The quality of education in Guyana

National Development Strategy
By Kenneth King
Stabroek News
August 26, 2001

It is by now generally acknowledged that, given a country's natural resources, the rate and direction of its development would depend upon the effectiveness of its human capital, and that this in turn would be very strongly influenced by the quality of its educational system. There are four basic levels in Guyana's educational system: nursery, primary, secondary, and post-secondary. In 2000, when the National Development Strategy was published, only about 3 percent of the teachers at the nursery level had been trained; the proportions in the primary and secondary categories were about 55 and 50 percent respectively. Moreover, the number of trained teachers was not equitably distributed throughout the system, but tended to be concentrated in a few schools, and in those geographical regions that are better-endowed with social services. Indeed the ratios of students to trained teachers ranged from 44:1 to 186:1, the proportion of trained teachers to students being the lowest in hinterland districts.

The Government of Guyana, aware of this disproportionality, has in recent years attempted to increase the number of trained teachers in the system. As a consequence, the number of graduates from the Teachers' Training College has risen significantly over the last two or three years. Unfortunately, however, in spite of this, it appears that over the same period there has been a net decrease in the number of trained teachers who actually teach in the country. Many have emigrated, while others have taken up more lucrative positions within Guyana itself.

This lack of qualified teachers at the nursery, primary and secondary levels of education is exacerbated by the general inadequacy of the facilities and teaching materials that are available. Here again the spread of supplies is skewed: there are a few schools with the most modern classrooms, laboratories and equipment, while there are others with classrooms that make both teaching and learning a drudgery, with few or no pieces of equipment, and sometimes without any laboratory facilities whatever. As might be expected, the better-qualified teachers tend to teach in those schools with the best educational facilities, thus compounding the inequities of the system.

Moreover, perhaps not surprisingly, the schools with successful track records are overcrowded, while those with poor records are underpopulated. In addition, there appears to be wide-ranging differences in the interpretation and delivery of the curriculum that is offered at various primary schools throughout the system.

There are other fundamental problems at the secondary level. First, about 50 percent of the nation's eleven year olds are directed into schools which have programmes of shorter duration than is the standard, and teachers who are generally under-qualified and untrained. Second, the persistent shortage of secondary school teachers has created a situation in which half of the secondary school teaching staff are employed on a part-time basis. And third, the core curriculum, in these days of globalisation and informaties, fails to provide students with basic computer literacy and foreign language competence.

It is perhaps logical to assume that in a situation such as I have just described the quality of the education that is imparted to the students must of necessity be low. This assumption is supported by the evidence of the performance of the majority of those who pass through the institutions of the system at these levels. The authors of the NDS have unequivocally stated that in our primary schools there are "rising repetition and drop out rates". They also assert that "a survey of school-leavers and the adult population has revealed high levels of functional illiteracy," and that the rate at that time was just under 50 percent. However, in a recent statement, the Minister of Education claimed that the rate of functional illiteracy in Guyana was now as high as 75 percent. Moreover, reports from both the Public Service and the Private Sector attest to the pervasive absence of basic skills and knowledge in those who have purportedly successfully passed through our educational system, Not only are standards of proficiency low but, perhaps more frightening, those who are now entering the workforce do not seem to appreciate that they operate below acceptable levels of efficiency.

Because of their awareness of the poor quality of the graduates of our primary and secondary schools, the authors of the NDS have proposed that all those who wish to enter the Teachers' Training College should "be required to pass a special college admission test in English and Mathematics" in addition to the normal scholastic requirements; and that the University of Guyana's capacity "to provide remedial teaching prior to enrollment should be strengthened."

All this is not to deny that some students do well at the two final examinations at the secondary level. It cannot be too strongly emphasized, however, that these are the exceptions rather than the norm, and that only a small proportion of those who sit the examinations obtain good results.

This disparity is particularly true in respect of science subjects, in which the high-flyers do exceedingly well and the low achievers very badly. Most of the successes in these disciplines are obtained by students who attend a very narrow range of schools. Those who are not fortunate enough to get into these institutions are badly taught and almost invariably fail.

Furthermore, almost without exception, those who do well at any of the pre-university-level examinations take private lessons, outside the school system, for which they are required to pay. When it is considered that one out of every three persons in Guyana lives below the poverty line, it would be evident that a not insignificant number of our young citizens simply do not have the financial resources that are now a necessity if access to meaningful education is to be had.

In view of the need to improve the quality, relevance, equity, and efficiency of education, work was begun in 1995 on a Secondary School Reform Project. Under this project, twelve pilot schools are being utilised to test certain approaches to education. From all reports, important lessons are being learnt. It is as yet too early, however, to make a definitive judgement as to the replicability of its methodologies and results.

Post-secondary education in our country is provided by technical and vocational education and training institutes; the Cyril Potter College of Education; and the University of Guyana. This level of education is also provided by a few private sector institutions.

A network of technical and vocational education and training institutions offers a wide range of programmes. However, as the NDS states, "technical education in Guyana appears to be delivered haphazardly, and to be without a vision or a grand design. It is poorly financed and managed, the linkages between those who deliver and the private sector which absorbs the graduates are tenuous; and the basic training of the students is often inadequate". Here also, the Private Sector has complained that graduates are frequently unemployable, and that those who they employ are often in dire need of retraining. Indeed, it is evident that the quality of the education and training that are imparted to our young men and women at the technical and vocational level does not generally meet the requirements of employers, and that the curricula are not fully attuned to their needs.

In regard to the training of teachers, the NDS states that the "lack of adequate numbers of suitably qualified applicants has caused the Cyril Potter College of Education to lower their entry requirements ....... The high demand for graduates from this institution has often led to their recruitment to teach at higher levels ...... than those for which they have been trained. Two other major difficulties are the recruiting of suitably experienced lecturers ...... and the inability of the current staff to properly assess the practical aspects of the training." The NDS lists the constraints to the operation of teacher training in Guyana as: unacceptable standards in the quality of staff at the College; a shortage of full-time staff, poor conditions of service, including salaries; inadequate focus on the impact of sensitive issues on the development of children; and a lack of effective co-ordination among the relevant authorities in the preparation of teachers for education in Guyana. There is surely no need for further comment on the quality of this vital aspect of our educational system.

What is the quality of the education that is provided at the University of Guyana (UG)? It cannot be over-emphasised that the quality varies from Faculty to Faculty, and even among the Departments within Faculties. However, the drafters of the "education chapter" of the NDS, were quite unambiguous in their general assessment of the University's performance. UG, they asserted, "is not performing to its full potential because of a number of factors: these include undue interference in its management; many years of inattention to the physical plant; a number of minimally qualified lecturers; a lack of basic equipment; and low salaries."

They went on to state that more important than all this was the fact that "the University has failed to keep pace with the development of technology." They added that "low standards of intake adversely affect the University's performance." Later on in the document they felt it necessary to repeat that among the major reasons for the University's relatively low achievement status was the quality of its teachers and students. They refer specifically to the "inadequate qualifications and experience of a not insignificant number of teachers", and to "a decline in the quality of the first year students entering the university over the last years."

A comparison of the qualifications and experience of the teachers at UG with those of their counterparts at the University of the West Indies, and with comparable universities in Africa, Asia and Latin America would confirm that, in general, UG is not as well-endowed as many of the others are. Moreover, the evidence is quite strong that UG's staff do not publish as many academic papers in reputable journals as do the staff of most other universities. This, of course, may be a reflection both of the quality and the amount of research that is conducted at the University of Guyana.

The general shortage of adequate laboratories and demonstration facilities is also a most serious constraint to the development of education and training at the tertiary level. It is difficult to appreciate, for example, how competent professional forest scientists can be trained in a country in which there are no sustainably managed forests, or in which the University itself does not possess its own forests in which it would be able to demonstrate various silvicultural and forest management systems. Moreover, the dearth of well-run forest industries and, indeed, the absence of chipboard and fibreboard plant must be a serious handicap in the teaching of the whole subject of forest utilization. It would also appear to be most difficult adequately to train medical doctors in a country in which none of the existing hospitals would normally be given the status of a teaching hospital, and in which there is a shortage of specialists with the capacity and experience to teach and demonstrate particular disciplines. These examples of deficiencies at UG can be multiplied several-fold, particularly in the fields of science and technology.

Add to all this, the inadequacies in the numbers of copies of textbooks and other library material, the small amount of computers available to students, the shortages of chemical reagents that reportedly often occur in the laboratories, and the frequently over-crowded classes, and a picture emerges of an institution that simply cannot contribute much, as it is now funded, staffed and serviced, to the social and economic development of our country.

Indeed, there is not much evidence that the University has made any significant contribution, through its research activities, to any particular aspect of development in agriculture, forestry, the utilization and conversion of our raw materials, and the improvement of our manufacturing processes.

It is often argued, when criticisms are leveled at the quality of the products of UG, that if these strictures were valid it would not have been possible for graduates of the University to have performed as well as they have, at the post-graduate level at overseas Universities. There are perhaps two basic explanations for this phenomenon. First, there is little doubt that the best students survive and do very well no matter what the quality of the system in which they were originally trained. And second, many research degrees, particularly in North America, require the taking of courses which are in effect remedial, and tend to redress any imperfections that might have been engendered at the undergraduate level. The important point, however, is that we in Guyana should not be deluded by the successes of the few. We should strive to ensure that all graduates from our university are capable of adequately performing the tasks that are demanded in our society.

It should be evident from all this that our entire educational system is not, in general, producing graduates of the calibre that is required to develop our country. The system should, therefore, be radically reformed. If this is not done expeditiously, our country is in danger of further regression, or of being obliged, even more than it now does, to rely on external financial and technical assistance.

Moreover, if the poor quality of our educational system persists, we may become a nation which unthinkingly accepts low standards of quality and achievement.

Next week, I shall end this series on "education" by outlining the proposals in the NDS for the reform of the educational system of Guyana.