Between 2015 and the present, the issue of a salary increase for teachers in the public school system has been simmering, occasionally threatening to boil over into controversy between the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) and the Ministry of Education (MoE). And as with many of the real and self-made crises that the APNU+AFC administration has had to deal with since coming into office, the intervention of President David Granger was required to help avert a potential strike by teachers in late 2017.
The President initiated the setting up of a joint task force comprising representatives from government and representatives from the GTU to look into the issue of a pay increase for teachers.
Despite the often used slogan that ‘Education makes a nation,’ teachers in Guyana have seen their efforts to negotiate with the MoE for a better wage firstly ignored, and then rebuffed with the statement that any increase to teachers must be tied to increases offered to public sector employees – a statement which the President subsequently described as premature. Since then the joint task force has been working towards a resolution which the GTU is optimistic will produce an acceptable result.
Nevertheless, the protracted nature of the union’s engagement with the government has the painful appearance of pulling teeth, to use a popular idiom. Since coming into office, the President has placed much emphasis on education, both in word and deed, particularly in the hinterland areas with his laudable ‘Three B’s programme’ aimed at making available boats, buses and bicycles to facilitate and improve school attendance by children in those communities. Since its launch the 3B’s programme has been enhanced with books and breakfast, making it a 5B’s programme. Corporate citizens of the private sector have also played a significant role in this initiative by making donations to facilitate those acquisitions.
The late American President John F Kennedy is quoted as saying, “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.” This quite profound statement of the mind as the chief resource is one that can be grasped by all sectors of the economy, as employee performance is often linked to employee education and literacy. Additionally, there is a large school of thought that links illiteracy with the propensity to commit violent crimes, particularly as joblessness affects illiterate persons much more than literate ones.
Alternatively, it is widely believed that how well students learn depend on how well they are taught, and teachers who are well educated and highly motivated usually produce students who perform well. A well-educated nation does indeed progress from strength to strength, as the John F Kennedy quote suggests, and this is not at all a difficult concept to grasp, particularly at the level of those tasked with leading the country.
It therefore seems like quite the contradiction that special attention was not given to teachers working in the public school system since 2015. When the government launched a Commission of Enquiry into the education system, one might have thought that the issue of teachers’ salaries raised by the union with this government in 2015 might have been among the terms of reference. However, it was left up to a separate task force to look into the matter and only then, after the union had threatened a two-day strike in late 2017. For a government that paid itself handsome increases just months after assuming office, the reticence with which the teachers’ matters have been treated smacks of some degree of disingenuousness.
And this is not a particularly difficult matter for the administration; outside of the issue of availability of funds in the budget, the standard excuse against salary increases, the government must have its own assessment of what constitutes a fair wage for persons employed in this most essential of professions – teachers have been referred to as the moulders of the nation. Once the government has decided on the salaries payable to teachers at the various levels and this does not find favour with the teachers themselves through their union, then it must be concluded that there is a fundamental disconnect between the two parties as to the value of teachers in the public school system to the economy. Unless this disconnect is corrected it would be difficult if not impossible to deal with more complicated issues relating to teachers’ pay.
Such issues relate to the contention teachers have that their acquisition of tertiary education credentials in Social Sciences degrees should result in financial recognition by way of positive salary adjustments by the MoE. However, they claim that this has not been happening according to a report in the state-run newspaper.
As much as it seems par for the course in Guyana that documentation in important procedural matters is either outdated, ignored or unrecorded, one has to believe that a principle that rewards teachers for certain types of personal academic improvements must be easily verifiable, easily resolvable and should not be allowed to add to the separate outstanding matter of salary increases. With that said it must be acknowledged that the issues of continuity and retaining institutional knowledge plague changes of administration in Guyana, probably more than in many other democratic countries of the world.
President Granger has always made education an important part of his political campaign and now in government he continues to stress its importance. Now that both the education commission of enquiry and the report of the joint task force looking into the salary increase issue have been completed, let us hope for a speedy decision and implementation so that the teachers can refocus on the important job of moulding future generations of Guyanese.