Roopnaraine missed a chance to reform the education bureaucracy

Dear Editor,

The announcement earlier this week that the Cabinet had been reshuffled for the third time in two years would, ordinarily, have been regarded as yet another bit of intrigue in a political alliance. This alliance had been born out of a sincerely held desire to transform the country’s stagnant, ethnic political culture, but it now resembles a tense and angst ridden marriage from which no party wants to walk away for fear of losing the mansion. However, that this latest bout of turmoil has seen the replacement of Dr Rupert Roopnaraine by Ms Nicolette Henry at the helm of the Ministry of Education has sent cardiac palpitations through educators, students and anyone else who supports a public education system that delivers the pastoral, academic, vocational and technical skills that our nation’s students need to thrive in the economy of the 21st century.

While Dr Roopnaraine’s tenure as the Minister of Education has fallen far short of inspiring, it is impossible to argue that Ms Henry, hitherto a Minister within the Education Ministry, is an apt substitute. For starters, there is the question of how committed Ms Henry, who is concurrently pursuing taxpayer funded doctoral studies in public health, will be to running the Ministry of Education which, by virtue of its receiving an allocation that is almost a fifth of the national budget is the country’s largest government agency. As anyone who’s been in graduate school can attest, tertiary pursuits at this level are demanding, and concern has been raised before of Ms Henry’s capacity to properly manage the twin demands of school and her official government duties. Financial analyst Sasenarine Singh famously asked in the wake of a fiasco involving Ms Henry, “What else can one expect from a part time Minister and full time student?”

Secondly, and not unrelated to the point raised earlier, Ms Henry does not have a track record of competent management even when tasked with, what in the complex world of policy-making amounts to rather simple projects. Her planning and execution of the events to commemorate Guyana’s 50th Independence Anniversary were widely panned. The 2016 flag raising ceremony, for instance, was marred by chaos over seating arrangements which led to the public humiliation and departure of a delegation of opposition lawmakers and their spouses. The Independence Gala had been described by one attendee, Ms Yolande Gittens, as “chouse”, with dinner served to diplomats on paper plates and guests at risk of tripping and falling because of unsafe carpeting.

With the strings to a purse worth $41 billion (US$200 million) now in her hands, Ms Henry will need to be far more watchful than she has been thus far, and she cannot do it with one eye on her academic prospects.

Moreover, even as President David Granger has promoted Ms Henry, it is not clear that the President himself has full confidence that his Minister is up to the task, as he has not handed full control of the education portfolio to Ms Henry. According to press reports, the President has indicated that a “department would be created in the Ministry of Presidency to oversee innovation and reform in the education sector” for which the President will have direct responsibility. (Even with a Cabinet well stocked with senior ministers, ministers within ministries and vice presidents, the President finds himself in the same position as a highly motivated high school student who is tasked with performing a group assignment alongside his lesser motivated peers who shirk their responsibilities and leave the golden boy to finish the project by himself.)

Thirdly, and not trivially, Ms Henry has no intellectual authority on matters of education policy, and therefore, lacks the credibility to lead 9,000 plus teachers on the critical mission to educate over 150,000 students. Her demonstrable ignorance of the country’s national holidays, common knowledge to even a first grader, may have given rise to ‘Phagwali’, 2017’s best addition to the political lexicon second only to US President Donald Trump’s ‘covfefe’. However, that episode, for which Ms Henry has never fully expressed contrition and accepted responsibility, but instead sanctioned her staffers, would make parents hesitant to even accept Ms Henry teaching their kindergartners.

None of this is to say that Dr Rupert Roopnaraine, who holds degrees from Cambridge and Cornell Universities and is renowned in the worlds of arts and political activism, was an especially astounding Minister of Education; he was not. In the two years he has been Minister, even as his ministry made welcome investments in school feeding programmes, education infrastructure as well as in science, mathematics and vocational training, the most far reaching and substantive policy innovation in education has been the much reviled ‘Brain Tax’, a 14% VAT imposition on tuition fees paid at private schools. Whether he failed to understand the regressive nature of the tax which punishes less well-off students and stymies social mobility; lacked the political courage to stand up to his Cabinet colleagues; or some combination of the two, Dr Roopnaraine abdicated his responsibility to defend and advance the interests of all students in this country. The government’s information arm quoted Dr Roopnaraine seemingly defending the Brain Tax, when he is reported to have said that the Ministry of Finance had “a lot of financial reasons why they are bringing this.”

Despite all the outlays on new programmes, curriculum reform and technology for the education sector, Dr Roopnaraine has not matched these expenditures with the institutional reform needed to align the goals of educators and school administrators with those of the government. No matter how many tablet computers and musical instruments one introduces to the classroom, of what use are they when the teachers and principals are unmotivated and under-prepared to deploy them? If Dr Roopnaraine had regarded the private education industry, which also includes the informal cottage industry of after school lessons, as a template instead of as a piggy bank to balance the government’s budget, he would have seen how incentives work to reward teachers and institutions that deliver quality instruction, and empower their students to perform well in regional and national exams, and motivate not so stellar instructors to up their game or risk being forced out of the private teaching profession.  Educators who run private programmes know that if their students do well, their reputations as instructors are enhanced and more students seek to enrol in their classes leading to more fees for their services.

Unfortunately, Dr Roopnaraine missed a chance he probably did not even know he had: to reform the sclerotic education bureaucracy to attract and retain high-performing educators and administrators who are empowered to pursue pedagogical and administrative best practices, and who are held accountable for student outcomes. Moreover, the longtime public figure who at one time had bragging rights to a storied political career that involved heroic acts of resistance to tyranny and who eventually became a minister of government, must now grapple with the twilight of his tenure being tainted with the hues of ineptitude and ignominy, as it also came to light that this Minister’s daughter, Ms Alicia Roopnaraine, was awarded a taxpayer sponsored scholarship to study in the United Kingdom.

If President David Granger’s coaxing of top military brass out of retirement to serve in high-ranking posts in the civil sector is anything to go by, it would appear that the country’s human capital base must be severely depleted. The post of Minister of Education, therefore, is far too important to be treated as a sinecure for the President’s political allies. Our posterity demands it.

Yours faithfully,

Saieed I Khalil

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