Collapse of school stairs Editorial
Stabroek News
October 15, 2001

On October 4th, the main stairway of the Meten-Meer-Zorg Primary School collapsed under the weight of children leaving at the end of the day. Seven children were injured, some sustaining fractured limbs, while others escaped with cuts, bruises and trauma. Some of the students were left dangling from the rails of the stairs after the collapse and had to be rescued. The toll could have been heavier and education and regional officials should thank their lucky stars that it wasn't.

As is often the case, the speed with which officialdom and carpenters descended upon the school after the accident would have put many a Formula 1 driver to shame. The question everyone wanted answered was why not before October 4th?

Not every rickety school structure verging on breakdown will be detected and no matter how vigilant people are there will be accidents of this type. What is disconcerting in this case is that several attempts were made by parents of children attending the school and other concerned persons to have urgent repairs done to the structure. A PTA delegation had visited the regional chairman to discuss the general condition of the school but was told that there was no money in the budget. Engineers had visited the school to assess the work to be done but nothing happened. Money has to be found now anyway to replace the fallen stairs.

The situation of schools countrywide should be put in perspective. Hundreds of primary schools have been rehabilitated under the IDB's Primary Education Improvement Programme. That others still need to be done is testament to the dilapidated state our schools were left in over the last few decades.

In the case of the Meten-Meer-Zorg Primary, a large responsibility fell on the local government bodies to either finance the repairs themselves or to impress upon central government that it should undertake the work or release emergency funding for it. One of the flagrant weaknesses of our local government system is its inability to survey all tasks within its jurisdiction and to come up with effective plans for tackling priorities. Part of the problem has to do with the absence of fora within communities like Meten-Meer-Zorg for the articulation of the villagers' views. Meten-Meer-Zorg is one of the areas on the Jagdeo/Hoyte depressed communities radar and at the meeting that was held at the very school whose stairs gave way it was clear residents were disaffected with the quality and performance of local government authorities and felt that their needs were not being addressed.

There are many things wrong at the school, in addition to the stairway, which should be urgently addressed. Aside from the roof and the dangerously hanging windows, it is unconscionable that 150 children have had to be penned up in a glorified chicken coop. Apart from the condition of the structure it will do little for their morale or self-esteem to learn in this type of environment no matter their background. What was to have been a temporary arrangement in the chicken pen has stretched into two years. This is totally unacceptable.

RDCs and NDCs have to do a better job of communicating with their residents and determining priorities for expenditure. Where their budgets are overwhelmed they must work harder at securing central government intervention.

The other concern is the issue of preventative maintenance. Having inherited an enormous stock of repaired and new schools, the government and the Ministry of Education will have to budget an adequate amount annually to upkeep these and prevent costly degradation. In the case of Meten-Meer-Zorg, the primary school had not seen a paint brush or hammer and nails for many years. The ministry's maintenance unit has to be beefed up or consideration should be given to outsourcing this task. Material and labour assistance may also be forthcoming from the communities in which these schools are located and this should be tapped into. The fate of the Meten-Meer-Zorg Primary could have been avoided if the authorities were more fully in touch with what was happening on the ground.