By Clyde W. Thierens
Certainly the most important political achievement of Winifred Gaskin in the 1960s was her appointment as Minister of Education, Youth, Race Relations and Community Development in the PNC-UF Coalition Government of 1964. Her ability to stand out was again exemplified in this year as she was the only successful female candidate of the 15 who contested the elections, in addition to being the first Black female Cabinet Minister in the history of this country. During this period Ms Gaskin also cemented her position as part of the core leadership of the PNC. She was identified as one of the two key persons in whom the party leader, Forbes Burnham, had full confidence. The other named person was Hamilton Green.
As Minister of Education, Winifred Gaskin faced a number of very serious challenges. These included the very poor state of race relations in the country in the aftermath of the racial conflicts of the early 1960s, the high rate of truancy among school children, the severe dislocation of students from schools because of riots, strikes and racial hostility and the use of children as political pawns in the political struggles the country was just emerging from. She also faced problems in the education sector related to the lack of facilities and an outmoded system that placed too little emphasis on the development of technical training. It was in this context that she promoted the idea of curriculum reform, the development of local textbooks and the implementation of a multilateral educational system.
Ms Gaskin paid keen attention to the development of secondary education. She felt that this was an absolutely important component of the education system if the country’s university was to have the best recruits who could be trained for the development of the country. In order to satisfy the need for secondary school places she promoted the idea of constructing schools by self-help. This resulted in 11 secondary schools being built between 1965 and 1968. The first was the Manchester Government School which was renamed the Winifred Gaskin Memorial School in her honour in 1978.
Ms Gaskin is credited with piloting the education system of the country into the post-independence era. She sought to make the system reflective of the needs of an independent country by restructuring the curriculum and initiating steps to replace the foreign examinations. She forcefully made the point that “Education will go forward, not backward”, while stressing that the curriculum was part of the remedy for what the country needed. She posited the introduction of the multilateral system to provide new and relevant avenues of learning for students whose aptitudes lay outside the regular academic stream. She saw the importance of combining industrial and academic training through the Community High Schools by having students sent on work-study attachments to industries where they could apply their theoretical knowledge in a practical situation. This system ultimately proved to be an important means of employment for many students who obtained jobs in the very agencies where they had done their work-study attachments. While Winifred Gaskin outlined these educational approaches, many of her ideas were actually implemented during the tenure of her successor Ms Cecilene Baird.
Winifred Gaskin used the term ‘Guianisation’ in relation to her vision for the development of the country’s university. She contended that the institution should, as far as was possible, be staffed by Guyanese and, in this regard she promoted the idea of Guyanese scholars being sent abroad for training after which they would return to serve at the institution. She also ended the practice of students paying fees at the Government Technical Institute and established that institution as a pre-university one.
The importance that Winifred Gaskin attached to education was evident in the close supervision she exercised over the activities of the Ministry. Accusations were leveled against her for making decisions that ought to have been made by her officers and her style of management was attacked on the grounds that she did not always make the best use of her staff. It is obvious that she was very concerned about the role of teachers in the achievement of the educational objectives of the fledgling independent state. In addition to grading schools with sixth forms as ‘A’ grade schools, she revised the salary structure of teachers to attract university graduates to the profession in order to encourage the development of sixth forms.
She constantly urged teachers to improve their academic and professional qualifications and sought to remove unqualified teachers from the system. This move stimulated intense debate in the National Assembly when she asserted that many schools in certain areas were overstaffed as a result of numerous political appointments by the previous government as reward for party loyalty and support.
Winifred Gaskin saw the need for the establishment of residential training centres for student-teachers and for increases in the number of scholarships. She also promoted teacher training in agriculture and encouraged local sportsmen to be trained as coaches for the schools. In order to encourage the rounded development of students, she introduced international sports competition between schools in Guyana and Suriname in 1967.
Ms Gaskin never gave up her idea that our education system needed to be more suited to the Guyanese environment. She revised the qualifications for employment in the teaching profession by stipulating a minimum of 4 subjects. However, she eliminated Religious Knowledge and British Constitution as subjects to be counted on the grounds that those two subjects did not provide a sufficient background on which teacher training could be built. While she complimented the previous government for the introduction of the In-Service Teacher Training Scheme she felt that it ought to be extended from one year to two years.
As Minister of Education, Winifred Gaskin’s portfolio included race relations. In 1964, in a telegram emanating from the office of the American Consul to the US state Department, it was stated that she was “considered an extremist and a rabid racialist, being both anti-Indian and also anti-white”. This same correspondence blamed Ms Gaskin for being anti-UF and for being partly responsible for hindering cooperation between that party and the PNC. However, in April 1969, correspondence from the same office described Ms Gaskin as being strongly racially conscious but not demonstrative about it. She was also viewed as intensely patriotic yet well disposed toward US officials. The same source accused her of being influenced by race in her decision-making as a Minister. The allegation was made that, being overly concerned about increasing domination by the PPP at the University of Guyana, she “arranged the appointment of… a racial extremist” to increase African participation and influence at the university.
On the question of measures to improve race relations in the country in the aftermath of the developments of the early 1960s, Winifred Gaskin took the position that the best way to deal with the situation would be through “the exercise of good governance and by the Government’s insistence on the respect and dignity of the Guyanese at all levels”. She was also of the view that race relations could be significantly made better through interaction of Guyanese in activities that brought them together such as sports and culture.
As the responsible Minister, Ms Gaskin moved the motions in the House of Assembly for the installation of the National symbols of the new nation in 1966. There were a number of quite spirited debates on such issues as the choice of National flag, the National Anthem and the significance of the various symbols represented on the Coat of Arms of the Country. Long recognized for her considerable debating skills and incisive wit, Winifred Gaskin, time and again always attempted to aggressively counter all who sought to engage her. In one debate in the House, when asked by an opposition member to simplify her explanation of the proposed design and interpretation of the national Flag, she countered by stating, “I will help you with that but I would have thought that by now your dictionary would have helped you out”.
On July 01 1966, Winifred Gaskin took the oath of office and acted as Prime Minister of the country for approximately one day when the PM, the Deputy PM and the other senior ministers all happened to be out of the country at the same time. Little wonder, being the ground breaker she always was, that it was Winifred Gaskin who was the first Guyanese woman to achieve this honour.
Ms Gaskin served as Minister of Education from 1964 to 1968. She was not chosen to serve in this capacity in the new PNC administration of 1968. Among the suggestions made regarding the reasons for her non-inclusion in the new cabinet were concerns about her health and disagreements with party leader Forbes Burnham. These disagreements were said to be over certain educational policies including the issue of the separation of schools from church control. Some have suggested that she went too far too quickly in insisting on state control of the schools and the removal of religious education from the school curriculum.
Winifred Gaskin again became a pioneer after completion of her service as the country’s first female Black Cabinet Minister when, in 1968, she was appointed Guyana’s first High Commissioner to the Commonwealth Caribbean. Stationed in Jamaica, she became very popular and was widely respected because of her dynamism, tact and diplomatic skills. She formed a special bond with the ordinary people of Jamaica. Her service in this field was recognized to the point of her being awarded the Order of Distinction of Jamaica.
Ms Gaskin returned to Guyana in 1976 to head the Foreign Affairs and Economic desk at the PNC headquarters. It was while serving in this capacity that she took ill and died on March 05, 1977. She worked up to the point of her departure from this life.
Ms Gaskin certainly left her mark as a pioneer in the field of Guyanese politics. She was undoubtedly a trendsetter who blazed new trails that served to inspire Guyanese women during a period in our history when women were starting to come to the fore in the political arena. She never flinched in the face of adversity. She worked tirelessly in her various positions of service to ensure that Guyana developed. Her deep love for her country impressed many who interacted with her at the diplomatic and other levels. To many she epitomized the female politician of her time- aggressive, forthright, self-confident and somewhat intimidating. Her contribution to Guyana’s political development cannot merely be viewed in the context of her being a woman but it can also be viewed as a statement of achievement worthy of any politician-male or female. The standards of excellence that she set are standards worthy of emulation.
As a Guyanese, Winifred Gaskin recognized the role of our history in helping to shape a national identity. She felt that our history must be known and understood if we were to progress as a people. At the opening ceremony of Library Week 1966 she declared the following:
Pride of a country and loyalty are generated by knowledge of the past. We cannot ignore the past, or turn our backs on our own history. It has fashioned us and conditioned us. Therefore we must seek as a nation to know why we are what we are.