The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) represent a global partnership to reduce extreme poverty by setting out a series of time-bound targets, with a deadline of 2015. In 2000, world leaders made a historic commitment at the United Nations Headquarters in New York to eradicate extreme poverty and improve the health and welfare of the world’s poorest people within 15 years. The commitment, adopted at the Millennium Summit in September 2000, was described in the United Nations Millennium Declaration. It was expressed in eight time-bound goals, known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
To assess where Guyana is in terms of the targets outlined, Stabroek News continues a series looking at goal 2: achieve universal primary education.
By Iana Seales
Education is critical to the economic and social development of this country and Education Minister Shaik Baksh agrees, but while Guyana has reached some of the targets set there are lingering concerns about children who slip through grades barely absorbing the basics of what the system has to offer.
The quality of the country’s education has been scrutinized, particularly at the primary level where the focus is, but Baksh says new initiatives are being explored to effect urgent changes. The evidence of children with an inadequate primary-level education stares the sector squarely in the face, particularly around the period of the national primary school assessments where an alarming number of young children in the system demonstrate an inability to read.
The minister believes that the introduction of the Grade Four literacy certificate next year will push the system to perform at a higher level. He pointed out in a recent interview with Stabroek News that “our children are completing primary education.” Still, the question is what have they absorbed because there is a fair number who are ill-equipped to commence a secondary education. Baksh acknowledged the problem and would only say that the system is working to address it.
The number of after-school reading programmes has increased dramatically within the past few years and the sector has been shifting focus to continued assessment so as to identify where the weaknesses are. But there are concerns about which communities are being targeted, particularly those considered “troubled” and/or “depressed” because of the extreme vulnerability of the children who reside there.
What the United Nations (UN) has emphasized over the years is the fact that education for all covers far more than formal education. It includes expanding and improving comprehensive early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children.
Primary school enrolment in Guyana is currently at 96.2 per cent and completion is at 95 per cent–impressive numbers which the country has pushed to achieve. But enrolment concerns go beyond the figures compiled and include the attendance record of children and how often some of them show up for school. They also look at their socio-economic backgrounds and their continued participation in the system.
It was a few years ago when Baksh, fairly new in his post, insisted on every child being enrolled in the education system, regardless of whether or not a birth certificate was produced. To date, many children, largely in rural areas, have issues with birth certificates, but a school can no longer frown upon it and turn away a child who is without. “I insisted on this and it has worked,” Baksh said.
He said the record would show that children are staying in school at the primary level, but at the secondary level the country continues to grapple with an increasing number of young men who leave to seek employment. The minister termed it “fast money,” and he said new programmes—mostly technical ones— are being implemented to keep boys at school. Baksh said also that a skills development programme is currently being implemented to re-tool students and it is aimed at boys. Further, he said that there is a need for a greater male presence in schools, noting that fewer than 20 per cent of teachers are male. The sector is currently addressing the question of how to attract more males to embrace the teaching profession, the minister said.
Baksh explained that the literacy level is presumably high but there are no immediate figures for the 15 to 24 years age-range for which the UN has set targets. He said Guyana last recorded literacy figures in the 90s and he noted that a survey needs to be done to assess the current state. At the level of in-school youth, the ministry has started providing literacy and numeracy programmes to assist those children who sit the National Grade Six Assessment to have a smooth transition into the secondary school system.
Baksh mentioned the six-year programme which was introduced to allow children who fell below the 50 per cent pass grade for the national assessment, saying it targets those children for entrance into the secondary programme. He noted also that more efforts are being made to strengthen how children are performing in school through the continued assessments which are in place. He said too that the effort also calls for a greater commitment on the part of educators to tackle these challenges.
The sector is accelerating programmes and reviewing others which are currently in place to boost the literacy levels. He mentioned several initiatives which were introduced, including an interactive radio programme credited with impacting on the improved mathematics results of children who were assessed at this year’s Grade Six examinations. Baksh feels a fundamental change is likely at the primary level in another few years if the programmes are implemented as proposed. “…We have these challenges and we are aware, but this sector is working to address them,” he noted. He said the system is facing challenges as it regards the primary education system and whether the assessment as structured currently, is working in favour of every child. He noted that the Common Entrance examination was phased out but concern still lingers about the assessments which have replaced it.
Baksh disclosed that they are reviewing the grade six curricula to place more emphasis on English and Mathematics. “I feel that if children have English and Mathematics the other subjects should be easier if that foundation is laid…,” he said. He said students are struggling with the added burden of sciences, which could be taking away from their performances in the two core subjects.
The minister said too there is a problem at the secondary level and that they are reviewing whether to limit the subjects students can sit to eight.
He said that if students concentrate on a more manageable number then greater focus could be directed to the two core subjects. However, no changes are likely until the populace has been consulted. Baksh personally feels that the shift is necessary, but he said the society should weigh in on whether to make that shift.
In order to educate children, the sector must also address the hardships facing many in households across the country. Baksh said the school feeding programme is ongoing to keep children in school, noting that there is a poverty dimension to the challenges facing the education sector.
He said there are issues relating to children who do not attend classes because of “a pair of boots” and or transportation, or school uniforms. The ministry is collaborating with the Ministry of Human Services to expand the school uniform programme and reach children who are in need, but the need remains in many areas.
Guyana makes a distinction between ‘child labour’ and ‘child work,’ Baksh said, noting that it becomes detrimental to the education sector when parents intentionally keep children away. He cited the truancy campaign, saying a fair majority of parents still do not place a high value on education. The sector has no information about how child labour has been affecting it but according to Baksh it might not be a huge impact.
The truancy campaign has identified a number of ‘idlers,’ he said, while adding that there is no hard data to support the contention that many children in the country are working. “I have looked at the exit interviews and what we have found is that many are staying away for no particular reason…” he said.