I think I am no different from other citizens in relation to my degree of tolerance for the unsubstantiated statements and catchy sound-bites that have become the norm for politicians—it seems to be endemic to the business of politics. It is disturbing however to find someone who professes to be an education theorist, steeped in the value of empiricism, engaging in such practices. The letter in the Stabroek News on Monday, August 19, 2013 under the caption ‘We are moving back to an era when educational opportunity will depend on one’s ability to pay’ is chock-full of conjecture and misinformation attempting to be passed off as sound analysis. Those interested in the truth would appreciate that an evaluation of these pressing equity issues would require some supporting evidence and a more systematic approach to analyzing the facts. The overriding argument is that “one’s ability to pay” was less of a factor in determining one’s educational ‘success’—my interpretation of what he termed ‘educational opportunity’—during the 1970s-80s.
To support his claims the writer first cites nursery, primary and secondary enrolment and staffing figures as evidence of “a significant expansion of educational opportunities.” Could the writer possibly be implying that there was greater access to education during that period as compared to our current position? Surely that would be ludicrous given the facts, foremost among them being our recent attainment of universal primary education after extensive expansion of early childhood and primary education in Guyana. More importantly, we are on course to attaining universal secondary education within the not too distant future.
By his own claim, “the general population seemed to have peaked at 824,000 in 1978,” and he stated that secondary enrolment was 49,200. In 2010-2011, when one would argue that the general population numbers were lower than that of 1978 given our realities in Guyana, enrolment at the secondary level exceeded 75,000—should we really continue this discussion on comparative access?
The next assertion relating to the school system is even more baseless: “…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.” Firstly, there is not an iota of evidence to support any of these claims.
The public school system has not lost its effectiveness; any comprehensive evaluation of the system would prove the contrary—provided of course that we can agree on the relevant indicators. We now have the highest percentage of trained teachers in our history, class sizes are at the lowest and we now have more available resources than ever before. As such, to suggest that the existence of private education has led to the degradation of the public system is just absurd. Certainly there is room for improvement but that characterization of the reality is way off.
Lastly, he branches off on an illogical claim that the National Grade Six Assessment, with its formative components, is making it “virtually impossible for underprivileged children… to be awarded a place at a top secondary school.” I must challenge the writer to provide evidence of a period in the history of education in Guyana when socio-economic factors did not impact significantly on outcomes.
Declaring education free did not erase the myriad of pre-existing socio-economic disparities that plagued us. The reification of the longstanding class disparities through education in Guyana has been the focus of numerous studies. Beyond that, however, there is no evidence that the situation in that regard has worsened. There is clear evidence that education in Guyana today is the most equitable it has ever been when all of the related variables are evaluated—class, race, geography, the digital divide, etc. Furthermore, the myth that private schools are outperforming public schools really must be exposed for what it is. I have always argued that we are comparing apples to oranges in such an undertaking. There are numerous elements present within the private structures that enable them to have an overall advantage over public schools from the outset—so by no means is there a level playing field. Public schools do not have the luxury of admitting students based on ability; refusing students who are less able—a practice known as skimming. Public schools do not have the luxury of expelling students when their grade-point-average drops below a certain level. In addition, we are not at liberty to place teachers within some of the professional confines that exist in private schools. Even so, a thorough analysis of performance output would show that public and private school structures mirror each other in many ways, despite the differences cited above.
Instead of making these baseless assertions, one’s time would be better spent in engaging in a discussion on how we can, as a nation, make education priority number one and move the education agenda forward. When education becomes the subject of cheap political tit-for-tat, we all stand to lose. I have long advocated that education should be placed outside of the normal political discourse; maybe I am too idealistic.
Chief Education Officer