We are moving back to an era when educational opportunity will depend on one’s ability to pay

Dear Editor,

A comment on the statement: “Education apartheid is returning to Guyana” by the Leader of APNU Brigadier (rtd) David Granger, asks the question “Education apartheid”! What does David Granger really mean by that phrase?

During the early 1900s, poverty was widespread in British Guiana (now Guyana).  Most poor people wanted a better life for their children and hoped that further education would help them escape the misery and drudgery that they had to endure.  Some descendants of former slaves and indentured labourers invested in secondary education for their children in order to give them some advantage in the fierce competition that existed for white-collar employment in the civil service and the commercial sector.  In 1950 there were only about twenty secondary schools in the country – fifteen or more in Georgetown, two or three, if that many, in Berbice, and possibly one on the Essequibo coast.

Attendance at all these secondary schools depended on the ability of one’s parents to pay the requisite fees.  Children from the outlying rural areas who attended secondary schools in Georgetown were faced with additional costs – transportation, and in many cases boarding and lodging.  In those days not many families could have afforded this. In some ways this could be likened to ‘apartheid’ based upon the ability to pay the requisite fees ‒ if you have the money you could access secondary education; if you did not have the money you were denied access. In 1946 with a Guyanese population of 360 000, there were less than 5000 students (1.4% of the population) at the secondary level.

However, between 1966-1976 (during the PNC’s tenure), there was a significant expansion of educational opportunities, made even more remarkable since this expansion took place within an environment of harsh economic, social, and geopolitical realities.

In 1970 there were 21 000 students (2.8%) enrolled at the secondary level.  In 1975 nursery education was established with an initial enrolment of 19 000 in 328 nursery institutions staffed by 1 660 teachers.  Enrolment at the primary level (nursery excluded) now stood at 172 000, and 42 000 (5.6% of the population) at the secondary level.

Perhaps, with its own ‘Audacity of hope,’ the PNC continued with its thrust to democratize education and to make increased educational opportunities available to all.

In 1976, the Government of Guyana nationalized all schools, and abolished all school fees from nursery to the tertiary levels. This policy not only marked the end of ‘education apartheid’ based upon the ability to pay, but also had the dramatic effect of greatly increasing enrolments at the secondary, further education, and tertiary levels. By 1980, the enrolment at the nursery level stood at 28 000 in 374 schools staffed by over 2 000 teachers.  Enrolment at the secondary level was 49 200 (in excess of 6% of the population).  The general population seemed to have peaked at 824 000 in 1978.

What needs to be emphasized is that after 1976, access to educational opportunity was no longer the prerogative of those children who were fortunate enough to have been born to the right parents.  Every Guyanese child or adult was now entitled to free education.

Since the return of the PPP to office in 1992, the process of democratization of education has not only been arrested, but whatever gains were made during the tenure of the PNC are being steadily eroded or reversed.  First, the payment of fees at the University of Guyana was reintroduced, and this was followed by the continuous degradation of the institution.  Families who could afford it now send their children overseas for further studies.

Second, the privatization of education has been actively encouraged for nearly two decades. As a result the public school system has lost its effectiveness since a great number of experienced teachers have either started their own schools, or have opted for the better remuneration packages offered by the private sector. Third, is the modification of the Secondary School Entrance Examination (SSEE) into the National Grade Six Assessment (NGSA).  Since education deficit is cumulative from pre-school onwards, the small percentage of marks (15%), awarded to the Levels 2 & 4 assessments as compared with (85%) to the Level 6 assessment, makes it virtually impossible for underprivileged children born to the wrong parents to be awarded a place at a top secondary school.

Judging by the performance of private students at the 2013 NGSA when compared with the performance of public school students, it would appear that it is only a matter of time before the great majority of places available at the top secondary schools will be awarded to students whose parents could afford to pay fees and provide the requisite resources – a retrogression in relation to a situation that existed before the abolition of all school fees in 1976.

This retrogression would be reinforced even further if the ministry implements streaming.    A multi-track system will result in discrimination and an unequal allocation of resources.   Equality of educational opportunity will not be provided if students are divided into ‘sheep’ and ‘goats’ – those destined for hard labour, and those destined for the professions and for the ‘good life’ which all Guyanese should be able to access.

What is so sad about what has been taking place during the past twenty years is that some of the very persons who benefited most from the PNC’s forward thinking educational policies are leading the movement to deny equal educational opportunities to thousands of Guyanese youth.

All of the above, if it is allowed to continue unchecked, will take us right back to an era of ‘educational apartheid,’ when educational opportunity depended on one’s ability to pay. Given our present context of rising inequalities the end result, inevitably, must be the creation of a frozen elite and a permanent underclass.


Yours faithfully,
Clarence O Perry

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