Yet another Education Month rolled around on September 1, with yet another new theme; this time, “Transforming Guyana through Science and Technology in Education.” All its predecessors had equally portentous titles which no one ever remembers, and exactly what they achieved is also something which is mired in the realms of the obscure. The annual press release detailing activities for the month advised the populace that the educational celebrations would kick off with a gardening competition on September 1 and a students’ rally from the Parade Ground to Queen’s College. There would be, we were told, addresses on International Literacy Day and World Teachers Day; quiz competitions; the launching of book clubs and donations of books; an essay competition; science and technology fairs and an exhibition; a national spelling bee competition; the inauguration of this year’s JOF Haynes debating competition; and a steelband and choir exhibition – all culminating in a national awards ceremony on October 5. It is enough to leave one breathless.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with spelling bees or quiz competitions, let alone with launching book clubs, donating books and holding science fairs. However, these could be undertaken at any time of year, and one would not like to think that the Ministry of Education’s rather meagre administrative resources are being sidetracked into concentrating on the 31+ days of Education Month just in order to give it a high profile. After all, it is not as if children will be significantly more educated at the end of the month than they were at the beginning, and there is no evidence that it serves as even a small stimulus to learning for a substantial proportion of the school population. The children who enter the spelling bee in Education Month, for example, are exactly the same ones who would enter it at any other time. And the vast mass of students who would benefit from some hard work on their spelling, won’t have an interest in it for obvious reasons.
In the end, one wishes that the ministry would forget about Education Month (although not some of the activities associated with it) and concentrate its energies on the difficult issues; after all, education is a long-term process. It takes years to educate a pupil and, for that matter, years to qualify and train a good teacher. Owing to the fact that the process is so slow and the outcome so far down the road, changes introduced into the system take time to work their way through it, and if too many changes are brought in too quickly, these invariably produce results quite the opposite from the ones intended. The corollary to this is that in the education system, damage caused by mistakes usually cannot be reversed quickly. Making an assessment of how things are going in this kind of scenario, requires data, and the average person usually does not have anything to go on other than anecdotal evidence.
The present government has certainly claimed great advances on the education front, but appears reluctant to supply the comprehensive statistics in support of that. Having said that, it is true that in some instances one does not need figures to see what is wrong, at least, such as in the case of the University of Guyana Turkeyen Campus. At the bottom of Turkeyen’s myriad problems is simply the fact that the administration will not entertain pouring in the resources necessary to make it a tertiary institution worthy of its name. And while Minister of Education Shaik Baksh makes soothing noises about the importance of science and technology, and outlines proposals for upgrading laboratories, etc, at UG, the government for which he works refuses to approve the programme for larger funding put up by the university. Exactly what kind of warped thinking causes the administration to believe that success will be achieved by putting a few resources into science facilities alone while the rest of UG is left to crumble, metaphorically speaking, is only to be marvelled at.
At the secondary level, the improved results at CSEC, particularly English A and B this year, have been held up as demonstrating the great educational progress for which the government has been responsible. In terms of academic challenges, not all subjects are equal, of course, and furthermore, the Minister seems reluctant to reveal how many students out of the full complement actually sat each subject. One suspects that very few take English B, for example, and that those who do have a particular flair for and interest in English Literature. The real test comes with English A and Mathematics, which far more students write. Mr Baksh was forced to admit that passes in the latter subject had declined to 30.4% from 34.5% last year, and he put this down to a shortage of teachers. Even in the case of English A, where the percentage of passes had increased to 60.8% from 59.2% last year, one is not sure what proportion of the student population falling into the requisite age group does indeed sit the exam. How many of those in the Primary Tops, for example, take CSEC English A, and is there a big discrepancy between different kinds of schools in terms of results? In other words, are English results being lifted across the board?
And what about all of those students who leave school functionally illiterate and innumerate? The ministry has had all kinds of programmes in the past to improve literacy rates, but again, how successful these have been cannot be determined by the public, because no comparative figures have ever been supplied. What the literacy status of the various age-cohorts in the school system is, therefore, remains a mystery. Is it true, the public wants to know, that our literacy rates are improving? There are at present various remediation initiatives under way in both primary and secondary schools, although whether the schools in all the regions have the resources to successfully implement these with their current staff complements, is by no means clear.
It was the supposed existence of these remediation programmes which caused the ministry to issue a directive stating that all students had to be promoted, whether they passed at the end of the year or not. The new policy came under a great deal of criticism, but since then, there has been no feed-back from the ministry as to its consequences, and whether the remediation arrangements that supposedly justified this move, are working in the schools. Exactly how many remediation specialists, one wonders, does the ministry actually employ, or do the extra duties fall on the existing English and Maths teachers who are in the schools? If the latter, how does this affect the time-table and the other children?
The Minister has admitted, as mentioned above, to a shortage of Maths teachers in the secondary schools, but the truth of the matter is there is a shortage of all kinds of experienced and qualified teachers throughout the system. The list of teaching vacancies in the newspapers every year is a sobering sight. And talk as he might, the situation does not appear to be improving. As fast as teachers are qualifying, they are leaving. And teachers are the backbone of the system. But if you can’t pay them rates that are at least competitive with those in the Caribbean, and if you overload them with bureaucratic duties rather than teaching ones, they will continue to leave.
It is true that with World Bank assistance the ministry has been training teachers in computer skills, and the use of the computer as a classroom teaching aid. This is good news. But one cannot help but feel – unless the ministry intends to substitute the computer for the teacher in terms of content learning – that while methods are important, they are no substitute for content, especially in the secondary system. Unless a teacher is familiar with a subject area, s/he will not have the confidence to teach it well.
The public would definitely prefer it if the Minister stopped belabouring them about Education Month, and instead, took them into his confidence with all the appropriate figurework, about the true state of education at the current time.