February 13, 2004
Girls are now outperforming boys in school in many Western countries, including Guyana. Which is not to say that here, at least, the standard of education for girls is satisfactory; it is not. A dearth of qualified teachers, a shortage of books, and a culture which no longer sets the store on education that it once did, have all conspired to drive standards down for everyone - girls as well as boys. Having said that, however, it is not good news for the society that so many boys have no motivation to succeed in school; a person with no skills in the modern world, and no particular work ethic - which is also partly acquired in a school setting - is far more likely to be lured into a life of crime than someone with qualifications of some kind.
The reasons for the declining interest in education among boys are varied, but not far to seek. Some of these have been identified by our own educational officials, who have pointed to the fact that not many men go into teaching nowadays because of the low salaries, and as a consequence boys have few adult role models in the classroom. At the teenage stage in particular, discipline can become an issue if there are no men around, and poor discipline inevitably means that little learning will be done.
It might be added that desegregating the single-sex secondary schools may not have helped either; it is now recognized that for various reasons, including the fact that the maturation rate for boys is different from that for girls, young males perform better if they learn among peers of their own gender.
The society at large has also played its part. Bombarded as we are with US advertisements and programming on TV, our values have become far more materialistic than they used to be. The younger generation has come to adopt American symbols of affluence as its own - everything from the brand-name clothing, to the footwear, to the cars, etc. It is these highly visible consumer items which matter more to many young people, than do any invisible accomplishments they may have acquired by dint of years of hard work. Gone are the days, for example, when the schoolmaster could walk through the village, and be treated with respect by all, not because of what he owned, which usually wasn't much, but because of his education. Nowadays, however, a good education simply does not carry the status that it once did.
In addition, we have also become obsessed with a get-rich-quick mentality. And whatever else can be said, education will not make anyone rich fast, if it makes them rich at all. What it does still do, is to provide a passport out of the country for a large number of Guyana's top performers. But that is another story. As we become increasingly integrated into the regional drug network, the temptation for youths to transform their financial situation overnight by involvement in the drug trade becomes ever harder to resist. And the trade has a certain macho status too, endowing its younger participants with what the British call 'street cred.' In comparison, the conscientious schoolboy, quietly slogging away for his certificates, is perceived as nothing but a wimp.
The breakdown of family life may also be a contributing factor to the situation, where so many families have been placed under stress with the emigration of a mother or father, and even sometimes, both parents. Whether there are now more single mothers struggling to bring up children while they also work to support them than there were in the past, is probably difficult to determine; what can be said is that the extended family structure which previously had acted as a safety net where the upbringing and supervision of the younger generation was concerned, is no longer there.
Habits of learning are inculcated very young, as are, conversely, habits of indiscipline. It is partly for this reason that the UK is now looking at keeping primary schools open for much longer hours, so that parents who wish will be able to leave their children early on their way to work, and collect them on their way home. The idea is to restrict the number of hours that children are left unsupervised, and to occupy their time in a structured way, although not necessarily with school work.
The situation in this country is rather different, of course, and ambitious parents who can afford it already subject their children to extra lessons of dubious value at an early age. However, there are many parents from the poorer areas who can't afford this, and who have no one to look after their children when they are not there. There are many others too, who are unaware of the importance of education, or if they are aware, really have neither the know-how nor the energy to ensure that their sons and daughters make the best of school.
It is common knowledge that the economic advancement of a nation depends on the educational standards of its population; one can only hope that while the Ministry of Education ponders how best to achieve this for all children, it will also address some attention to the particular problem of the failure of boys in the system.