November 19, 2006
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The real news about this year's Human Development Index was not that Guyana had moved up three places, but that yet again we recorded a literacy rate in the nineties - 96.5 per cent, in fact. We reported the week before last that there were no statistics available for current adult and youth literacy rates, and that almost a decade ago the 1997 adult literacy rate was quoted at 97.2 per cent, and the youth literacy rate was said to be 99.8 per cent. If the last two are fantasy figures, the current overall literacy rate is equally, if less dramatically, outside the realm of reality.
The truth of the matter is that no one knows exactly what the real figure is; all that can be said with confidence is that it is not 96.5 per cent. One presumes that this number was arrived at partly, if not entirely, on the basis of primary school enrolment over the years, although the only figure the Index quotes for school enrolment - 76 per cent - combines primary, secondary and tertiary institutions, which is not very helpful.
What those intimately involved with teaching know is that there are serious problems in the primary and secondary school systems, and that there are teenagers around who technically may have been exposed to ten years of schooling, but have still emerged from that process functionally illiterate. That was true in the days of the PNC in government, and it is still true. Whether there has been any improvement at all in the situation since those times is impossible to say, because the figures do not exist for anyone to be able to compare. One might have thought, however, that given the teacher crisis, no one should be too optimistic about any major positive developments.
Even the enrolment figures - whatever they are for primary schools - might be problematic, since a child can be enrolled and then not attend school, or only attend infrequently. While the Ministry of Education in its statistical returns which head teachers have to fill out annually, used to require this figure, this newspaper was told by a source it did not ask for it in the returns for the last school year. All one can say is that on any given day during term time children who appear to be of school age can be seen on the streets. This notwithstanding, one suspects (and it is only a suspicion) that in the urban areas, at least, the majority of primary-age children probably do attend school - at least sometimes; what goes on in the rural and hinterland areas, however, may be an altogether different story.
The government is committed to improving the levels of educational attainment, but before it can do that it first must know what the true situation is. Authorities by their very nature do not like to hear bad news, let alone deal with it. But as long as the official literacy rate continues to be quoted in international reports as 96.5 per cent, our education officials will have no incentive to confront reality and devise means to deal with the real problem. Remedies are only applicable insofar as they address problems the scope of which is known; results cannot be achieved on the basis of pretence statistics.
The story of our educational decline goes back long before the accession to office of this administration, and at this stage no one cares who is responsible for what. Everyone of whatever political persuasion wants to see a rise in educational standards, and the starting point for that is knowing the true literacy figure for the different age cohorts in the society. What one would like, therefore, is for the government to request UNDP or any other appropriate organization to undertake a literacy study so we all know where we stand.
And the administration should not be afraid to make the figure public; whatever it turns out to be, it has probably been more or less the same since at least the 1980s. If the figure is not public, then the authorities again might not feel under the same pressure to take action and involve the most important stakeholders in exploring solutions. Not only will the truth set the Ministry of Education free, it will also set it on the road to real solutions.