Whither President’s College?

It’s no secret that the quality of education being offered at President’s College has deteriorated. This institution that once encouraged an education of character has been reduced to very little, or, as Education Minister Priya Manickchand so casually put it, “not meeting the needs of our children best” anymore.

This recent statement by the minister brings national focus yet again on the state of the institution, its decline in the public education system and, for the second time in less than a year, the issue of official neglect at the school.

20131123ianaLast year, the People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR) accused the government of deliberately neglecting President’s College, saying that one of Guyana’s top schools was falling apart and in a deplorable state just ahead of the new school year. “It is disgraceful, and a reflection of the approach to education by the People’s Progressive Party/Civic [PPP/C] that the Minister of Education allows this premier school of excellence to show such signs of neglect and abandonment just as Guyana prepares to observe Education Month 2013,” the party said.

Of course, Minister Manickchand rejected this and she pointed to the $241M set aside for the institution in the 2013 budget. She even pledged that the College would remain a school of excellence.

However, the school’s ranking is now based on its geographic location and today it is considered the best secondary school on East Coast of Demerara. At the same time, the College has been dropped from the list of the top secondary schools in the country and high achievers at the National Grade Six Assessments are no longer given the option to attend. So much for the minister’s pledge.

Increasingly, we are being fed this falsehood that education is the mere acquirement of knowledge and skills. That it has to do with equipping students to write a range of subjects and ranking them based on their pass rates. Thanks to my years at President’s College, I know otherwise.

In 1995, the year I took up an offer to attend the College, its education design was notably different from the usual school curriculum. The institution, as I recall, had four structural pillars at its core: (1) academic excellence, (2) agricultural sustainability, (3) technical proficiency and (4) social inclusion. It was a blueprint for success designed to prepare and cultivate us to understand social reality, and to realise our own potential within the framework of economic development of our country.

The school’s ingenious curriculum was designed to mould us into quality citizens. We got an education of character at the institution–the focus was not only on cultivating intellectual attitudes and habits in us, but also enhancing cultural and moral traits.

The space the institution provided was populated with many selfless and dedicated educators, who helped us to be more disciplined, accepting, and sensitive.

It is against this background that the Minister needs to more specific when she says that the College is not meeting the needs of the nation’s children anymore. Did she mean to say that the pillars I refer to are no longer in place and as a result, the College barely has much to offer this nation’s youth?

Politics has long been entwined in education here, despite what officials say and what the current Education Minister would like us to believe. Policy and politics have an impact on schools and consequently on students, and when governments change it often means many changes in education.

No one could attest to this more than students of the College. Within the last 12 years, perhaps even longer, the institution has been crippled by an inadequate lack of funding and support and many of the programmes and initiatives which were integral to the curriculum were cut.

One of the more difficult realities at the institution was the lack of attention paid to the school’s water supply system. The system was allow to deteriorate and this resulted in numerous shortages, and also sparked a string of student protests in 2008. Students were already facing a shortage of teachers only to wake up one day and realise that there was a scarcity of water as well.

These scenes of student protests over a lack of running water at the school were followed by teachers lamenting very publicly the decline of departments and laboratories.

Then came the move to remove the portrait of school founder, late president LFS Burnham, from public view at the institution. Though not frequent these incidents provided important feedback on the state of the institution and equally important, the official position on the school.

This year, the College turns 29 years-old and its recent history is another regrettable blemish on the record of the PPP/C, which took the reins of power a few years before I entered the institution in the early nineties. During those early years of my education at the College, there were a few signs that things were crumbling.

Take for instance the abrupt end of our etiquette lessons and a few months later, a halt on our swimming classes. Shortly after this, our Cadet programme fell apart. All these things happened and I remained hopeful, but then the neglect spread to our school farm. The farm was our “lifeblood” agriculture initiative.

Manickchand, like every other minister holding the portfolio before her, wants to make an impact. I get the sense that she wants to do right by the College, but her recent statements about the institution delivered so coldly raises serious doubts about her interest in the College.

Since she is eager to meet with old students to discuss a way forward I encourage the Minister to offer the institution a fraction of her support for resourceful education initiatives. Importantly, she needs to resuscitate the agricultural initiative as soon as possible and encourage student participation – by choice.

And without hesitation the Minister needs to call upon us – former alumni in Guyana and abroad – to assist with both curriculum and non-curriculum activities and even better, challenge us to share new ideas and initiate new programmes.

Further, I call on the new Board to work with the Minister and reinstitute the pillars of the institution I outlined, and to serve as crusaders of equity at the institution.

To be clear, I do not hold the Minister or the previous Boards solely responsible for the College’s current state. I believe that we as citizens need to feel collective, positive embarrassment over President’s College and its rapid decline. We need to ask ourselves why we have allowed this former leading institution to face so many setbacks and more importantly, we need to think about what we can do to improve the situation.

 

Have a question or comment? Connect with Iana Seales at about.me/ iseales

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