The new Constitution and private schools

Stabroek News
April 30, 1999

A group of local Catholics, in consultation with the Catholic hierarchy, has made a submission to the Constitutional Reform Commission requesting the inclusion in the new constitution of a provision giving parents the right to choose the type of education their children should receive. They have also recommended that Article 11.2 in Guyana's 1966 constitution, which was omitted from that of 1980, be re-instated. It said: "Every religious community shall be entitled, at its own expense, to establish and maintain places of education which it wholly maintains." In addition, the Catholic representatives have proposed that a religious body should have the right to teach religion in such places of education, and that religious schools should have the right to receive assistance from the state.

Education, of course, can be a powerful tool for propaganda, and it was the experience of Hitler and his abuse of the school curriculum for indoctrination purposes which persuaded the framers of the post-war German constitution to include a clause allowing parents to choose private education for their children. We have never had such an extreme experience here, although under President Burnham the professionalism of teachers was undermined, marching and mass games were imposed and there was some tinkering with portions of the syllabus.

Our own historical experience, and the new democratic trend are possibly sufficient to persuade most Guyanese of the need to move away from a totally monolithic approach to education. As it is the Secondary Schools Reform Project will impose a standardized curriculum on all state secondary schools. There will shortly be very little flexibility within the system to cater for geographical location or cultural variety or even for very gifted children; the same fare will be on offer in Santa Rosa as in Charlestown Government.

While it is important, as the Catholics have proposed, that parents be accorded the right to choose the type of education they want for their children, that will be an empty right if nothing but a state education is on offer. The other side of the coin, therefore, is to guarantee a right for private schools to operate, subject to certain conditions. Where this is concerned, the Catholic recommendations have too narrow a compass, since they are confined to the religious communities mentioned in the 1966 constitution. That clause needs to be expanded to cover private education in general, under which religious schools will be subsumed.

Religious organizations, will, however, have a special interest in securing the right to teach religion in their educational institutions, and as indicated above the Catholics have indeed made such a request. In the constitutions of Jamaica and Barbados the right is framed in a negative way, viz: "No religious community shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for persons of that community in the course of any education provided by that community...," and this formulation is perhaps something which the commissioners could consider.

The Catholics, as noted already, have also requested the inclusion of a clause recognizing the right of religious schools to receive assistance from the state. However, this cannot be classified as a right in the same sense as the others and should not be included in the new constitution. It may be that religious educational institutions will negotiate some form of subvention or a dual control arrangement with the state in the future; however, that would be a practical option for both sides not precluded by anything in the constitution. Religious bodies simply cannot expect that state assistance should be an absolute entitlement.

There will, of course, be some concern in the society at large that private schools meet minimum standards, etc. However, the rules under which they operate, and the right of parents to withdraw their children from religious instruction classes and the like, can, as at present, be dealt with by ordinary legislation dealing specifically with education.

While private schools - including one Catholic institution - have made a cautious reappearance in this country, given the terms of the 1980 Constitution they exist effectively at the whim of the Minister of Education. We need a constitutional guarantee that some time down the road a future government will not wave its wand and make private education disappear again.