While Minister of Edu-cation Priya Manickchand boasted about the advancements made in the education sector, APNU’s shadow minister Amna Ally criticised spending in the sector, saying the nation’s children are not the real beneficiaries.
The two squared off yesterday during the continuing debates on the administration’s proposed $220 billion budget, which the minister dubbed “holistic and comprehensive” while Ally labelled it a “repair and maintenance schedule” and a “spend and hope budget.”
Manickchand’s presentation was overshadowed by the walkout by both APNU and the AFC over her refusal to apologise to former parliamentarian Jaipaul Sharma, who resigned last week over a comment she made in reference to his father facing statutory rape charges. It was Manickchand’s second attempt at making her presentation after APNU had created a ruckus last Friday, preventing her from speaking and forcing Speaker Raphael Trotman to adjourn the sitting prematurely.
However, the minister duly plodded on in her presentation with the loud support of her colleagues on the government side. Ally, who is also the opposition Chief Whip, was the only member of the opposition seated.
According to the minister, there is no other sector better than education to demonstrate “tangibly” the growth under the PPP/C administration. She said the policy of the government is that education is the one thing that will see poverty being alleviated and she added that over the years the budgetary allocations to the sector increased and with this increase there has been better examination results.
“With money comes growth, growth means our children are doing better, it means our children are better prepared for the world tomorrow…,” the minister said.
She acknowledged, however, that the government is not happy with the pass rate in English but she said the country will get to a 100% pass rate “because we can, we can plan for it, we can strategise for it and we will fund it.”
But Ally argued that the country is not getting value for its money and that in some cases one cannot tell where the money is going. The “sufferers are the nation’s children,” she lamented, while charging that there is no certainty about the effectiveness of the educations programme. “This is evident having looking at what was supposed to have been done in 2013 and its preceding years. We hope that the government can get serious,” Ally said.
Ally, who has years of teaching experience and is a former headmistress, noted that last year it was stated that $2.7 billion was spent on the infrastructure of schools and other education facilities and in this year’s proposed budget another $2.9 billion is allocated for the same purpose.
But even though that large amount was spent last year, Ally noted that pupils of Santa Rosa Primary were fetching water for use, cleaning the school and spending a lot of time out of the formal learning situation. There were also children of Kato who were allegedly fetching firewood. She added that while $438 million was budgeted for education in Region 8, two schools are without proper furniture and the teacher’s quarters do not have any furniture, the toilets and bathrooms are not working and there is no light because there is no battery for solar power systems there.
Ally questioned what happened to the money budgeted for the region and wondered whether discrimination is at work since the region is under the political leadership of the AFC.
Listing some of the woes at schools in the interior locations, Ally stated that the Mabaruma school is not occupied as the school board is demanding that there be a proper completion of the school before this is done. She also cited protesting in Port Kaituma over non-functioning toilet facilities and also pointed to the non-delivery of education for long periods owing to neglect of the Liberty Primary School in the Pomeroon. Ally said too that the Parika Salem School has an information technology (IT) lab but it is not functional and that the computers for the IT lab at Patentia have been declared obsolete and there is also a defective power supply. “How could the obsolete computers and defective electricity make the IT labs functional?” Ally questioned in the presence of her colleagues who had returned to the House for her presentation.
In response to the minister’s announcement that the government would be striving towards universal secondary education, Ally said that initiative while welcomed must be minutely worked out and monitored. She said it is not only about buildings but also about what is placed in the buildings and what resources are made available for the schools to be functional.
Ally also decried the $1.4 billion being allocated to both campuses of the University of Guyana, questioning whether the sum is not a ridiculous one since the institution is grappling with finding funds to pay its electricity bill, defective chalkboards, inadequate projectors, poor toilet facilities and inadequate furniture. She said it is a shame that the government cannot find adequate funds for the country’s major tertiary education facility but can find monies to spend on unimportant projects.
Ally questioned why the establishment of technical schools in regions 3 and 5 has not resulted in adequate staffing and programmes being worked out. She said that the development in education is not to provide buildings alone but for the programmes and resources to complement each other so that the input can be measured. She added that there has been no real assessment of the programme content and that it has not been considered whether or not the skills of the young people are marketable and can subscribe to the industries established in the country. “This government likes to say that they put up buildings but never works out the purpose, suitability and how they can aid development of this country,” Ally said.
And what, she questioned, is the benefit of graduating from the tech schools when the students in Leonora are getting the “royal run around” to get their certificates.
She also revealed that there is a building on a plot of land earmarked for an agricultural science centre at Den Amstel and while someone has been paid to head the centre, because nothing goes on there the official was seconded to the Stewartville Secondary.
She also pointed out that there are no technical schools in regions 1, 7, 8 and 9, which the main opposition has been calling for albeit in vain.
Speaking about the proposed $10,000 allocation for parents with a child in the public school for the next school year, Ally called the figure ludicrous. She added that the parents would, however, welcome the money because the government has gotten the country into such a depressing situation and any little pittance would be used to fill a hole for survival.
And while large sums of money are being spent to fund the Learning Channel, Ally again questioned whether it really means access to education and education for all Guyanese. She said in Region 1 only Mabaruma can access the channel and not clearly; in Region 8 electricity is only provided at night, hindering viewers in accessing the channel during the day; and in Region 9, only some areas have access to the channel.
‘Can be trusted’
Manickchand painted an entirely different picture of the education sector, boldly stating that the PPP/C can be trusted to take the nation’s children forward since it has shown how this can be done.
She did reveal that a small survey, done by the ministry among children at the age 3 years six months, found that only 32% of them knew the basic information that children at that age ought to know. She said they found it a “bit worrying” and she said there is need for parents to play a more important role in their children’s education.
The minister also said they are not happy with the way the education sector has been catering for children with special needs and in recognising this they have embarked on a consultation process which will inform what they would do for the next five years. One of things that would be implemented is that every new building that is built now would cater for children with disabilities, she said.
She, however, mentioned that it was Guyanese who captured five of the eight regional Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) awards this year and that Guyanese students had won the ‘best overall student award’ for the region consecutively from 2006 to last year.
According to the Manickchand, the education sector is concluding a five-year strategic plan and in most areas they exceeded expectations. She did, however, admit that there is some work to be done in some areas but added that they know where they want to go for the next five years. “We are in the process of collating what all our stakeholders have said [that] would be best for Guyana’s children, best for Guyana as a country and we would be publishing our strategic plan shortly,” the minister said, adding that the budget would allow the ministry to begin implementing the first year of the plan.
It is envisioned that by the end of the plan there would be 80% of the needed teachers in the system, 50% of the children would be reading at the Grade 4 level and there would be universal secondary education.
However, Ally stated that strategic plans are nothing new and should not sound like an innovation of the minister. She noted that $32.3 billion has been allocated for the implementation of the first year of the plan but said that members of the National Assembly do not have access to the 2008-2013 plan so that a proper assessment can be done to see the extent to which it has been achieved. And the 2014-2018 plan, she said, is hibernating since it was months ago that both she and AFC MP Cathy Hughes were promised the plan. “The budget came and will go and that strategic plan which money is budgeted for in this 2014 budget is still hibernating,” she said.
Manickchand announced that the ministry is finalising an Education Bill. The last bill would have been passed in 1876 and was last amended in 1976 and she said it does not meet the needs of modern 2014 Guyana.
The ministry would also be consulting with the public whenever it wants to expand its programmes or build a new school and get them involved so that they can keep a close eye on what is happening in the schools and ensure that quality works are done. “We recognise, Sir, we recognise and we are very unhappy with the fact that sometimes we get shoddy work. That does not mean all contractors do shoddy work but we have been robbed, the country has been robbed a couple of times [and] we want to make sure that when we do things we get value for our money,” the minister stated.
The ministry, she also announced, would shortly launch an interactive website that would have all the sectors, documents and polices as well as past examination papers for Grades 1 to 6 students. There would also be a feature that would allow members of the public to chat with the minister and senior officers on scheduled topics. The ministry will also be making regulations shortly under the National Accreditation Council.
Manickchand noted that while the opposition would more than likely not touch the estimate for the education sector when they “chop up” the rest of the budget, they would be taking away the ability of the parents of the children they want educated to properly provide for them. “I am saying that if we are going to have a better Guyana for all Guyanese… then all Guyanese has to include the people who democratically exercise their right to choose a government and the days where we were stealing vote and the days we were denying the desires of the people must be put behind us…,” the minister said while “pleading” with the opposition to put Guyana first.