Towards the reform of the education system
National Development Strategy
By Kenneth King

Stabroek News
September 9, 2001

What are the causes of the parlous condition of our educational system? Why is there such a high rate of functional illiteracy in our country? Why are so many of our graduates seemingly incapable of contributing to the development of our economy? Why are so many of the relatively few trained and qualified teachers in Guyana leaving their profession or emigrating? The basic reason is, of course, that since the late 1970s the sector has been starved of financial resources. And although there have been significant increases since the mid-1990s in the proportion of Government expenditure devoted to education, our national financial resource base is so meagre, and the education system so tattered, that the absolute amounts of money that are spent on education are woefully inadequate. Moreover, it can be argued that in our current circumstances the increased expenditure on education has been too heavily slanted on the construction and repair of buildings. As a result, not enough financial attention has been paid to teachers' salaries and to the nurturing of an environment that enhances their capacity to impart knowledge.

It cannot be too strongly emphasised that the education sector cannot be considered in a vacuum. If money is the main key to the system's development, it is essential that the government formulate and implement macroeconomic policies that would lead to the growth and diversification of our economy. The point is that the emphasis which successive governments have placed, since 1989, on stabilization, must now be accompanied by more pronounced economic expansionist policy measures. At the same time, our efforts to improve the efficiency of our revenue collection systems must be intensified. If these approaches were successful, total available revenue would be significantly increased. As important, the blatant inequity which is now ingrained in

our tax collection practices, through which captive tax-paying public servants subsidize the education of the children of their richer business and farming colleagues, would be redressed. The NDS has, of course, stressed the importance of formulating policies that would both attract investors and provide fair returns to the country, and of placing greater macroeconomic emphasis on the expansion of the economy. Indeed, it has devised detailed strategies for the attainment of these objectives.

In regard to education specifically, the authors of the NDS state unequivocally that the salaries and other conditions of service of teachers at all levels of the system should be improved. They assert that despite recent increases in the emoluments of primary and secondary school teachers, "conditions of service remain uncompetitive with respect to the packages offered by the local private sector and in overseas markets". They claim that salaries are also unattractive at the University of Guyana and that, as a result, "many teachers are forced to pursue outside opportunities at the expense of their students, and relevant research."

Against the background of an expanding revenue base, the NDS proposes that the "share of the national budget allocated to education (should) be raised continuously ......... to 20 percent by 2005, and (should) be maintained at or about that level for the rest of the decade". It further recommends that "all current barriers to the establishment of private schools (should) be removed". It explains that by permitting private schools to absorb part of the student population, the resources available to the public system would yield higher levels of support per student. It also urges, in its desire to obtain as much income as possible to enhance the quality of education, that the examination subsidies that are now provided to CXC and GCE students be significantly reduced, except for the poorest families, and that the payment of even these reduced subsidies should be based on satisfactory performance by students at the national fourth form test.

The NDS recognizes a duty to provide the basic requirements of primary and secondary education free of charge. It is of the opinion, however, that there should be a strong element of cost-recovery at the University level. Accordingly, it recommends that university fees, as well as the student-loan scheme, should be maintained. Nevertheless, it takes into account the plight of the poverty-stricken in our society and prescribes that scholarships be provided to needy students.

An essential aspect of the funding strategy is the involvement of parents and other members of the community in the development of school-improvement plans, and in the mobilization of financial resources for their implementation. Indeed, it is specifically stated that schools should be encouraged, through incentive systems, to raise supplementary funds without prejudicing their regular allocations from the Ministry of Education.

In summary, the funding strategy for education is designed to enhance the flow of financial resources to the sector through increased government allotments, the establishment of private schools, the recovery of expenses from targeted groups, and the forging of partnerships with parents and other community members in fund-raising activities. This greater inflow of funds would enable a more effective concentration of educational expenditure on needy students and a reduction in the variations in the amount of spending per student which now exists among regions with similar characteristics.

In addition to recommending that a significant proportion of these additional financial resources should be expended on teachers' salaries, the NDS specifically proposes that special allowances be given to those teachers who opt to serve in hinterland areas; that increments be based on performance alone; that incentives be provided for the attainment of appropriate relevant and additional academic and professional qualifications; and that appointments to particular positions and particular grades be given only to those who possess the relevant revised qualifications.

In other words, it should not be assumed that merely being in the profession would automatically qualify a teacher, in the new scheme of things, to increased salaries and better conditions of service. These enhanced benefits must be earned through a combination of qualifications, experience and performance. It follows, therefore, that those persons, particularly at the University level, who possess "inadequate qualifications and experience" for the tasks they now perform, would have to seek other avenues of employment in due course. More specifically, the NDS states that the "University (should) establish and strictly enforce academic and experience requirements that are comparable to those obtained in the Caribbean, for the recruitment and promotion of its academic staff." The NDS is, of course, very much concerned about the high incidence of functional illiteracy in Guyana. As it movingly states "today's unqualified or underqualified teachers are the products of yesterday's classrooms. The nation cannot wait ten years to see improvement in the functional literacy levels of today's six-year olds, while at the same time seeing its stock of functionally illiterate out-of-school youth and adults increase. To break the cycle, emphasis (should) be placed on securing appropriate literacy and numeracy skills throughout the system." It recommends that there should be an attack on illiteracy on several fronts, and that this onslaught should include the testing for literacy skills and the building-in of remedial programmes well in advance of CXC examinations. It stresses that the eradication of functional illiteracy from Guyana should be "the premier priority for the first decade of the 21st century".

To this end, and in order to improve the quality of primary education in general, the NDS stipulates that the percentage of primary teachers who are professionally trained should be increased annually, so that the proportion of trained teachers by the year 2010 would be at least 80 per cent. It also strongly suggests that distance learning methods of in-service training be utilized, as well as the regular programme of the CPCE; that a system for the continuous assessment of student performance be put in place; that teaching guides be made available to all primary school teachers; and that the inspection of schools by qualified and experienced personnel be intensified. Of the greatest importance is the proposal that curricula relevant to the lives of students should be developed: at least one foreign language should be introduced at this level, there should be training in the use of computers; and the development of life skills or problem-solving abilities should be initiated. The NDS also recommends that values, moral underpinnings, and the attributes of good citizenship should be stressed.

For secondary level education, the NDS makes a number of specific suggestions: community high school programmes should be extended by one year, the first year to be used for repeat and remedial work in language, mathematics and science, as a first step to the unification of GSS, CHS, and the secondary departments of primary schools; Spanish should be incorporated into the curriculum; there should be more intensive training on computers; more attention should be devoted to technical and vocational subjects and general life-skills; guidelines should be prepared to help students to develop cognitive learning skills; teachers should be trained to foster analytical skills and critical thinking, and to set questions that test all levels of the cognitive domain; and qualified persons should be engaged to give guidance and care to students and families who require assistance on a range of social and economic matters.

The NDS recommends that new teacher training centres at the regional level should be established, and that greater use be made of existing global distance-training modalities, for the specific purpose of teacher training in Guyana. Although stressing the necessity rapidly to increase the number of trained teachers in the country, it also urges that the entry requirements for teacher training should be tightened. It makes the case for the imparting of knowledge to trainees on the use of modern technology, and on the techniques for teaching foreign languages and conducting remedial classes. It is adamant that teacher training programmes should emphasise the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy, the necessity for teachers to expose their students to the analytical methods to be utilized in problem-solving, the importance of inculcating self-esteem and self-worth in students, and the special approaches that ought to be followed in the presentation of racial, ethnic, religious and other sensitive issues.

The NDS is quite specific that instructions in the teaching of English as a second language should be provided at Teachers' Colleges. Indeed, it insists that success in this subject should be a requirement for certification.

The strategy that has been devised for the development of the University of Guyana is dependent, in large part, on an increase in the finances that are available to it, and the consequent improvement of the quality of its academic staff and the learning materials and physical facilities that are available to its students. In addition, the authors of the NDS are of the opinion that the University does not possess that degree of autonomy that is afforded to most other Universities throughout the world.

Against this background, they have proposed that (i) the university Council should be appointed by a broad-based body which would include the government, the opposition parties, representatives of religious bodies, the private sector, and the trade unions; (ii) a predictable, reliable level of subvention to the University, based on an agreed formula, should be maintained over the long term; and (iii) the University should seek a more viable and cost-effective grouping of courses.

The overarching premise of the strategy is that after UG raises its standards to international levels it would be able to enter into meaningful relationships with UWI, and to establish its own reputation in particular areas. The NDS therefore proposes that the University should develop a long-term plan for the future exchange of students with UWI, and for the establishment of centres of excellence, (for example in forestry, geology and mining, and fisheries) which could draw students from the Caribbean and elsewhere.

The authors of the NDS are fully cognizant of the important role which science and technology would inevitably play in the future development of Guyana. Accordingly, in addition to prescribing that more teachers should be trained in the teaching of these disciplines at all levels, and that a significant proportion of our financial resources should be expended on science and technology laboratories and other facilities, they recommend that a special pre-university science course should be established at the University in order to increase its intake of students for training in these fields.

The NDS also pays special attention to technical and vocational education and training. It recommends the establishment of a tripartite council, comprising representatives of the trades unions, the private sector and the government to provide guidance on the management and administration of this aspect of development. And it suggests that the operations of the whole technical and vocational system be rationalised, particularly to take advantage of GUYSUCO's technical institutes which should be remodelled to provide training to a wider cross-section of students. It urges that special emphasis be given to the running of short courses in rural areas on topics with the potential to enhance the incomes of farmers, and that the geographical coverage of technical and vocational education and training be widened and made more accessible to hinterland communities.

The NDS places great emphasis on the necessity to provide training in entrepreneurship at primary, secondary and tertiary institutions. It devotes a special chapter to information technology.

The NDS provides a comprehensive blue print for the future development of education in Guyana. Because the education system is, in many respects, in crisis, it is incumbent upon the new Minister of Education to take the necessary steps to transform the strategy into implementable programmes and projects. This he should do expeditiously. We cannot hope to develop our country successfully, and to compete effectively in an increasingly globalised world, unless we radically reform our education sector, and produce knowledgeable, analytical and creative citizens.