Secondary schools need to focus on quality general education

Dear Editor,

The first ten years of our post-independence period was one of great hope and great ambition for all those patriots and visionaries who thought that Guyana, having been released from the shackles of colonialism, might create a society in which the rising generations could achieve a good life within a cooperative society. This was the hope of the governments of that period who gave generously to the development of the University of Guyana (UG), to make education free at all levels, and it was the hope of citizens whose taxes provided the money.   

As I saw these developments at close quarters (having been a staff member of Queen’s College in 1963 where UG was first established, and later as a faculty member of the Faculty of Education, UG), and then much later from a distance, I have become increasingly doubtful as to whether these hopes will be realized since insufficient thought is being given to the function and purpose of education in Guyana, and to its implementation in practice. Whatever is being done appears to be done without any rigorous intellectualization of the real educational needs of Guyana – the current Guyana Secondary School Improvement Project (GSSIP), is an example. To provide more of the same appears to be enough. The question of whether it should be different never seems to arise.

It is almost two decades since a regional scholar (Prof. Elsa Leo-Rhynie, 2001) pointed to the need to “craft a system of education more appropriate to the needs of Caribbean youth”. Later (2012), Dr. D. Jules, the Registrar of the Caribbean Examinations Council was more emphatic when he declared that: “the education systems of the Caribbean no longer serve the region well. Tinkering with the systems no longer works. A new vehicle for human empowerment and social transformation is needed”. These observations, ignored by our education policy makers, appear to be validated by a recent report in the media which indicated that most of the crime in Guyana is committed by youths in the 14-17 age range. These are school-age youths and are most likely school dropouts.  

When all the evidence: the deep-seated and corrosive ethnic tensions, the widespread fall in standards, the wastage in education, the high level of criminal activity, the destruction of our ecosystems, the endemic incompetence and corruption, the disrespect for life, limb, property and the host of other forms of anti-social behaviours is taken into consideration, attempts at modernization and nation building will not only be challenging, but futile as well unless these attempts  are preceded by the transformation of our education system to provide for all the needs of all our youth.   We must give all of our youth quality secondary education. We must give them worthwhile values and tools, and they will build for us a better society.   

It is expected that quality secondary education would lead to some understanding of all the major areas of human knowledge. It is also expected that students \would have some facility for all the major modes of thinking or inquiry through which the various funds of knowledge are acquired, and a mastery of the intellectual skills through which knowledge is communicated. Among other things, secondary education is expected to cultivate in individuals the ability to: a) know what is right and what is wrong, b) live by the golden rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you;  c) know what is fantasy, fiction, fake and what is the truth; d) know and to love  one’s country; and, e) foster a love for life-long learning. The success of all future human endeavours is greatly influenced by what transpired during the secondary stage of the education process.

We must accept the fact that our present inherited educational practice was not designed to make Guyanese an independent and development-oriented people.   Developments or reforms in the Guyanese education system were patterned after similar events in the United Kingdom (UK), where the narrow single departmental structure of universities greatly influenced the practice of education at the secondary level. As a consequence the proper focus of secondary education became distorted. There were two factors, among others, which contributed significantly to this distortion.

First there was a change in the nature of the secondary school leaving, or matriculating examinations that were developed by the universities. Up until the 1950s, students who wrote secondary school leaving, or matriculating examinations had to take a wide range of subjects from various fields of human knowledge.    Students had to secure passes in at least six of the subjects offered before they were considered to have been successful or to have matriculated. Later this policy was changed to allow students to write fewer subjects from a more limited range of knowledge fields.

Second, the effects of the age of specialization not only made society more complex, but had a tremendous influence on developments in education at the tertiary level. This in turn exerted a corresponding pressure at the secondary level.    Fourteen year-olds were now being asked to choose the fields in which they would like to specialize when they become adults. The constraining effects of university entrance requirements adversely affected the ability of secondary schools to focus on general education. As a consequence many secondary students leave school with one eye shut – ignorant of entire fields of human knowledge.   Most of our present public school teachers are such secondary school graduates. Little wonder the system is in such a poor state.

The United Kingdom and the Caribbean countries which maintained similar education policies have paid a terrible price – even the little bit of patrimony that Guyana possesses is being taken away for mere trinkets. With regard to the Standard of Living Index the UK is almost at the bottom of the league of European nations. Guyana and the rest of the Carib-bean appear to be still born. Common-wealth universities, like American universities, should base their admissions on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), or similar tests. This would liberate secondary schools to focus on quality general education.   

There are many more aspects that need to be considered in the transformation of Guyana’s education system to make it more democratic and development-oriented. The University of Guyana should, as soon as is humanly possible, hold a conference to address the issue of “Education and the Social Crises in Guyana” with the aim of informing future education policy.

Yours faithfully,

Clarence O. Perry

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