Paying the teachers

Stabroek News
December 15, 1999

At the Secondary Schools Reform Project (SSRP) annual awards ceremony last Friday, SSRP Director Kenneth Hunte made reference to the poor attendance record at schools by both students and teachers. The average attendance rate for pupils, he said, was 62 per cent, while that for teachers was 81 per cent, or the equivalent of four days a week. What these figures meant in practical terms was that students would only be able to complete a maximum of 50 per cent of their programme of study. He went on to make reference to the underachievement of boys in the secondary school system in recent years, and expressed the view that there was a need for more male teachers not just to support the education of both male and female students, but also to provide male role models for teenage boys.

For his part, Minister Bisnauth was reported as saying that the performance in English continued to be below acceptable levels, and he suspected that the problem had to do with the way in which the subject was being taught in the primary schools. He also alluded to failures in Maths regionwide, which he apparently put down to the inability of young people to deal properly with problem solving. "It is most disgusting that students apply themselves more to subjects that involve matters that are mechanical, rather than the areas of study that involve reasoning and articulation of themselves and solution of problems in a coherent and cohesive way," he was quoted as saying.

Be the analysis as it may, what all of this illustrates is that the problems in the education system are myriad, and there are certainly no quick fix solutions. However, a fair proportion of the difficulties outlined come back to the teachers. If the teachers are not in the classroom for at least ninety-five per cent of the time, there will be a lack of consistency, a lack of continuity, a need for more repetition of lessons than would otherwise be necessary and greater discipline problems. An obvious absence of commitment on the part of a teacher, will soon translate into an absence of application on the part of the students. Furthermore, if a teacher - particularly a form teacher - is not present for forty or even thirty per cent of the time, he or she simply cannot keep track of the pupils. To run an efficient school, there needs to be staff in the building doing their jobs almost all the time; in that respect a school is no different from any other organization.

Not only do teachers have to be physically present, but they also have to be qualified. Minister Bisnauth's problems with how English is taught in the primary schools should perhaps more properly be a question about the competence of some of the teachers in the primary system. If the teachers do not have a proper grasp of English grammar and syntax themselves, then it really doesn't matter too much how they approach the question of teaching language to the pupils. And the sad truth is that some teachers do not have a sufficiently sound grasp of Standard English to be able to teach their charges. Added to this is the problem of the severe shortage of books available to primary age children, partly because the reading culture of this society has disappeared, and partly because of the cost of books. As a consequence, schools try to avoid placing too great a financial burden on parents by demanding they purchase or photocopy a wide range of text books.

What applies to English, applies to Maths. If Mathematics is not soundly taught at the lowest levels in the school system, then it becomes increasingly difficult to make good the deficiency at the higher levels. Education is an incremental process, and a sound grounding is essential to performance at an advanced level.

Few people are in any doubt that the future of the country will be dependent on the level of education of the population. While as stated above the education system has many problems, the biggest single challenge confronting the Government in that department is the teacher crisis. With insufficient qualified staff in the schools, it does not matter too much how much money the administration pours into buildings and the like. The Minister of Education has hitherto displayed a reluctance to acknowledge that the flight of teachers is related to economic factors, but the truth remains that competent staff will not stay if they cannot make a decent living. Furthermore, it is difficult to discipline teachers in a context where they are so grossly underpaid, and where there are no replacements when they are dismissed.

If the Government wants the younger generation to have a future, it must be prepared to sink resources into education, even if it is at the expense of other areas. Among other things, it has to work out a package which can offer teachers salaries, benefits and conditions which are regionally competitive. If the acute shortage of good teachers continues, the Minister of Education and his officers will be making the same speeches that we are hearing now well into the next millennium, and we can forget all about making ourselves competitive in the bad new world of the open market.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples