Education and the constitution

Stabroek News
July 9, 1999

The week before last the Constitutional Reform Commission (CRC) discussed the question of education and the constitution. The deliberations were held in response to a paper on the subject which had been prepared by one of the CRC's sub-committees.

The paper referred to submissions having been made to the sub-committee concerning the need for the importance of religion in education to be given recognition at a constitutional level, for mandatory religious education, a national prayer and protection for the freedom of religious instruction in schools. In the discussion which followed, according to the Stabroek News report, a case was put forward for enshrining the right to free education at the primary and secondary levels in the constitution, although it must be said that this did not appear to find general favour.

One commissioner suggested that not only should the constitution impose on the state an obligation to treat education as a necessity, but that that obligation should include ensuring that the education delivered was relevant to the increasingly competitive milieu in which Guyana found itself. Such an education system would make compulsory instruction in comparative religion, entrepreneurial skills and co-operation in schools, the commissioner was reported as saying. Another commissioner wanted a constitutional guarantee for bi-lingual education in schools in Amerindian areas.

Exactly how many of the submissions and the views expressed at the CRC meeting, will actually find their way into the commissioners' recommendations is not certain at this stage, however, the trend of the discussion might seem to suggest that in some instances formal rights were being confused with what would normally be the content of ordinary legislation. Constitutions are really frameworks which lay down the rules of the political game, and set forth the fundamental human rights of citizens. A constitution should not be encumbered by that which ordinarily forms the substance of regular laws, let alone the subsidiary legislation which might issue therefrom.

The formal rights of citizens should be to a great extent immutable; that is to say they guarantee to the individual the kind of space within the political universe which will allow him or her to function as a human being with intrinsic dignity. It might be also added, en passant, that they should also be justiciable. While constitutional rights are sometimes amended, and more frequently, subjected to the interpretation of the courts, they should not be subject to constant revision by the legislature.

Content rights, on the other hand, are definitely mutable, and should be the subject, therefore, of normal legislation. Free education is one such example. While no one denies its desirability in an ideal sense, it is a 'right' which is contingent on all kinds of other things, not the least of which is economic conditions. In addition, is it a right to be enjoyed at the primary and secondary level, from nursery to university or nursery and primary, etc?

Curriculum matters are another case in point. Curriculum content should not be the business of constitution framers; quite often such guidelines are not even contained within the main Education Act, but are found in the regulations. They should stay there to be adjusted as changing circumstances require.

As for the submissions which suggested mandatory religious education, etc., that would be to curtail citizens' rights, and would be in conflict with the provisions of the Bill of Rights section of the proposed consitution which one hopes the commissioners are going to include in their report. In our situation, the constitution requires very little to be incorporated on the subject of education, save and except a provision guaranteeing the right to private schools, and the right of indigenous peoples to be instructed in their own languages.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples