The debate on education policy and President Burnham’s contribution is a useful one

Dear Editor,

The debate over education policy and the quality of the contribution of the late President Burnham is a useful one and I wish to begin my own analysis by first congratulating those who have participated in the debate so far and the Sunday Stabroek editor for sustaining discussion. I believe with a passion that our education policy is the key to our chances as a modern economy and not our forests, our soil or our as yet unverified oil wealth. We have as a nation misunderstood the importance of this issue and in the modern age of the globalised knowledge economy, our disadvantage will become more profound and more intractable unless we wake up and do what is necessary.

The debate is unnecessarily cluttered by the association of education policy almost exclusively with Forbes Burnham. It is a convenient way of deifying or demonising him according to our various preferences but does not fit the historical record or the reality of the evolution and development of education policy accurately or usefully.

You will notice that detractors of the so called Burnham education policies never refer to any contrasting Jagan education policy. Just as significantly, it does not do justice to the professionals and politicians who had an important input, nay, defining input to the evolution of that policy.

In particular, I am always disappointed by the neglect of the outstanding contributions to education policy of Mrs Winifred Gaskin and Ms Ceciline Baird, who were the most outstanding architects of policy under Mr Burnham’s political stewardship.

The first major policy input of a PNC government was bringing order and professionalism to a chaotic and disaggregated system between 1964 and 1966. The government sought the advice of UNESCO experts under the leadership of Dr Germanicos, and they reported on the need for comprehensive reorganisation and revamping of the education system and the need for articulation of the systems so that the various levels dove-tailed sensibly into each other.

The second major landmark of the education system was the generation of near universal secondary education pioneered by Shirley Field Ridley and matured by Ms Baird particularly through the second world bank projects which are responsible for most of the junior secondary and multilateral schools in Guyana today.

The third major landmark was the injection of funds into tertiary education. The propaganda machine of the PPP/C has perhaps blunted our memories to the fact that the only major capital injection of funds into the University of Guyana came in the construction of the present campus with UK funding and the IDB Global Manpower Project which though associated with the Hoyte government was conceived and negotiated during Mr Burnham’s tenure.

The fourth major landmark was the drive for equality of access which encompasses all the proposals and initiatives for free education, free textbooks, school uniforms and related policies. I defend these policies as necessary and sensible. Without them, education becomes the privilege of the upper and middle classes as a close study of the results of secondary schools entrance and CXC results will testify.

This country needs to improve access to education not only by building schools but also by creating access to the educational software. There is no philosophical position which can justify the educational apartheid which we encourage in Guyana.

If you do not have text books or access to the web, you cannot get the proliferation of CXCs and CAPE passes which you so readily publicise.

The truth is that our education policies in the 80s suffered from disinterest by the donor community in reaction to our international stance in relation to non-alignment, Cuba and other irrelevancies. The same polices for which we were criticised are now funded enthusiastically by the same donors in Guyana today. I will not dwell on such matters as the implementation of co-education in 6th form education for that is a petty and trifling argument hardly worthy of Sunday Stabroek. It was and is an undoubted success and that is speaking as a product of Queen’s College and the father of two QC old girls.

More serious is the allegation that President’s College was somehow a mistake. The model for President’s College was and is the residential co-educational schools in Cuba, a model which is an outstanding success in that country and which despite its many economic hardships is generating a level of human and social capital which we can only envy. The only real objection to the school is its association with Mr Burnham and his personal enthusiasm for it in his last years. The school was an undoubted success when it was taken seriously. Its results were good and the attitudinal and social levels are still evident in the graduates of that institution in our professional base.

The final landmark of the PNC educational record was the emphasis on technical and vocational education. The prevoc programmes, the work study programmes, the agriculture education, and the emphasis on self sufficiency was adopted by our Caricom neighbours and now we are laggards in that field. So much so that Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad are blazing a trail with new certification for skills which are distantly Burnhamite in their configuration. And they will lead to greater employment and investment possibilities for those economies.

The destruction of the prevocational programme in Guyana will be recorded by historians of education in this country as the greatest sin committed by the PPP/C.

Yours faithfully,

Deryck Bernard

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