October 20, 2002
Some years ago in the London Times, a letter appeared referring to a report in the same paper which had stated that the products of Guyanese education were some of Britain's most successful role models. The author of this letter was an Englishwoman, who had received some of her schooling at Bishops' High School (BHS).
She drew attention to the fact that the "ethos" of BHS had been "highly academic," and that its curriculum had been based on that of British public schools. However, what had left the greatest impression on her had been the teachers. "Most were first generation educated," she wrote, "many were Oxbridge graduates. They were women who had few educational advantages in early life. They taught us as though our lives depended upon an assimilation of knowledge, as indeed they did."
She went on to reveal that she herself subsequently became a head teacher in both state and independent schools in Britain, and that she could honestly aver that she had never "come across any school in this country [UK] to compare with the Guyanese model." Perhaps, she suggested, the comparative educationists in the British universities should look more closely at why so many West Indian families were rejecting the UK schools and making enormous sacrifices to send their children to the Caribbean to be educated. "Could it," she asked, "have something to do with Guyana having a literacy rate of 96 per cent?"
As indicated already above, and as everyone will recognize, this was written some years ago. What this former head teacher would say about our education system if she returned to the country nowadays, only goodness knows. While in official statistics we still religiously cite the 96 per cent literacy rate, we all know very well that the true figure is infinitely lower than that.
And while at one time West Indian parents based in Britain might have scrimped and saved to send their children to the Caribbean to be educated, it is difficult to imagine that any of them would have been so ill-informed that they would have sent their offspring to Guyana for schooling for many years now.
And as for all those wonderful teachers whom the former BHS student remembered with such admiration, where are their counterparts now? We have a mere sprinkling of graduate secondary school teachers in the system, while in the primary schools, a significant portion of the educators are not just untrained but lack a sound, basic education. With insufficient qualified staff in the schools, how on earth can we expect any dramatic improvements in educational standards?
Former Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr Lee Kwan Yew, has gone on record as saying that when his government in its early days was considering the fastest route to development, they decided to put all available resources into education above all other sectors. They were not mistaken; Singapore with little land space, a multi-ethnic population and no natural resources, is one of the economic success stories of the world, never mind the Far East.
The Government boasts of its budgetary allocations for education, and in all fairness, those compare not unfavourably with other developing nations. The improvements in the physical infrastructure both under the PNC's Primary Education Improvement Project and the PPP/C's Secondary Schools Reform Project have made for a far more amenable environment for learning. But to repeat the question asked earlier, where are the teachers? Without them, standards will not rise dramatically, no matter how well-appointed the schools.
The Government's answer is an expansion of teacher training programmes. That will help to some degree, but it will surely not solve the problem entirely, since those who are going for training in the first instance will in many cases have an inadequate educational foundation. This is a problem which in the case of most trainees cannot be fully rectified at the adult stage.
If this country manages to achieve some measure of stability again in the not too distant future, then the Government has to exert itself to think of far more radical temporary solutions to the teacher problem. If it is not prepared to do what Lee Kwan Yew did, and pour resources into education, including substantially increasing salaries with a view to attracting back Guyanese teachers in the Caribbean, then it has to explore other possibilities. One of those possibilities is recruiting very large numbers of young graduates primarily from the Guyanese and Caribbean diaspora in North America and Britain, who would be prepared to come and teach in the region from where their parents originated for modest remuneration as a kind of service.
In terms of teaching capacity, the education system is being held together by threads. Some of the few qualified teachers who remain are now taking their skills to the United States, which has been on a major recruitment drive in the region in recent times. No matter how many training college places the Government makes available, they cannot pretend that those skills can be replaced easily from within the country.
The teaching crisis, did not, of course, begin with this administration. However, after ten years in office, it needs to take another look at a problem which more than any other single factor, is thwarting all its best-laid plans for the advancement of education in Guyana.