Public education and national development
Guyana – the largest CARICOM state – is a continental country with Caribbean characteristics. Its population density is 4 persons per km², compared to Barbados’s 660 persons per km² or Trinidad’s 254 persons per km².
Guyana – a small state, faced formidable challenges, not the least of which was a shortage of sufficient human resources – attained Independence in 1966.
The state, on the eve of Independence on 25th May 1966, still saw its major public institutions in foreign hands. The Chief of Staff of the Defence Force and Commissioner of the Police Force; Vice-Chancellor of the University; Bishops of the Anglican and Roman Churches; chief executives of the bauxite and sugar industries and the banks were foreigners.
This challenge was compounded by the country’s geographical size, its demographic density and dispersion of several small, scattered, communities which pose difficulties for the effective delivery of public services, including education.
The state emerged into independence under a ‘state of emergency’. The nation faced grave challenges immediately prior to, and soon after, Independence. Scores of persons were slaughtered in a period called the ‘Disturbances’ which ended only eighteen months before Independence.
A serious rebellion aimed at secession erupted in a region, in the south, larger than the Republic of Costa Rica thirty-one months after Independence.
The history of humanity is one of cultural interactions. Conquest, travel and migration have exposed people to different cultures. Education has been transformed through these and contacts.
The history of Guyana, like the history of humanity, involved interactions among peoples of varying cultures. Four worlds collided with each other – from the Americas, the indigenous Amerindians; from Africa; from Asia, the Chinese and Indians and from Europe the British and Portuguese – each group with its own distinct cultural characteristics. These arrivals added to the diversity of the nation’s cultural tapestry.
The state, in light of the problems of integration and development, was audacious enough, within the first decade of Independence, to launch a programme of free education from nursery to university in order to reverse the problems of the inherited institutions and systems.
The principal objective of public education is to establish a first-class, inclusive, globally-competitive tertiary education system which will generate a highly-skilled workforce.
Inclusive education is one in which every citizen feels a sense of belonging and in which inequality is diminished. An inclusive education system requires increased attention to culture in education.
The foundation of the public education system was laid more than 200 years ago in Guyana by religious organizations – first by the Congregationalists and Methodists and, later, by other Christian denominations.
Primary education, prior to Independence, was provided primarily by government schools, private schools and church schools aided by the State. More than 90 per cent of the population had access to primary education at the time of Independence.
Secondary education was limited, however, to those who secured free places at the Common Entrance examinations or whose parents could afford to send them to private secondary schools.
The pre-Independence education system was patterned, broadly, along the lines of the colonial educational system. The curricula glorified imperial institutions, geography, history, industry and society, primarily, at the elementary level which Dr. Slinger Francisco vocalised so eloquently.
The system was ill-adjusted to the aspirations of a newly-independent, developing nation with a growing multicultural population, sometimes exaggerated expectations for rapid economic and social change.
A system that would expand educational access to nursery, primary and secondary levels, while offering opportunities for tertiary education, was needed. The public education system introduced after Independence, aimed, inter alia, at:
increasing access to education so as to create a better educated workforce;
inculcating the self-confidence needed to assume responsibility for the government, economy and society; and
integrating the nation while eliminating inequalities and extreme poverty and emphasising the social virtues of equality, especially among ethnic groups, and mutual respect.
Guyana is a multicultural society and just emerging from more than 350 years of colonial rule at Independence. It needed a public educational system which promoted national integration by affirming the link between education and culture.
Education and Culture
I remarked, recently, that education and culture are connected inextricably. Education prepares people to live in, and adapt to, society; preserves and transmits cultural knowledge, skills and values and propagates cultural beliefs, customs and traditions.
The elements of culture consist of its material aspects – artefacts, food and clothing and its non-material aspects such as its beliefs, language and values. Education is a means of preserving and propagating these elements. It is a medium through which people who live in multicultural settings could learn to appreciate and respect cultural diversity.
The colonial education system utilized one common language. Guyana’s heritage, however, is diverse – the nine indigenous peoples – Akawaio, Arawak, Arekuna, Carib, Macushi, Patamona, Wai Wai, Wapishana and Warrau – each speaks its own language which is not necessarily intelligible to others. Africans, Chinese, Indians and Portuguese who came also brought their own languages, about 180 years ago.
Language reflects the influence of Guyana’s cultural diversity. Dr. Richard Allsopp pointed to the linguistic contribution of our ethnic groups, exemplified in the everyday use of words and expressions which, typically, are Guyanese or creolese – paal, rod, koker and stelling, bateau, kwe-kwe, fu-fu, metemgee, dharoo, benab, matapee and warishi. Other expressions – such as ‘eye-pass’, ‘cut-eye’; ‘hard-ears’ and ‘suck-teeth’ – are typical creolese.
People communicate using these words which are quite commonplace in our society and pregnant with meaning. There are similar experiences in other Caribbean societies.
Colonial influences had a great impact on the public education system through the curricula, discipline, dress, language and the organization of the school year which coincided with the Anglo-Christian festivals of Easter and Christmas terms.
Education and culture interact in the classrooms which, in many secondary schools, consist of a medley of ethnicities – Africans, Amerindians, Chinese, Indians, Portuguese and persons of mixed ancestry and religious denominations such as Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Rastafarians.
The six top secondary schools in Guyana – Berbice High School, Bishops’ High School, Queens College, St. Joseph High School, St. Rose’s High School and St. Stanislaus College – all began as Christian schools and are all more than 100 years old.
There is a ‘geography of perception’ which reflects cultural differences and disparities which persist and cannot be ignored.
Teaching in Yakusari in Berbice cannot be the same as teaching in Yupukari in the Rupununi. Learners are not all the same yet, curricula tend to be the same, textbooks tend to be the same and examinations tend to be the same.
A fourth-form learner from the hinterland said, famously: Teach me about mining, or teach me about farming…I am going to be a miner and a farmer, like my father. I do not care about finding the square root of 28.”
Decade of Development 2020-2029:
Educational transformation takes time. Guyana will launch a Decade of Development 2020-2029 over the next ten years to continue to transform its public education system. The Decade will accord the highest importance to education, including tertiary education.
Education is a right accorded under the Constitution of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana. The ’Constitution’ [at Article 27(1)] states: Every citizen has the right to free education from nursery to university. I intend to enforce that entitlement.
The right to free education is not decorative or declaratory. It is decreed by the ‘Constitution’.
Education is inseparable from culture. Its mission is to impart and propagate cultural customs and values. Education and culture must be made compatible for an inclusive system of education in a country such as ours. An inclusive system of education should:
require that schools’ curricula reflect Guyana’s cultural diversity;
respect everyone’s right to practice their own cultures;
protect the right of religious communities to instruct children.
The Decade of Development will accord the highest importance to public education, including tertiary education. It will ensure that every Guyanese child is:
afforded access to education, including by having at least a nursery school in every village so that children do not have to travel long distances to receive elementary education;
encouraged to attend, to stay in, and to graduate from, secondary school; and
afforded the opportunity to attend the University.
Every teacher will have an opportunity to attend university and to benefit from improved teacher-training. Educators are the sinews of the education system; they are central to achieving the aim of education which is to produce graduates equipped with the knowledge, skills and values for their personal development and to enhance national development.
They guarantee quality assurance in education. Educational standards will decline unless there is a corps of trained and qualified teachers capable of upholding quality assurance standards in education.
Teacher-training is vital to preparing our educators for the role which they will be expected to play in ensuring quality and inclusive education for all. Teacher training is being improved:
I launched the One Laptop per Teacher Initiative on the 5th October 2016. Almost 9,000 laptops have been distributed under that initiative which is aimed at ensuring that every teacher has the tools to better prepare their lessons;
I presented laboratory equipment, donated by the People’s Republic of China, to the Cyril Potter College of Education which is responsible for training teachers; and
I intervened to ensure an increase in the stipends for trainee teachers, at the ‘College’, by 66 per cent and 52.5 per cent for resident and non-resident trainee teachers respectively.
The theme of the ‘Conference’: “Investing in educators for academic growth and national development” is relevant to the national discourse on education.
Efforts at repositioning public education are aimed at producing the knowledge, skills and values required for national development.
Petroleum production expected to commence next year, 2020, will result in an increased rate of economic growth and public revenues.
The country, at the same time, is in the process of becoming a ‘green state’ which will emphasize the preservation and protection of the environment and the promotion of the use of renewable energy, ecotourism and value-added production.
Education is essential to ensuring that every citizen could benefit from these developments. Education is the principal means available to produce a corps of highly-skilled and trained Guyanese who will guide the ‘green state’ agenda.
Guyana will be unable to maximize the returns on its natural resource endowment unless its public education system could allow for the generation of highly-skilled persons, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Public education is moving on the correct path. It is moving in the right direction. It will continue to do so in the decade ahead with the support of our educators.
Guyana is overcoming the challenges of history, geography and demography. It is gearing itself to become a model education nation which will assure its population of a quality and inclusive public education system.
Guyana’s teachers are essential to the success of this process. They can be assured that their contributions will be duly recognized and rewarded.
The University of Guyana’s Centre of Excellence for Teaching and Learning has an important role to play in elucidating the complex relationship between education and culture in order to achieve greater social cohesion and national development.