In Guyana the best celebration of the performing arts in schools is seen in Mashramani where schools of all levels from all parts of the country exhibit untypical exuberance and keen rivalry. It is an explosion of various performing arts as well as the spectacular creation of costumes and bands. This raises questions about the state of the creative arts – in particular drama, dance and the related art of debating – in secondary schools. Most of the Mashramani extravaganza is produced by primary schools, schools from outside Georgetown, and those regarded as ‘junior secondary.’ The highest ranked secondary schools in Georgetown are much less visible.
The state of the arts, drama and debating in Guyanese schools reveals a bit of a paradox. The present situation reflects both the passing of an age and a very promising new era – both a decline or deterioration and a progressive new development.
Like many countries across the anglophone Caribbean, Guyana had an old tradition of excellence and keen competition in debating among secondary schools. All schools, including those that have been the high-achieving institutions participated enthusiastically for honours. The quality was high and included the sixth formers and academic high flyers. In countries like Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, for example, this state of affairs also included drama. This was the case in Guyana as well, but a little less so for drama. A major difference is that this tradition continues in those countries, but Guyana has experienced the passing of an age and a decline in those high levels.
Today in Guyana the debating competitions are dominated by schools considered ‘junior’ to those institutions with distinguished histories and reputations. Leading schools like Queen’s College, The Bishops’ High School, St Stanislaus, President’s College, and newer ones like School of the Nations and Marian Academy are not heard from. They make no contribution, take little part and achieve very little in drama and debating at a national level. Nothing is heard from St Joseph’s, St Rose’s or Mackenzie High. They are now easily surpassed by others such as West Demerara Secondary, New Amsterdam Multilateral, Mahaicony Secondary, Dora Secondary, Ascension Secondary and Berbice High.
First of all one should applaud this as a mark of progress, that these other schools are now on the rise and not just challenging, but beating their more prestigious rivals. It has to be a very positive advancement that they are taking an interest in theatre serious enough to be creating plays, trying to make social statements in drama and presenting major productions. But to a large extent it signals a decline in the participation of those supposed high flyers. Most of them are totally absent. Queen’s College put in a showing over the past three years, but in one case it was a playmaking exercise by second formers who took the initiative on their own; on another occasion it was again members of the junior school and most recently they failed to make it out of the preliminaries into the finals of the Schools Category in the National Drama Festival. Even in debating competitions fifth and sixth formers have not participated in years.
There are factors responsible for this very encouraging rise in schools’ drama on the whole and the advancement of new winners of debating competitions who have now dismissed the likes of QC and Saints, banishing them to the archives as champions of the past. Where debating is concerned a few private sponsors have been making it possible for a number of competitions to take place, in addition to the long-standing JOF Haynes competition. But even more than that, the sustained activity is owing to a number of active graduate teachers at these schools, who have been preparing a ready supply of enthusiastic students in areas as far away as Mabaruma and the North West District.
For drama the Ministry of Education set up the Unit of Allied Arts whose responsibilities include the development of drama in schools. They have been fairly busy in recent years. The next is the holding of the Inter Schools Drama Festival which is now being run off with regularity. This has drawn out many schools and pushed the creation of many new plays in which the schools work to themes and messages such as the problem of Child Labour in 2013. Very prominent among the contributing factors is the National Drama festival which has been a great motivator. The incentives for new original plays have had a positive response with high school productions getting into social commentary through theatre. The use of this medium for examining society and experience is therapeutic, instructive as well as entertaining and can make priceless contributions to intellectual development among students in school.
This may also be linked with the gradual increase in the number of Guyanese schools taking Theatre Arts as a subject in CXC. Although only a small number of schools are currently entered for this subject, there is certainly a growing interest among them, and more schools are now entering and starting the CXC syllabus. New Amsterdam Multilateral and West Demerara Secondary have now been joined by Tutorial Academy (in New Amsterdam) and St Rose’s High to write the exams this year, while Tutorial High in Georgetown is the latest addition to the list of schools preparing students. Both New Amsterdam Multilateral and West Demerara have been multiple prize winners in the National Drama Festival, while students in the class at Tutorial (Georgetown) performed as part of the cast in one of the prize-winning plays.
Some of the students who studied Drama courses at the University of Guyana were responsible for quite a few of the successful schools plays in the Drama Festival. Training taking place at the new National School of Theatre Arts and Drama has already made an impact and created results in the rise of theatre among these schools. Two graduates of the School of Drama have introduced new schools and created new classes for CXC Theatre Arts.
There are, however, a number of other factors responsible for the decline in that tradition of a sense of prestige, high standards, keen and enthusiastic competition among schools and the full participation of all the top schools. The first may be a shift in the methods of and the approach to education, which include the new technology. Contemporary technological advances and information technology have revolutionised learning, access to information and general practice. The rise of virtual classrooms has shifted the focus from face-to-face learning and creative and intellectual activities, which include interest in debating and drama in schools. Along with that an obsession with higher boundaries of achievement has grown, and students are driven to achieve in excess of 16 CXC passes and 15 distinctions. Attached to that is the overwhelmingly popular ‘extra lessons’ phenomenon which consumes the vast majority of students. It has led to a narrow concentration on cramming knowledge to pass and excel at exams. It has left students no time or inclination for these activities that are regarded as ‘non academic’ and ‘extra curricular.’ There is pressure and discouragement from parents and teachers with an attitude that sees debating and drama as distractions and inimical to academic pursuits.
Further, the Ministry of Education has done little to make or encourage schools to strengthen their drama curriculum or offer the CXC Theatre Arts. The Ministry of Culture has done little to move them in that direction.
Another factor contributing to the decline is official policy and the way these things are arranged. Competitions have age limits which are too low and shut out many students still in school, particularly sixth formers. The timing of the Schools Drama Festival is bad. A contest fixed in June means the school will not get any students writing CXC or CAPE exams to participate. This eliminates all fifth and sixth formers, leaving representation of the schools to the fourth formers and the lower school. One can then say that the best students are immediately excluded.
To add to that the Ministry of Education has a policy that schools which did not enter the Schools Drama Festival are prevented from entering the National Drama Festival. The NDF is timed better because it comes early in the school year and far from exams; it provides schools with excellent opportunities for engagement in drama, but it is restricted by the ministry.
The Ministry of Culture has placed an emphasis on new plays, which is good in some ways, but has driven schools to believe every time they go on stage it must be with a new play. Creative talents vary, and this also produces quite a bit of bad work. It also contributes to the neglect of good plays that already exist and from which schools may benefit from doing or seeing.
Many of the Ministry of Education’s policies, and the new practices in the leading schools have created a situation which does not exist in other countries in the Caribbean. The Jamaicans and Trinidadians have advantages over Guyana because they do not impose low age limits; it is not either one or the other. The best schools in those territories produce excellent results in exams and also produce excellent results in drama and debating. At the same time many new and less prestigious schools are emerging with good performances in the theatre, and this happens with no decline in the participation of the leading schools.