Forbes Burnham and education

Forbes Burnham, Guyana’s first Prime Minister and Executive President and founder and leader of the People’s National Congress, is remembered for his peerless contribution to national development. Today, above all, we recall his achievements in the field of educational development.
Forbes Burnham was born in a colonial society in which schools were controlled largely by the churches. Many were overcrowded and underequipped. They were few and far between in rural and hinterland regions.

Forbes Burnham became the first elected Minister of Education in British Guiana in the short-lived popular administration of 1953. He was elected Premier in 1964 at the age of 41 years and set about the task of laying the foundation for the evolvement of an education nation.
He believed that public education was the cornerstone of social justice. Forbes Burnham announced, in a broadcast to the nation: “Education is the cornerstone of equality and one of the chief instruments for the abolition of snobbery and the removal of discrimination.”

He aspired to establish an educational system in which rural and hinterland schools would be as efficient as those on the coastland. He believed that, if the nation was to improve its citizens’ quality of life, it had to provide them with a high quality of education.

Forbes Burnham’s first decade in office – 1964-74 – was one of tremendous transformation of the public education system, making it more resilient and relevant to the national situation at the time and to our people’s aspirations for the future. He reinforced the bases of universal primary and secondary education and moved tertiary education from being the privilege of an élite few to an entitlement for everyone.

He augmented overall attendance and school enrolment and built new primary and secondary schools (including the first residential schools for Indigenous children at St. Ignatius in the Rupununi and Mabaruma in the Barima-Waini). He built modern multilateral schools on a regional basis –in the Pomeroon-Supenaam at Anna Regina, Demerara-Mahaica, Mahaica-Berbice, East Berbice-Corentyne at New Amsterdam and Upper Demerara-Berbice regions and Georgetown.

They still stand today as monuments and testimony to his commitment to regional public education.

He built community high schools and technical institutes, opened the first campus of the University of Guyana and the Cyril Potter College of Education at Turkeyen – all with the aim of providing the best education for the post-Independence generation.

Forbes Burnham gave effect to free public education by expanding opportunities for all. He entrenched free education as an entitlement in Constitution of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana which still mandates [at Article 27] that: “Every citizen has the right to free education from nursery to university…”

We are encouraged by his example. We are inspired by his vision. We, his heirs and successors, recommit to perpetuating his legacy of free public education. We remember him with reverence and respect. Ω

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