Getting back to where we were before Ian On Sunday
Stabroek News
March 17, 2002

Related Links: Articles on education
Letters Menu Archival Menu

I sometimes think that people do not really believe how far Guyana has slipped down the educational league in the region. They think that Guyana could not possibly have once had the best educational system and teaching standards in the Caribbean. They think that

decline has been greatly exaggerated. They see headlines in the newspapers about the achievements of a few top students and are gulled into thinking that things are not so bad after all. They probably believe that those who lament the state of education in the country are either maliciously inclined, politically motivated or suffering from the well-known delusion which afflicts older folks leading them to think that golden years were always in the past.

I am not maliciously inclined or politically motivated but I confess I am old enough to have the strange impression that in days gone by all manner of things were better - rum (especially Houston Blue Label) superior, girls prettier, music more full of melody, dancing smoother and more subtly erotic, Kanhai the best batsman the world would ever see, standards higher, service prompter and more courteous, people less disobliging, the railway a godsend and the curse of the minibus not laid upon the land, the rivers cleaner and the great forests more securely green, even the stars sparkled brighter in less polluted skies, and indeed whatever you can think of was better than now - "why, all the ground we trod upon was holy then." I am also objective enough to realise that such perceptions are an older generation's prerogative but not necessarily the whole truth. So when I express the belief that educational standards are nowhere near what they used to be I am perfectly prepared to be contradicted.

Indeed I would be very pleased to have this belief corrected by a specialist in the field. I make absolutely no claim to be an expert in education. I am no more than an ordinary concerned parent, a layman taking an interest in what I consider by far the most important development activity in a poor nation like our own. My research is not deep or thorough or original. I keep expecting to see the fruits of some really definitive study conducted by

the Ministry of Education or the University of Guyana into educational standards past and present which would help in the national debate on what emergency measures should now be prepared and implemented.

In the absence of any such definitive study all one can do is pick up what one can here and there - like current CSEC results in Guyana and the region and the findings of the devastating report not long ago on functional illiteracy among young people in Guyana. There is also David Cox's comparative analysis of English Language and English Literature exam results in seven CARICOM countries in the period 1960 - 1984. This enables one to see what was going on, at least in the teaching of English, an absolutely

vital subject, a couple of generations ago compared with today. Spend a minute, therefore, to cast your eyes on the raw data in the attached tabulation of '0' level/CSEC English Language and English Literature results comparing 1971 and 2001.

The figures speak for themselves. I hardly have the heart to make a comment. The decline in English Language is a national tragedy. And, because I believe that an appreciation of great literature forms the basis of a good education and civilized behaviour, the literature results especially cut me to the quick. In the region as a whole the situation is bad enough, but in Guyana it is worse than that. Thirty years ago 9,000 young Guyanese took the Literature exam and 2,196 passed while in 2001 only 1,218

young Guyanese took the exam and 417 passed. And, in considering passes, please notice that 30 years ago it is clear from the figures that examiners must have been significantly stricter in how they marked.

The figures do not seem credible. They represent an index of the nation's decline into illiteracy and they go a long way to explaining why Guyana's strong tradition of literary excellence has faltered.

In Derek Walcott's collection of poems Sea Grapes there is a poem about the lost promise of freedom entitled "Parades, Parades." I think of what has become of Guyana's education in the last 30 years and I think of the second stanza of that notable poem:

"Why are the eyes of the beautiful
and unmarked children
in the uniforms of the country
bewildered and shy,
why do they widen in terror
of the pride drummed into their minds?
Were they truer, the old songs,
when the law lived far away,
when the veiled Queen, her girth
as comfortable as cushions,
upheld the orb with its stem admonitions?
We wait for the changing of statues,
for the change of parades."

But let me not quite despair. Recently, I was shown a copy of the Ministry of Education's Strategic Plan for Education, 2002-2006. One's first reaction to any new Plan, particularly any new Plan grandly calling itself Strategic, is to scoff at the waste of paper and time, knowing that fine words without enactment simply "decorate the circumambient air" which politicians breathe. But when it comes to the children we cannot afford to give in to disillusion. We must give the Plan a chance. Quite rightly, it

focuses on reducing illiteracy as a top priority. I only ask as a natural extension that this priority should be developed to placing much greater emphasis also on the improved teaching of English, language and literature, in the secondary as well as primary classes. If, in that respect, we get back in 2006 to where we were in 1971 that would be a resounding, even miraculous, achievement.