Listen to the teachers

Stabroek News
March 26, 1999

The Minister of Education is a man of no mean educational background who has made a solid contribution to the historiography of the Caribbean. While his credentials as an academic are beyond dispute, one sometimes cannot avoid the conclusion that common sense is not his forte. Last Sunday we carried a report based on a brief interview with Dr Bisnauth relating to the subject of the emigration of more than 80 graduate teachers to Botswana.

Asked for a reaction to the analysis of the Guyana Teachers Union (GTU) that improved salaries and working conditions were needed to stem the flow of teaching staff from the schools, Minister Bisnauth indicated that he did not want to link migration with incentives and conditions of work, or conclude that people were migrating for economic reasons. The union, he said, would have to make the linkage of leaving the job for economic reasons, "but we can't make that linkage."

In support of his contention, he then cited the case of two husbands who had asked him if there was something which he or the Ministry could have done to prevent their wives from migrating to Botswana. In these instances, he said, finance had not been the problem.

Minister Bisnauth's conclusions are out of kilter with what the GTU thinks, with what the teachers think, with what the ordinary man/woman in the street thinks - in short, with what most people think. In October of last year this newspaper quoted figures from the Digest of Educational Statistics for the school year 1996-97 showing that during the course of that year twenty-four trained graduates and ten untrained graduates had left the system, in addition to thirty-seven trained teachers who were qualified but not graduates and fifteen who were non-graduate qualified, but untrained - a total of eighty-six in all. There had, of course, been a concomitant increase in the number of unqualified, acting teachers in the schools over the same period.

How typical the year 1996-97 is we do not know, but even if we assume that losses are not usually that high in an average year, from the modest total of qualified staff remaining in the schools even two years ago, we can tell that the crisis was a major one long before the system got zapped by the Botswana-bound migrants. If, as the Minister claims, salaries and working conditions are not the single most important factor involved in the continuing migration - although he admitted eventually that these might be one of several factors - then what is? Dr Bisnauth has been in office now for seven years, so why can he not give a definitive answer backed by hard evidence? Two anecdotal tales from husbands left behind by wives on contract to Botswana, could hardly be described as statistically significant.

In addition, the Minister would have to explain why it is that teachers are not migrating for the same economic reasons as those in other professions. No one has ever disputed before that in a general sense the brain drain is fuelled by our low-wage economy.

The problems of the school system will be compounded if the Minister will not face up to reality. First of all, he has to recognize that he is looking at a major crisis in the education sector. Second, he has to apply a little common sense to the problem and acknowledge that the single most important factor behind the loss of qualified teachers is undoubtedly economic.

When he has got that far, he can then start working with the teachers, their union, the Minister of Finance and the Government in general to explore some practical solutions. This is not the time for academic theorizing; he should listen to the teachers.