The cost of ‘free education’

Sometimes it is worth stating the obvious. In Guyana we are trapped in a mirthless tautology. We do not pay our key workers (policemen, nurses, teachers) a living wage. The result is that most of those who wish to progress in these professions find jobs abroad or, if their priority is simply to earn enough to support their families, they change career. In order to redress the deficit left by this exodus, a host of overlapping and competing layers of security, healthcare and education provisions have sprouted and taken root in our society. We have legions of security guards, a host of (under-regulated) private clinics and other medical facilities and, for over a generation now, extra lessons outside of school. The duplication of effort, the sheer waste of money and energy this all represents is sobering.

Many of our most able teachers and nurses are now to be found elsewhere. So, we train more. And, again, we fail to offer them a viable career path and adequate income. So, many of the most able trainees leave. And so it continues. This is one of the hidden narratives of many a poor country. We train, other countries gain. Poor countries invest slender resources in continually training key workers only to see a substantial portion of them take flight with their newly acquired skills to pursue careers abroad. What are the solutions? First, a recognition that, if someone acquires marketable skills and is then expected to deploy them in a long hours, low pay culture and a workplace that is under-resourced and poorly managed, there is only likely to be one outcome: after a while, most workers, particularly the most ambitious, will leave. Guyanese have a strong urge to better themselves and our nurses and teachers are no exception.

And what of those who remain ? There is, without doubt, a dedicated and talented rump who continue to offer their services for little reward within the larger framework of an underpaid, under-trained, under-equipped and under-manned cohort. In education, as recently as 2007, 42% of our nursery, primary and secondary school teachers remained untrained, partly due it seems to an ambivalence over whether or not to make teaching a career. Teaching in Guyana has become, over the years, ‘a profession of last resort.’ If this verdict seems harsh we need only look at the entry requirements for our premier teaching training institution, the Cyril Potter College of Education, CPCE, (a Grade 1 to 3 pass in Maths and English at CSEC) and reflect that many of those who apply lack even these qualifications and require remedial tutoring to reach this level. This perpetuates the cycle: if we continually start with imperfectly educated teachers, we will continually have to educate as well as train them.
Some trace the beginnings of this dilemma to the state’s move to acquire control of education in the 1970s and the institution of the principle of free education for all. Others view the undertaking to provide free education as one of the Burnham era’s more enlightened initiatives. Whatever the case, the early 1970s were a period of economic prosperity in Guyana when the huge burden of subsidising education for the nation may have seemed less onerous. In fact, since then, the state has failed to underwrite the education system adequately and the fallout, over the years, has been enormous. First, the state has consistently failed to pay teachers a proper wage which has resulted in the flight, en masse, of many of our teachers. Second, for a long time, the state has lacked the funds and administrative skills to maintain the actual schools and to procure and distribute textbooks and teaching aides and other key supplies: just a month ago, a science teacher in our letter columns noted that it was virtually impossible to find a burette or thermometer in any of our secondary schools and that most schools still lack the basic equipment and materials with which to conduct scientific experiments. Third, we have a citizenry that is now, largely, functionally illiterate with all that that entails for the nation’s progress and development.

It has been apparent for some time that free education is, in many cases, a polite fiction. As the National Development Strategy stated rather delicately, “declining financial allocations from the state since then (1976) have adversely affected both the quality of education in Guyana and citizens’ access to it.” It hinted at the problem with a recommendation (since adopted) that private schools be allowed to flourish and another that a “modest, basic fee” be levied for school books and materials. The reality of free education has thus proven to be rather different from the ideal: the state essentially cannot afford to provide free education for all. So, it starts in the middle and works outwards. Those in our most populous areas are rather better served than those at the fringes (our hinterland and riverain communities). Similarly, students in the mainstream fare much better than those with learning difficulties or special needs of any kind. What we have ended up with is an indifferent education for many and next to nothing for some.

The present government’s attempts to tackle the problems in education focus largely on the physical plant though there have also been significant efforts to train teachers and to improve their lot. Ironically, the training programmes for teachers have served only to highlight the huge gulf between the current workforce and what is needed: every year a substantial amount is spent simply upgrading current teachers to a level where they can enter the CPCE’s programmes. The ongoing wave of school building and refurbishment is laudable but, as a columnist pointed out some months ago, governments like to invest in bricks and mortar because these deliver short-term visible results to the electorate. The provision of adequate training for teachers and head teachers is a much more long term, low-key investment with only a gradual impact and is therefore less attractive to politicians.

It is instructive to look at the experience of other countries. Many have followed a similar, though less pronounced, trajectory with declining investment in education yielding poor results and inadequate teaching. Some, such as the UK, have made a concerted effort to tackle this malaise and turn it around. There are several programmes in place there which merit attention. One, called ‘Transition to Teaching’, is for public sector workers looking to change careers. They are attracted to teaching because it is now, especially in this era of economic upheaval, a career of choice with good pay, benefits and prospects. Another, ‘Teach First,’ is a charity which targets and recruits exceptional graduates who would not normally consider a career in teaching, trains them for six weeks and then places them in challenging schools where they teach for a minimum of two years. Graduates have to display specific qualities such as subject knowledge, leadership and organisational skills to the ability to solve problems and work with others. Banks such as HSBC and other companies support the charity and some offer deferred entry whereby, after successfully completing their selection process, graduates can defer the start of their employment for two years whilst participating in Teach First. The Ministry of Education’s National Voluntary Teachers training programme, could be upgraded to reproduce a Guyanese version of Teach First. In particular, high achieving A-level graduates from the hinterland region could be drawn into education with a similar approach. They could then return to teach in their home regions which are still, as every National Toshaos Council meeting attests, woefully short of teachers.

There is a general sense in some countries, from both sides of the political spectrum, that education is too important to be left to the government. Just over a decade ago, in Brazil, a social movement called ‘The National Campaign on the Right to Education’ was launched by NGOs, students unions and other members of the ‘Third Sector’. More recently, in 2007 a clutch of business tycoons, private companies and the philanthropic foundations related to them established ‘All for Education’ in 2007 which has five stated goals to be achieved by 2022, the 200th year of Brazil’s independence. In Israel, Hakoi Chinuch (‘It’s All about Education’) is another civil society initiative which seeks, among other things, to improve the quality of teachers and their terms of employment and favours a differential budget per pupil depending on socio-economic status.
We need to look very carefully at the benefits and prospects we offer to our key workers in addition to a salary. It can take our teachers seven years of training to acquire a degree which is longer than it takes anywhere else in the Caribbean (although the new Associate Degree course could reduce this to four years). We need to explore the option of shorter conversion courses for people who might for example wish to change careers or be willing to teach for a few years right at the end of their careers. Teachers themselves have suggested several incentives such as interest-free loans to build homes and allowing their children to attend the university free of charge in our letter columns. They could also be encouraged to run after-school clubs on school premises (such as chess clubs) for which they are paid by parental contributions. As the old adage states; if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. We need to thoroughly reappraise the capacity of our education system and the life chances not only of those it serves but of those who commit to work in it.