In statistical terms we do not know how successful the Ministry of Education’s literacy drive was last year. But then in statistical terms there is really no certainty about how many people there are in this country who are illiterate, or exactly how many pupils are emerging from the school system without a basic grasp of what used to be called the three r’s. One would hope that the ministry has some idea what proportion of students of post-primary age within the school system are illiterate (and innumerate too), even though that data has never been shared with the public. However, as said above, the extent of adult illiteracy is probably as much a mystery to the education authorities as it is to the rest of us.

We have, of course, been cruising along for years on the literacy figures cited by some of the UN agencies, which give various percentages in the upper nineties range. One does not have to be an educational expert to know that these are nonsense. To the best of anyone’s knowledge (unless the ministry has commissioned a quiet survey in recent times), the last significant research undertaken in this country to assess literacy rates was done by Dr Zellyne Jennings in 1995 (published a few years later), when she found that average raw literacy was somewhere in the 70s, although functional literacy was only in the 60s percentage wise. That was more than a decade ago, and it is very much a moot point as to whether there has been any substantial improvement since that time.

Even without precise figures being available, there have been various projects directed at tackling the illiteracy problem in the wider society, some of them undertaken by government-funded agencies, and some by other organizations. To give but two examples, the Adult Education Association has had an ongoing programme beginning in Moco Moco in the Rupununi in the 1980s, and then in Georgetown, while the ‘On the Wings of Words’ project of the Baha’is attempted a wide reach, geographically speaking. There have been organizations devoted to encouraging the reading of books and literacy, and there was also a National Literacy Committee not so long ago, although if it is still extant it has not been much in the news lately.

What has been the overall impact of these worthy efforts? The public does not know, and neither will the authorities if they don’t have a literacy database which can be updated appropriately. Even the Ministry of Education doesn’t pretend any longer that figures given by international agencies relating to literacy have any meaning, and there really isn’t anything to hide. We know we have some kind of a crisis in this country in terms of functional literacy, and it really is not a political problem and it really doesn’t matter a sow’s whisker how we got here. What matters is that we are able to stem the downward trend and in due course, reverse it.

There are many factors which have played a role in our declining literacy rate, most of which are very well known, and several of which the government has little direct control over. What everyone who has the future of this country at heart does understand is that if we cannot raise our educational standards, and if our population fails to acquire the skills necessary for survival in the twenty-first century, Guyana is going nowhere. And it all begins with literacy. An adult – no less than a child – who is literate, fluent and numerate, will have self-confidence in dealing with the world, and will be more motivated to succeed in legitimate fields of endeavour.

But to begin with, the government must have current data on what the true situation is, and which geographical regions or urban areas, for example, it needs to concentrate its efforts on. If it makes the administration feel any better, we are far from being the only nation complaining about declining literacy rates, and some of them are developed nations. Last year the members of Britain’s parliamentary Public Accounts Committee said that an “unacceptably” high number of people in England could not read, write or count properly, going on to observe that a lack of up-to-date information about skills meant the government could not be sure its schemes to improve basic skills were working.

It is no consolation, of course, to discover that more affluent countries than ourselves have problems in this area; in the end, we are still accountable for our own shortcomings. However, as said above, the educational authorities have to begin with accurate statistics as to the real functional literacy rate in the first instance, following which they need to keep updating their database so they can see where they are having an impact, and where not. Only then will they be able to look at the problem in its larger aspect, and adapt their strategies to suit the circumstances and incorporate techniques that have proven successful.

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