Education: A perspective on the performances of Guyana’s students at the CSEC examination

By Walter B Alexander

In the same way that National Grade Six Assessment (NGSA) results are a reflection of the primary school system, so too,  the CSEC Caribbean Secondary Educa-tion Certificate (CSEC) results are a reflection of the secondary school system. In sum the outcomes of these examinations are a reflection of the effectiveness and the efficiency of the education                                                                                                                                                                                                                   system as a whole.

Up to a few years before Independence when the Ministry of Education had control of Primary Schools only, there was high acclaim in the region for the quality of education in Guyana. With the coming of Independence and the expansion of educational opportunity, especially at the secondary level, it was necessary for the Ministry of Education to provide more services to the system, particularly in the area of teacher training, curriculum development, and tertiary education.

The complete state takeover of schools in 1976 and the regionalization of education in 1985 imposed even greater responsibilities on government. That meant more accountability for the Ministry of Education.

Understandably, the Ministry of Education seeks to take at least a share of the credit for ther results this year. How good have these results been?

Hopefuls: Youngsters awaiting their turn at the CXC examination
Hopefuls: Youngsters awaiting their turn at the CXC examination

While it is commendable that in recent years Guyana has been regularly securing the ‘top’ places at the CSEC Examination among the Caribbean secondary schools, we need to obtain the statistics for the 10,000-odd candidates that sit the examination. Of the approximately 100 government secondary schools in Guyana, nine  schools offer Sixth Form programmes.  It must be pointed out that since the University of Guyana admits students with CSEC only a small fraction of fifth form graduates proceed to the sixth form.  Again, the nine schools mentioned earlier present about 1000 students at the CSEC Examination. Traditionally, these schools have performed above average. One might even isolate three or four Fifth Form schools – Anna Regina Secondary, Abrams Zuil Secondary and  Annandale Secondary –  whose outstanding performances can be proved to be result of a succession of highly competent Head Teachers.

That leaves us to account for 9000-odd candidates in the other 80-odd Fifth Form schools. Of these latter schools, there are some which have been established or converted within the last 20 years.  It would be useful to put in the public domain the performance of these 80-odd schools, whether they are located in Georgetown, rural areas, or in the hinterland regions.

In the first place, specific information is required about the number of candidates who passed in five or more subjects at Grades I, II and III, and in the second place, the number of these candidates who passed in English A and Mathematics.  In other words, we wish to know how many students matriculated.

The term ‘matriculate’ has crept back into the vocabulary of the knowledgeable after several decades, because in the distant past High School students used to write the Cambridge School Certificate Examination.  This was a ‘group subject’ examination, in which students had to enter for and pass a combination of subjects in order to earn a certificate.   After World War II the General Certificate of Education (GCE) Examination was introduced in England and in the then colonies.  This was a ‘single’ subject examination, in that the minimum number of subjects for entry and for certification was one.

When the Caribbean Examinations Council was established, the policy-makers opted for the GCE format of ‘single’ subject examinations.  However, in Guyana and elsewhere it is argued that after five years of secondary schooling a successful candidate ought to pass in at least five subjects, and if he/she is to matriculate, that is, to be eligible to pursue further studies, those subjects must include English A and Mathematics.

During the life of Secondary School Reform Project (SSRP) that is, between 1996 and 2004, it was discovered that the CSEC Examination was written by more than 6000 candidates, of whom only about 1200 obtained five or more subjects. Half of these candidates came from the Sixth Form Schools.

Has this trend changed?


Since information is not readily available regarding the performance at the CSEC examination by the thousands of students in most fifth form secondary schools, the question that arises is whether or not there is something to hide.  In the same way that there are primary schools Just as how there are primary schools in Regions two, three, four, five and six  which, in over twenty (20) years have been unable to secure a single pass for a Sixth Form school, there are in some secondary schools whose results are far from satisfactory.

The Ministry of Education has registered its concern about the unsatisfactory performance in English A and Mathema-tics.  However, the causes are deep-seated, and the cure remains distant.

The problems associated with the teaching and learning the English Language are related to the spoken and written language environment.  We no longer speak Standard English in Guyana!

Students can hardly be expected to demonstrate a familiarity with the English language if they are fed and force-fed a daily diet of ‘dance-hall’ music, with its own grotesque and unpalatable ‘grammer’ and lyrics. The pervasive culture of the ‘new’ language interferes with the assimilation and mastery of the desired language structures and vocabulary.  The extent of the entries for English B shows that only a small fraction of the candidates who enter for English A – less than 26 per cent – would enter for English B.

When you disaggregate from this amount the entries from the Sixth Form schools, you begin to understand the situation in the Fifth Form schools.

It came to the attention of SSRP that in the years 1995 to 2004 Anna Regina Multilateral School and Abram’s Zuil Secondary School, between them, had about 10 per cent of the country’s entries in English B.  In those two schools the Headmasters made English B compulsory from Form I to Form V. Literature helps Language and vice versa. This, unfortunately is not the policy in many Fifth Form Schools.  English teachers must stop saying that that English B texts are unfamiliar to them.  Furthermore, the shortage of recommended texts in school libraries is a huge part of the problem.

If secondary schools do not have proper libraries, and if provision is not made annually for the maintenance and replenishment of stock, the library will cease to be a source of learning and reading material for the individual school.   Where students have access to adequate reading material are likely to perform better at the CSEC examination.

Constant practice is even more important in the  mathematics.  We learn mathematics differently from the way in which we learn subjects like history and geography.   In mathematics, increasing the difficulty of topics and  sequence in teaching topics are essential for understanding by the student.  Attention also has to be paid to previous knowledge.  If the primary school pupil has not mastered multiplication, that child is bound to have problems with division and fractions and decimals. If the student enters the secondary school with a weak background in mathematics, or worse, a dislike for mathematics, that student will have difficulty in mastering the subject at the secondary level.

The situation is compounded when there is a shortage of mathematics teachers. and where classes must go without teachers for protracted periods.

It is not acceptable, for example, for a teacher to claim that they were not originally assigned to teach that class and to refuse to teach those children.

Problems associated with the teaching of mathematics in secondary schools also stem from the incidence of teachers lecturing rather than teaching.  Inspection of the exercise books or workbooks of many students reveals that enough questions on a specific topic are not set for homework. There are instances too in which homework is not marked.

We now have the commonplace practice of students attending ‘lessons’ before and after normal school hours… from as early as Form Two. With the pass rate in mathematics at CSEC not improving, the ‘lessons’ syndrome is here to stay.

It cannot hurt if knowledgeable officers who can monitor the teaching programmes in schools to determine whether or not these are likely to be effective. During the life of SSRP it was discovered that the Bartica Secondary School had a competent and dedicated VSO mathematics teacher, who secured in 2002 a pass rate of 67 per cent! Competence and dedication can indeed go a far way!

If the situation is to improve far more attention must be paid to ensuring that Heads of schools and Heads of academic departments discharge their duties – with respect to the management and supervision of the delivery of the curriculum – with commitment and professionalism.  We have now moved from four Heads of Department to ten today in large secondary schools. The Desk Manual for Education Managers Section III of the Ministry of Education clearly states that                                             the Heads of Department are “generally the prime monitor of the instructional programme;  the chief adviser on specific content areas – what is to be taught and the teaching technique to be applied.” In short, Heads of Department must know their subject ‘inside out.’  If the Head of Department cannot teach the fifth form, he or she cannot effectively supervise the teachers assigned to routinely teach the fifth form.

It is useful to compare a school’s performance at CSEC examination in any one year with that school’s performance of the previous year, as well as with the performance of a school of similar standing.  In this regard, similar schools do not necessarily mean identical Grade of school. The Grade of a school is determined by the number of attendees; nothing more. We should therefore compare schools with intakes of students with the same range of NGSA scores. The comparison can be extended to schools with similar facilities, such as functioning Science Laboratories, Tech/Voc facilities, and Libraries.  There must also be a consistent and objective measure with which to assess a school’s total performance at CSEC examination.

During the life of the SSRP, such a tool – the Total Performance Score (TPS) was designed and used.  It was based on assigning a numerical score for a Grade at the General/Technical Proficiency for each subject for each candidate as follows:

Grade I – 5 points

Grade II – 4 points

Grade III – 3 points

Grade IV – 2 points

Grade V – 1 point

Grade VI – 0 points


The TPS was determined by totaling the scores of all of the candidates.   In this way one was able to determine the extent of the contribution of each subject department to the school’s overall achievement.. That way, we avoid being misled.  We will not be misled by statements of results presented solely in terms of percentages, particularly when the numbers of students sitting the subject are small. Coupled with the number of students matriculating – or the number of students passing five or more subjects –  the TPS will provides an account of the school’s contribution to its immediate community and to the wider society.

If secondary schools within  communities are perceived by parents as realizing good results  the demand for placements at schools outside those communities is likely to decrease significantly.

Turning the present situation around will also require an enhanced level of parental commitment and, on the whole, a more convivial school environment. Parents have a responsibility to deliver disciplined children to schools.  Here, discipline must be taken to include regular attendance and punctuality. It is not uncommon to see large numbers of late-comers outside low-performing schools across the country. Indiscipline, including disruptive classroom, conduct, aggression that extends into violence and an un-mindfulness of school rules have undermined to effectiveness of Heads of schools and teachers and rendered the learning environment in some schools inhospitable. Indiscipline also includes non-completion of projects and home-work assignments, whether for CSEC, SBAs or internal school examinations.  It should be borne in mind that the Ministry of Education requires students to attain at least a 45 % score in a subject at the latter examination in order to qualify for subsidy in that subject.  Students and their parents/guardians must be made to understand that they have to pace themselves from Form One to Form Five in preparation for CSEC examinations. Indisciplined students run the risk of creating a dilemma for their teachers who must make a choice between attempting to reform them and ignoring them altogether. Where parents manifestly shirk their responsibility to deliver disciplined children into the school system, prosecution in the courts should be an option.

A higher level of success at the SEC examination, especially at the low-performing schools, will enhance the notion of equality of educational opportunity. On the other hand, those thousands of candidates who secure far from satisfactory results each year cannot be wished away by statistics that do little more than blind our eyes to the overarching reality of underachievement.

Walter B. Alexander is a Retired Deputy Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education and a former Lecturer of the University of Guyana