May 27, 2001
The Guyanese education system, which produced such high literacy rates in the 1960s and early 1970s, took a long time to evolve. The secret of its success from the outset was the application of the same standards as obtained in the metropole, and the constant monitoring of the schools. The latter alerted authorities to deficiencies in the system in need of remedy.
The schools in rural as well as urban areas were regularly inspected, and the reports of the various inspector-generals on their findings are still on record. In 1905, for example, some twenty-nine years after compulsory primary education had been introduced locally, the Inspector General could write in his annual report that age for age, Guyanese pupils could hold their own with their English and Scottish counterparts in Arithmetic,
Dictation and Handwriting. It was not a fanciful comparison; the previous year he had visited schools in the UK to assess the standards that were being applied there.
He appeared particularly satisfied with the improvements in Arithmetic, on which, he said, very much time had been spent, and he expressed himself very pleased that increasing numbers of children were learning to reason. His one reservation about the successes in this subject area related to the untidiness of presentation, which he attributed less to a "want of attention", and more to overcrowding and to "shaky or otherwise unstable
The Inspector-General was less enthusiastic about the children's reading ability, although on the whole he deemed it very fair, and in some of the larger schools, "more than this." Where composition was concerned, however, he noted that there were problems in the rural areas. Whatever his reservations, clearly most children attending school in 1904 learnt to read at a basic level, and the urban areas could also write compositions.
Nowadays, in contrast, pupils are simply not required to demonstrate writing skills in composition, while in the reading department many are functionally illiterate.
It was recognized in the early twentieth century that in order to make education truly compulsory there had to be sanctions on parents who did not send their children to school. The inspectors appear to have demonstrated some energy in this department, and in 1904-05 alone 2,482 cautions were issued to defaulting parents. Many were brought before a magistrate, and if they failed to comply with his order they could be fined or alternatively spend three to seven days in prison. (There were exemptions for Indian parents in specified circumstances).
Times, circumstances and the content of education have changed since 1904, but the basic principles, which enable the primary school system to function effectively, have not. Children still need to attend school on a regular basis, acceptable educational standards still need to be applied, and performance still needs to be regularly monitored. It might be added that teachers need to achieve a minimum level of competence, and both they and
their pupils require access to appropriate reading matter.
Yes children should have exposure to computers, but the installation of these machines in classrooms will mean little if we still can't enforce pupil attendance, children still can't read, and the teachers can't or won't teach.