The state of the education system came under the magnifying glass yesterday in the House, where Education Minister Priya Manickchand sought to defend government’s progress in the face of criticism that despite the billions spent, the nation’s children are not benefitting.
In a fiery presentation, Manickchand accused the opposition of disrespecting the hard working men and women in system and she put shadow minister Amna Ally and APNU on the spot for criticising a senior education officer who was present in the National Assembly at the time.
“If you want to attack us, attack me! Don’t speak about my officers! Don’t attack my officers because they have spent their entire life giving service, all of them have spent it, some of them started working from the age of sixteen,” Manickchand declared, almost shouting as she fired back at statements made by Ally during her presentation in the ongoing budget debate.
Ally, in noting concerns about technical and vocational training, said that there was no one who was qualified to manage a technical programme run by the ministry and that at the moment a retired assistant education officer was in charge of technical education. Manickchand took umbrage and she said that while the officer was not able to defend herself in Parliament, she was continuing to make sterling contributions to the nation. “In any event, the Honourable Member was wrong as usual, the officer is the coordinator of the school boards under which [technical vocational centres] function, she is not the person in charge of the technical vocational education and I say on behalf of Guyana thank you [name of the officer],” Manickchand said, turning in the direction of the seated officer.
After Manickchand identified the officer by name, the proceedings quickly degenerated and resulted in Speaker of the National Assembly Raphael Trotman making good on earlier threats to leave because of the ruckus, which came mostly from the opposition side. Before leaving, he said that the situation had become “untenable and unbearable,” having noted that Ally did not suffer a similar interruption during her presentation.
With the debate suspended, Trotman called in the government and opposition whips, Gail Teixeira and Ally, for a private meeting and when the sitting resumed he noted that what started out as a little noise had grown to such an extent that it made it impossible for him to hear and caused the minister to shout. “It is obvious and I will not continue in an atmosphere like that,” he said, while reporting that both whips pledged their cooperation and support.
Trotman added that the opposition was concerned that Manickchand stated that Ally had cast aspersions on a particular individual—which she denied—and he advised that the issue be raised on a point of order rather than in a battle of words. He also pointed to a recent ruling from the Speaker of the House of Representatives in Trinidad and Tobago, who allowed a statement to be read in Parliament by a member of the public who felt that his character was impugned. Trotman said he may consider allowing citizens in Guyana the right to reply to statements made against them in their absence.
For the education sector, $26.5B has been allocated for 2012 and Ally said while APNU welcome the proposed expenditure value for money is demanded.
“We demand that the beneficiaries must be our nation’s children! We demand that monies are spent for what they are intended! We demand that there must be adequate and relevant programmes for children! We demand that there must be proper accountability and openness of all monetary transaction! We demand that or teachers must be rewarded with improved wages and better working condition!” Ally declared, adding that the education ministry must focus on skills and professionalism and stop cronyism.
In criticizing technical and vocational training programmes, Ally singled out the training schools in Mahaicony and Leonora, saying they are not conducting technical education of any significance as the children are being taught English and Mathematics to keep them occupied. She said many of the teachers are mere graduates from secondary school, with no practical experience.
Ally also lamented that the country is still faced with poor English and Mathema-tics results, noting that there has been no improvement despite budgetary injections in literacy and numeracy. She stressed the importance for helping very young students and ensuring an effective teacher to student ratio. “Where would any government in their right mind have one teacher to one hundred children with varying abilities and level?” she questioned. “So, Mr Speaker, the government must come here and ‘pampaset’ about the billions spent on education when the nation’s children continue to suffer,” Ally said.
But Manickchand challenged Ally on the numbers, explaining that the government has moved away from the ‘one-teacher school’ and she urged her colleague to bring it to her attention if such a situation exists. “The ratio now is one teacher to 35 students and in the remediation programme it is one teacher to 25 students,” she said, while adding that the fact that the government has implemented programmes to address the English and Mathematics is evidence that it cares about improving passes in the subject areas. However, she noted, literacy and numeracy is a problem that is faced by many countries across the region and the world and she invited members of the opposition to sit the examinations and try to find out the cause of the situation.
Ally also poured cold water on the government’s 24-hour learning channel, which was launched last year and for which $47M was allocated. She said the unit is “clearly not equipped to provide the 24-hour service on television that addresses the issues confronting the school system today,” adding that it serves as a regular television channel despite its initial aim to provide resources needed to support curricula delivery in schools. “Mr Speaker, I wonder how much of the $47M went to where it did not belong?” Ally asked.
Manickchand, however, later said that the channel only started in April of last year and from then a 24-hour broadcast has been provided in several regions and some 2,641 programmes were broadcast, targeting learning skills such as problem solving, collaborative learning, language skills and different levels of reading proficiency. She added that there is work to take it to another level, where adults can also learn.
Further, Ally also disputed the claim by the government that 80 secondary schools and 60 primary schools have been equipped with computer laboratories and she requested that Manickchand circulate the list of schools equipped. She noted that a school with a few computers cannot be described as having a computer laboratory. In addition, she said even in some schools the equipment is non-functional, because the complete systems are not available, while in others the computers are still in boxes as the absence of information technology teachers is a problem. She questioned what the ministry did with the money for the project.
Ally also said that the students in the lower Pomeroon are deprived of a secondary education because the government cannot make adequate arrangements for them to attend school at Charity, as it is too expensive for parents to bear the cost. She said she has been told that the students have to wait until the dormitory is completed at Charity and she questioned whether it was because votes from that area traditionally go to the opposition party, PNC.
This assertion by Ally was described as “dangerous” by Manickchand. “If there is one thing that we shouldn’t politicize, it is the education system,” she said, adding that the students were offered places at the Wakapoa dorm but this offer was understandably refused and plans are now being made for them to access education through other means.
She also said the government now boasts 22 dormitories around the country, where more than 2,000 students are accessing education even though she acknowledged that there are problems in the dorms that are to be addressed.
Touching on the University of Guyana, Ally said that there are too many problems at the institution and she urged Manickchand to take a “hard look” at improving the conditions.
Ally said the government members operate as if history began after 1992 but reminded them that the work today is premised on the infrastructure laid by the PNC as well as the opportunities offered by it is many programmes that benefited “young people like you and me.”
Ally also recommended that the National Centre for Education Resource Develop-ment (NCERD) be put under a microscope, saying there is need for quality and not quantity results. She also urged a stop to the syndrome of “jobs for the boys” and for work with professionals and called for the subvention to the Critchlow Labour College to be restored.
Manickchand said the workers in the education sector are not cronies but people who have started working since they were teenagers. She singled out Chief Education Officer Olato Sam, who was present, saying he is an example a “young, bright and thorough” worker. She added that when the opposition says nothing has been done in the education sector, it is not speaking to her but to the thousands of employees who work in the system.
Going to Parliament and saying there was nothing done by the PPP/C and that there is nothing in the budget for anyone and no improvement under the government is as “reasonable as if we on this side came to say we have done it all and there is nothing left for us to do,” Manickchand argued. She added that to say that the people have given the opposition a majority and not saying that the same people said the government should lead the development of the country, cannot be called reasonable. “Calling sexily for inclusive government and inclusive governance and slapping away…every outstretched hand that is made can hardly be called reasonable,” she added, while questioning whether it is inclusive governance or government that the opposition is after.
Manickchand also pointed out that the PPP/C has achieved the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education and the government’s continuous expenditure in the sector has seen the country reaching closer to universal secondary education, which would be achieved in another five years. She further charged that the results of having more secondary schools is that more children are writing CSEC and passing, pointing out that when she wrote the examinations, there were 5,125 candidates and last year the number was over 12,700.
“That is the effect of equitable distribution of service, sir, that is the effect of investing in the education sector, sir,” she said, to loud desk thumps from her colleagues. She added that there is now an education system in the country where every child can access to equitable service and she noted that teachers are the backbone of the service.