Minister Henry’s education challenge

What we are told is the President’s confidence in her notwithstanding, a healthy measure of public scepticism has attended the appointment of Ms Nicolette Henry to the education portfolio. That is by no means either surprising or unjustified, and if the commentary on this issue persists, that is because there exists some measure of worry that what is arguably the administration’s most important portfolio has been given to someone who, in her capacity as junior minister was widely perceived as an underperformer. Add to that the fact that Ms Henry has no known specialist credentials that qualify her for the education portfolio plus the fact that she must surely be preoccupied with her own current academic exertions towards a Masters’ degree, which is further cause for wonderment. Frankly, she finds herself in a position where nothing less than a stellar performance would be sufficient to have her public approval rating rise. That is a weighty responsibility to carry.

Ms Henry takes over responsibility for a ministry that has just undergone a Commission of Inquiry arising out of what is widely believed to be a deepening crisis in our education system. Parents, teachers and the President himself have made utterances which suggest that they share that view while the Guyana Teachers Union (GTU) has also reportedly expressed a measure of reticence over the changing of the guard at the ministry.  Accordingly, one must ask oneself (and we believe that it is an altogether reasonable question) whether an administration that is concerned about its public image, to say nothing about the effectiveness of its education reform plans, is not running a considerable risk by allocating the Education Ministry to someone who, manifestly, does not enjoy the fullest public confidence and more importantly is not known to have any experience in education administration.

The government, surely, cannot expect that circumstances such as these will not attract some measure of public comment, even query.  We believe that it is a matter of regret that successive political administrations in Guyana appear to believe (or at least that is the impression that they frequently give) the privilege of serving in high office does not, simultaneously, subject them to public criticism as and when the situation arises. The media have a responsibility to honestly and objectively call it as we see it and in this instance as in others we believe we have done so.

For the record we wish Minister Henry well. Raising the standard of education in Guyana must surely be one of our most sought after goals.   We take the position, however, that wishing the Minister well ought not to cause us to fail to give some sort of context to her appointment. That is the responsibility of the media and that is what this newspaper has sought to do.

A week ago, on Monday, Minister Henry held a meeting with the staff of the Ministry at the National Cultural Centre the thrust of which, according to various reports, was a sort of I’m-in-charge-now forum at which she sought to set out both her focus and her expectations. Some of those reports suggest that the Minister’s tone may not have gone down well with all of the attendees. If that was really the case she would do well to be aware that the loyalty and commitment of the staff of the ministry would be of critical importance to hersuccess if she is to make a fist of her portfolio.

It has already been said in SN’s June 20 editorial that the fact that chunks of the portfolio that have to do with “innovation and reform of the education sector” appear to have been severed from the substantive education portfolio and placed under the Ministry of the Presidency can reasonably be interpreted to mean that Minister Henry is being spared the full burden of what is a weighty education portfolio. This has already triggered talk about the “balkanization” of the ministry, perhaps an overstatement, but arguably a not unjustifiable concern, particularly given the fact that we know little as yet about what will constitute “innovation and reform” in this particular instance. It is only after that has been explicitly spelt out that we will be able to attempt a proper assessment of Minister Henry’s list of responsibilities.

The other point to note, of course, is that the placing of Ms Henry in charge of the Ministry of Education coincides with the shifting of Mr Vincent Alexander from the ministry. Mr Alexander was reportedly a valuable asset to the ministry during the tenure of Dr Roopnaraine, and since the ministry is not exactly bursting at the seams with highly qualified and experienced personnel at the top, an inexperienced Minister Henry would benefit from a generous measure of administrative (and technical) support.

In the absence of any public pronouncement to the contrary we must assume that Minister Henry gets to keep the Culture, Youth and Sport. These have been long-standing and poorly cared for stepchildren under successive political administrations, the progress made in those areas over the years, reflected in the extent of the official attention that they have received. To continue to lump them with education under an inexperienced and largely untried minister is, perhaps, to send a signal, unintentionally or otherwise, that the present administration has no intention of taking these three important pillars of national development more seriously than did its predecessors.

Precedent suggests that Minister Henry appears to do her work in the full public glare and her early excursion into a draft policy on sport suggests that here again she seeks to hit the ground running ‒ except of course that she has to bear in mind that efforts to create and effectively implement a sports policy in Guyana have either failed to take flight or crashed and burned under successive political administrations. The main reason is that governments in Guyana have never really been prepared to recognize and act appropriately on the nexus between sport (and Youth and Culture for that matter) and development. Even so, we have learnt that Minister Henry has now thrown herself energetically into consultations aimed at the creation of a national sports policy, a disclosure that raises questions about just how she will go about dividing her energies down the road in circumstances where, unlike in the instance of Dr Roopnaraine, she has not – at least up until now – been assigned a junior Minister to support her.

There are concerns, primarily on account of all of these imponderables that arise out of Minister Henry’s appointment, and these – as has already been stated – have to do with the coincidence of the worrisome perch on which our education system stands and the aura of uncertainty that attends the changing of the guard. These are, we believe, entirely reasonable concerns.

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