not mean to say that there should not be a national curriculum, but it does mean that it should not be imposed willy nilly on all schools. There must be some arrangements made for more gifted children as well as for those with special talents, and, it might be added, those who are particularly slow learners. There should also be some willingness to compromise with an innovative headteacher, since there is nothing like the wet blanket of bureaucracy to stifle initiative in education as in other areas. In addition, account has to be taken of the special requirements of Amerindians in terms of indigenous languages, etc.
Since we already have 'grammar' schools in the form of the senior secondary schools, it would not make much sense to abolish these. It does not follow from this that there should be rigid selectivity in the system either; what one needs is flexibility since children mature at different rates, and no test is anything like a completely accurate indicator of ability. At least in the urban areas, we should be able to transfer children to schools more suited to their aptitudes at certain stages in their development. One hopes that the new Minister of Education is going to carefully review all the options, before careening along the narrow path the SSRP in its current form has mapped out.
And as for what the major factors are which influence educational performance, UK studies indicate that one of them quite simply is the family environment. In the words of Anthony Smith, President of Magdalen College, Oxford, "Educational deficiency has much more to do with family than with school and begins before the children even reach school." A good start, therefore, he said, "would be to improve their [children's] environment, ensure that their fathers have jobs, reduce the income gap, improve television and cut violence and the supply of drugs." Applied in our situation this means that where education delivery is concerned, tackling poverty is as important as tinkering with the school system.