Education CoI

Last Wednesday Stabroek News reported on the Preliminary Report into the Education Sector of Guyana, which was handed over to the Ministry of the Presidency by the Ministry of Education earlier this month. The Commission of Inquiry’s terms of reference were broad, requiring as they did the establishment of a baseline analysis of the state of public education, as well as recommendations on broad strategic guidelines for its enhancement.

The period the CoI covered was the years 2010-14, which seems a little curious, since one might have thought that in order to make meaningful recommendations one would need to know what the state of public education is currently. What is the point of a historical exercise ‒ especially one limited to four years ‒ other than to inform what is happening now, although one might want to put a limit on how far into the past one should go for background purposes. The report did say that scope was provided for the Commissioners to move outside this period if necessary, but that is still not the same thing as focusing specifically on the present state of the education system.

Furthermore, any recommendations would have to deal with what should happen in the future, and surely those cannot be grounded on what obtained three years ago. If, as seems to be the case, that where these were concerned, the commissioners took current conditions as their starting point, then it would be clear that for all practical purposes, they rightly regarded the time-frame for their investigations as nonsensical. Certainly, the years 2010-14 were not cited in the body of their report when describing conditions.

There are other features of the report which are unusual: It is very general both in terms of its findings and its recommendations, and there is no figure-work to lend precision to some of the conclusions. Normally in such presentations too, there will be appendices which, to give two examples, could supply the reader with data on the number of nursery, primary and secondary schools, and where they are situated; or the number of teachers employed, their qualifications and the like.

This kind of information would not have to be researched by the Commissioners, but should be supplied by the Ministry of Education itself. In the body of the report there was, for instance, a reference to the shortage of teachers, especially in the hinterland, but there were no statistics. Having said that, however, the report did advert to the difficulty the Commission had in obtaining documents, and some of those requested were never received. “One of the most critical ones,” the report said, “related to expenditure over the last three years.” (It is to the Commission’s credit that where this subject was concerned, it openly did not restrict itself to the 2014 cut-off point.) It really makes no sense to go to all the expense of setting up a CoI and then withholding critical information from it; how can it possibly perform in such circumstances?

The report listed other impediments from which the commission suffered, including an insufficient number of Commissioners and transportation difficulties, and the general impression gleaned by the reader is that the CoI was insufficiently resourced for the scale of the work it had to undertake. And, as the report pointed out, this is the largest ministry in the country which, in addition it should be said, is an extremely complex one in terms of its regional relationships and the number and variety of its departments not to mention its educational institutions.

There is another slightly odd thing about the genesis of this CoI, and that is that then Minister of Education Rupert Roopnaraine authorized a countrywide audit of public schools in 2015, and was subsequently reported as saying among other things, that the schools had been found to be “outmoded”. It was later that year that Cabinet had approved the establishment of a CoI into the education system, which did not get underway until 2016. Was this duplication of work? Or was it that the findings of the audit – the full details of which have not been made public – persuaded ministers of government that something more in-depth was required? Or was it that the audits were not done to the satisfaction of Cabinet? As we reported on Wednesday, Minister Roopnaraine was quoted as saying that the audit teams had been sent “to schools in every region to assess their current situation and gain information on issues that plague them. The teams had also been tasked with conducting environmental audits of the schools.”

Without access to any report from the audit teams, it is impossible to know why it was decided to set up a CoI to cover what appears to be some of the same ground. Prima facie, at least, the latter would not suggest itself to be a more exhaustive inquiry than the presumed investigations undertaken by the audit.

A more fundamental issue with the CoI is the framework within which it has operated. When the public thinks about problems in the education system they are concerned about outcomes, and the quality of schooling to which their children have access. They measure it – somewhat unfortunately in some respects, but that is another matter – by exam results, and the limitations of these notwithstanding, they still provide a crude indicator of where the system is failing.

Finance Minister Winston Jordan in his budget speech earlier this year referred to the results at CSEC Mathematics and English Language and particularly the Grade Six Assessment results as “depressing”. He went on to expand on the matter of the Grade Six results where the pass rate in Maths was 14% while less than 50% of the pupils passed English.  “This is a crisis!” he said in declamatory style to the House. Yet there is no direct linking of this “crisis” to observations and recommendations in the report, although quite a few of them have bearing on it, such as the curricula of the nursery and primary schools being too packed, for example.

What people want to know specifically is why the education system has proved so resistant to improvement, so children can be better educated.  Is it the quality of the teaching? Is it the lack of textbooks, the condition of the schools, parental lack of interest in education, poor school administration, absentee teachers, the extra lessons syndrome, the absence of a disciplinary structure, or whatever?  Just what are the measures at all stages of the educational process ‒ nursery, primary, secondary, special schools, remedial, etc ‒ which could have some positive effect on the situation?

And as for Information and Communication Technology (ICT) saving the day, the report in its ICT section does carry the caution that “effectively integrating ICTs into educational planning and delivery can be a complicated process.” It might be added that some other countries have found that the impact of ICT on educational outcomes is not as great as had been hoped.

Be that as it may, the two general observations which the report repeats, are that the draft Education Bill should be pursued with some urgency as that would address many of the issues raised by the Commissioners, while the other relates to ‘morality’. Whether in the case of the first the Commissioners thought that they did not need to repeat what was already in the Bill is not clear.

As for the second, the report says that the education system “should seek to complement academic learning with a strong sense of integrity, morality and service, particularly in the secondary schools…” At another point it recommends “a deliberate incorporation of values and ethics in the Primary School Curriculum”. This has been raised several times before, an earlier Education Minister responding that he thought morals were always better “caught than taught”. One suspects that how people behave to one another and are seen to behave to one another in a school setting, is more important in terms of changing behaviour than any morality component in a syllabus which children have to learn in the abstract.

All of this is not to say there are not a number of eminently useful practical observations and recommendations in the report which the government should take on board, not the least of them pertaining to the retirement age of teachers, and the recruitment of more education officers, some of whom could be recruited from among retired teachers.

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