Burnham and education

There is clearly some move to balance the negative image of the late President Forbes Burnham by recalling his positive achievements. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself; contrary to the stereotypical image favoured in some quarters, Mr Burnham did have some things to his credit. However, if a serious look is going to be taken at the Burnham era, then it should take everything into account, and the achievements cited should at a minimum be credible. It is counter productive to seize on a policy area and write it up as a Burnham success without adducing any evidence in support of the position. But that is what happened last month when a member of the PNCR in a letter to this newspaper seized on Burnham’s education policy, describing it as one of the most successful in the region.

Leaving aside the issue of fraudulent elections, Burnham’s worst legacy to the nation was in the area of education. It was not, it must be said, that this was the intention, far from it; the intention was to improve the quality of education available to all and to make it free. Burnham’s education policy was a lesson in the danger of pursuing idealistic objectives which completely ignore the realities on the ground. The aim of free education from nursery to university was certainly desirable, but the economy had to be able to sustain it. As it was, the socialist experiment caused a severe contraction in the economy, and the funds were simply not available to underwrite such an ambitious programme at the level which was required.

Various measures could have been introduced piecemeal instead to cater for parents in the lowest income group, and to extend secondary schooling of an acceptable quality to far more children, but Mr Burnham it seems favoured a radical approach. The thinking behind the community high schools and multilaterals which his government introduced, for example, was not without its merits, but in terms of implementation these fell very far short of the ideal. In fact, the community high schools were already turning out functional illiterates in some quantity long before the PPP/C ever acceded to office in 1992, and the aim of providing quality secondary education to everyone has yet to be achieved.

As it was, the abolition of dual control and the nationalization of the schools turned out to be an error of serious proportions. The old system might have been idiosyncratic, but the point is, it worked. The private schools were not operated for profit, they had to meet state standards and they offered a modicum of choice to parents. When they were suddenly taken over they became the full responsibility of a bureaucracy which had not been fully reorganized in all departments to accept the additional burden, and they became subject to the same pressures and deficiencies as many of the state schools. It would have been better to build on what existed, modifying where necessary, than sweep the traditional arrangements away altogether.

Providing free textbooks was something else which was not economically viable. The move had been preceded by a measure controlling the mark-up on textbooks, which had the effect in the end of putting the private booksellers out of business. This meant that the wide variety of reading matter for all age groups which had been previously available, completely disappeared, something which has surely played a role in our plummeting literacy rates. Once the education system undertook to supply textbooks, it ran into difficulties not just because of the amount of funding required, but because of the lack of infrastructure to efficiently distribute, monitor and manage the system. It was not as if either they chose to go the full Cuban route of mass producing cheap books on a large scale for the population utilizing newsprint. The deleterious consequences of this piece of idealism and lack of foresight are still with us, and as things stand many parents still have to buy textbooks for their children.

Then there were other decisions, such as suddenly ordering the integration of the senior secondary schools, for which no preparation was undertaken. Physical facilities had to be restructured very quickly to accommodate either boys or girls, as the case may be, involving an unnecessary outlay from limited finances, while a whole new range of problems was created in schools which traditionally had catered only for a single sex. Following studies over decades done elsewhere, we now know that boys and girls do better in school if educated separately, although it is true that that was not known at the time.

Then there was President’s College, which was an unnecessary investment given the number of senior secondary schools available. This is not the same thing as to say that the school has not acquitted itself well, and that the pupils and teachers have not distinguished themselves over the last twenty years; they certainly have. It is merely to observe that founding the school did not represent the most pressing educational need at the time, more especially since educational resources were so lacking.

But most of all, perhaps, there was the de-professionalization of the teachers, who were required to follow political instructions, and among other things take children out marching onto the street for everything from welcoming visiting dignitaries to the anniversary of Burnham’s entry into Parliament. It was deeply resented, and the qualified staff began to leave in droves. The situation was not improved with the introduction of Mass Games, which were hated by the parents as much as by the teachers. At a more advanced level, of course, there was compulsory National Service, which could hardly be described as enjoying backing from all segments of the population. All of these things ran counter to the notion of what education should be, and conveyed the impression of an attempt to impose political regimentation on a system which had been accustomed to a measure of freedom of thought and decision-making. Good teachers do not flourish in such a constrained environment, although some of them managed to survive. General economic conditions as well, of course, have taken their toll on the teaching profession – beginning under the PNC – and we have now reached a crisis point. Both the PNC and then the PPP/C mostly fell back on the training of more teachers to make good the deficit, a strategy which has had no measurable impact on the situation to date.

In a general sense it can be said that education systems tend to respond slowly to changes, and the effects of these are frequently not evident until a few years down the line. When too many changes are thrust on a system in quick succession, it does not have time to adjust, and the effect is frequently the opposite of what the policy-makers intended. When this is coupled with a severe shortage of teachers, major disciplinary problems in the classroom, the politicization and lack of order affecting the system, unsuitable appointments, and the loss of status of the teachers who remain, it is hardly surprising that decline would set in. As it is, what can be said is that when Forbes Burnham came to office the literacy rates of this country were some of the highest in the world; when he died, that was no longer true.

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