Minister, union to pursue house lots for teachers

By Miranda La Rose
Stabroek News
September 30, 2001

Education Minister Dr Henry Jeffrey has said that if the Guyana Teachers Union presented him with the names of teachers who were in need of house lots, he would pursue the issue of ensuring housing for teachers.

At a meeting last Friday at the Georgetown Club between the minister and the headteachers of primary and secondary schools in the city, the heads took the opportunity to give the minister an idea of how their schools function and some of the required support mechanisms.

Training and retraining to retain teachers in the local education system, the construction of complete school complexes to meet the needs of students at nursery, primary and secondary schools and vesting headteachers with authority to hire ancillary staff were among ideas floated at the meeting.

Jeffrey also undertook to give some attention to the David Rose School for the Handicapped with the aim of refurbishing the facilities found there.

Head of the David Rose School, Terrence Fox, stated that in all the discussions about the building and rehabilitation of schools very little or no consideration had been given to the institution. Dr Jeffrey promised to intervene.

The need for upgrading, training and retraining of teachers was stressed considering the view that Guyana was training teachers for export.

It was noted that the salaries government paid teachers could not be compared with those offered by developed countries and even some Caribbean countries such as Barbados and Trinidad.

Jeffrey observed that although Jamaica paid better teacher salaries than Guyana, the teachers there were migrating and at present that country was seeking to import teachers from the Spanish-speaking island of Cuba.

As persons who have opted to stay in Guyana, school administrators said that teachers needed better remuneration packages. While some felt that they could accept non-monetary benefits, the minister interjected to underscore that even such benefits had costs attached.

He pointed out that even in providing house lots there was a cost attached. However, he said that government was willing to provide house lots for teachers and as soon as the GTU could present him with a list of teachers in need of house lots he would forward that to the relevant authority for action.

When asked by a headmaster about duty-free concessions for motor vehicles for headteachers, Jeffrey stated that such a concession would have wider implications and could affect other sectors as well. The minister said that if 1,000 headteachers requested duty-free concessions, then staff at the University of Guyana, nurses, policemen and other professionals would likely seek similar concessions. This, in turn, he said, could affect the country's revenue collection.

On the issue of school placement and overcrowding, the headmaster of Queenstown Community said that his school was built to accommodate 300 students, but he now had 520 on roll. And a similar situation existed at most city schools.

It was thought that more attention should be given to creating school complexes to meet the needs of children at all levels.

Such a complex, it was noted, was needed for the Sophia area, which was currently without any school. Dr Jeffrey said that such a move would be the direction in which the education system would need to go if universal access to secondary education was to be achieved. It was observed that there was a lack of communication between officials of the Education Ministry and school administrators.

In one example, the head of the North Georgetown Primary School said that her school was not informed that a nursery school, the Precious Jewels Nursery, was being built in the school compound. She said that since the construction started the school had been experiencing problems in obtaining water. In addition to reducing the recreational space for children, some compromises would have been made for the safety of children and the safe storage of building materials. If there was dialogue, she said, some of the inconveniences her school was now facing could have been avoided.

Noting that the minister emphasised maintenance of school buildings, the headmistress also called for proper supervision by the ministry of the construction of the new building. The new buildings under the Primary Education Improvement Project have been built with a 30-year life span. The concrete structure of the North Georgetown Primary, which was opened in 1997 and built under the PEIP, she said, was cracking in some places.

Turning to the issue of functional illiteracy, which was listed as one of the key issues to be dealt with by the ministry as it puts into effect its strategic plan for the next five to ten years, headteachers said that there was a dearth of reading material in the schools, including vital text books for some subject areas.

On the matter of hiring ancillary staff raised by headteachers, Jeffrey said that the ministry would have to deal with that question as he felt the schools should hire cleaners and not the Ministry of Education. According to one headteacher, some cleaners are "an authority onto themselves and often hold the schools to ransom."

Schools, Jeffrey said needed to be more accountable. And allowing schools to hire ancillary staff was an idea the ministry was now considering in terms of fostering self-management in schools. Responding to the minister's remarks that headteachers needed to create pressures for themselves in order to achieve, the heads replied that they did not need to create them as they were already working under heavy pressure.

While the discussion between the minister and heads was seen as a frank exchange, some heads told Stabroek News after the meeting that they felt "short-changed," especially since the minister dominated the discussion. They felt he should have listened more and talked less.

Meanwhile, the School Boards Secretariat is to ensure that all schools in the city obtain the guidelines for School Improvement Plan. If they need further assistance, Jeffrey recommended that they consult the Director of the Secondary Schools Reform Project (SSRP), Dr Kenneth Hunte.