The national curriculum
June 3, 1999
The secondary school system in this country is in the process of having a national curriculum in the basic subjects foisted upon it. That curriculum, covering the first three years of post-primary education, is already in operation in the pilot schools identified under the Secondary Schools Reform Programme (SSRP) as well as a few others, and will eventually be extended to encompass all state schools. This blanket uniformity is justified, so proponents of the scheme argue, in order to raise educational standards, particularly in the Community High Schools (CHS) and Primary Tops. It means that every pupil, irrespective of ability, will be following the same syllabus, and will eventually be subject to the same nation-wide tests.
A national curriculum has been in operation in England now for eleven years, and yet it is generally acknowledged that standards in many schools there remain unacceptably low. In an attempt to achieve better results, the authorities have introduced various other reforms as well, such as the revamping of the inspectorate, national testing and national league tables, the latter of which reintroduced an element of competition to the system, at least between schools. All of this notwithstanding, a disillusioned middle class has increasingly been withdrawing its children from the state system, and sending them to private schools (paradoxically called public schools in England).
This does not mean, of course, that there is no case at all for a centrally-driven curriculum in Guyana, where there has been an almost total collapse of educational standards and where the corps of experienced teachers has declined dramatically. It is almost certain that in many schools, particularly at the CHS or Primary Tops level, there is insufficient expertise available to put together a coherent syllabus in any given subject at the present time, and a national curriculum, therefore, would be essential to raising their standards. However, one would hope that the powers that be do not have it in mind to impose too great a rigidity on all our schools.
In our case, the imposition of the national curriculum appears to go hand in hand with the abolition of streaming - and this should be a matter for concern. There is enough evidence from other societies to indicate that gifted children have different educational requirements from their average counterparts. A national curriculum sets minimum educational standards which are achievable by the mass of students, but will not stretch those with special ability. One hopes that the Ministry of Education will continue to allow the traditional senior secondary schools with their long scholastic traditions to function as they have always done, catering to the more intellectually gifted and being allowed a certain flexibility in curriculum matters.
For that matter, one hopes too that the leaden hand of central direction will not stymie the very few creative, qualified teachers we have remaining in other schools as well; a talented, imaginative teacher should be allowed some room for manoeuvre provided that his or her students perform creditably on the national tests. In general, individual schools (and at this stage there may not be very many of them) should in principle be allowed to propose their own innovations to the curriculum to make it more appropriate to their needs. The case of the Amerindian schools comes particularly to mind, since they operate in a dual culture situation.
While no one has a quarrel about raising standards in the secondary school system, there should be some hesitation about the imposition of an unrelieved uniformity throughout. Private schools have now returned to Guyana, and it would be unfortunate if the state schools came to cater only for the more disadvantaged in the society, while the better off as a group paid for their education outside that system. Traditionally, the Ministry of Education has shown little appetite for exchanging ideas with the public; it is about time it began a dialogue with teachers and interested parents - particularly in the senior secondary schools - on the changes it proposes.
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