The number one priority

Stabroek News
March 21, 1999

The exodus to Botswana recently of a large number of qualified teachers was nothing short of a catastrophe. While the teaching profession has been subject to a process of attrition over the years, the deleterious effects of the loss of skills in the education sector have crept up on us gradually. This time, however, the migration is large-scale and sudden, and secondary education in this country is not likely to recover in a hurry. There are simply no professionals standing by in the wings to take the places of those who have departed. And as if the news were not bad enough, there are now reports in circulation that certain Caribbean territories in addition to two African nations are also seeking to recruit Guyanese teachers for the new school year. It seems that this country has become the recruiting pool for those developing nations on the hunt for teachers, and that once again, we are educating primarily for export.

Interviewed by Channel 28 last week, the Minister of Education looked suitably crestfallen, as well he might, since even he must have doubts that in these 'hard guava' times his colleague in the Ministry of Finance will be sympathetic to any request to reward teachers with the kind of salaries which might induce them to remain. However, the onus is on him to persuade Minister Jagdeo and the Cabinet that substantial salary increases for teachers are not simply important, but an absolute necessity if this country is to survive in the modern world. If there are no teachers of quality in the local schools, he can forget all his fancy programmes for improving the education system, because they simply will not work.

Earlier this month (March 4) Minister Bisnauth spoke to the Chronicle, when he said that his Ministry had been mulling the notion of expanding two current projects, one under the auspices of the British Deparment of International Development and one falling under the Canadian International Development Agency, which were engaged in bolstering Guyana's in-service training for teachers. These two programmes are committed to upgrading unqualified teachers through distance learning, and augmenting the effectiveness of teacher-training and similar institutions. Minister Bisnauth was also reported as saying that the Ministry of Education had been considering the introduction of the UNICEF-sponsored Escuela Nueva in secondary schools, to offset the teacher deficit.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with any of this, it will not compensate for the loss of graduate teachers. It is true that the standards of teachers with poor basic schooling and no advanced education or training whatever can be improved by in-service programmes; however, with some exceptions these educators will not attain the level of the well-educated graduates whom they might be replacing. In addition, the Ministry will be faced with the problem that those teachers who benefit most from in-service exposure, and upgrade themselves significantly, will be syphoned off to Caribbean schools and elsewhere as fast as it can train them.

The Minister has already indicated that negotiations will be conducted with the Guyana Teachers Union to look at the increase in some allowances, as well as the reintroduction of 'master teachers', so that they are encouraged to remain in the classroom, rather than seek supervisory posts.

Nothing wrong with that. Perhaps, however, aside from talks on salary hikes, he needs more wide-ranging discussions with teachers to look at all the problems which they encounter in the system, to see if anything can be done to alleviate their working conditions. As has been suggested before by Dr Perry, among others, there may be avenues which could be explored which do not involve salary increases directly - such as assistance with housing in one form or another, particularly in the more urbanized areas.

Finally, since we have an immediate crisis on our hands, the Ministry should perhaps be looking at temporary stop-gap measures, such as the one suggested by Dr Ian McDonald in private conversation. This would involve an approach to the British, Canadians and Americans for a very large number of graduates to come as volunteers under schemes like the VSO or Peace Corps to fill the vacancies in our secondary schools. While this would have problems of its own and could only be considered at best a short-term panacea, it would at least give the Ministry a breathing space to work out a long-term strategy in consultation with teachers, firstly to retain those qualified educators who still remain in the system, and secondly to create packages which would attract back some of those who have decamped to the Caribbean, in particular.

The equation is simple: no qualified teachers equals no education, and no education equals no development. The true crisis of the nation lies primarily in education; it is about time that the Government woke up to the fact that this should be their number one priority.