(by Walter B. Alexander) The effectiveness and the efficiency of the education system have been in the dock in the court of public opinion since this trial first began in 1966 with Independence. The end of the trial is not in sight, because of the complexities of the case.
The effectiveness of the system can be compared to the digestive system, where the intake of food is necessary for growth and functions of the body, and the food goes through changes and orderly stages. The efficiency can be likened to clockwork which can only keep accurate time if the wheels of the clock (not the Stabroek Market clock nor the General Post Office clock) are in good working order.
Nevertheless, whatever are the analogies, the public is impatiently waiting for a decision by 2016 when we will observe (not celebrate) half a century of independence. But the question is basically whether the education system has been delivering. In order to begin to answer this question, one must take into consideration that any education system has various components which are inter-related and inter-dependent. The most visible of the components are the schools, and you can measure the quality of the schools on the whole by measuring the output. It is also useful for individual communities to assess the contribution of their schools to their individual communities.
Remember that the whole picture is the sum-total of its parts. And in looking at the schools we must also focus on the teachers, who are the role models for the students, academic-wise and otherwise. Lest we forget, the motto of the century and a quarter-old Guyana Teachers Union is “We mould the nation”. Furthermore, the corps of teachers comprises the products of the schools. Therefore, improved schools can lead to an improved quality of intake for initial Teacher Training. This in turn will lead to a better quality of teachers, who after graduation will hopefully contribute to moulding more students so as to renew and perpetuate the system of formal education, in the first place. And in the second place, the country needs improved schools so that they can contribute towards national development, an elusive goal since Independence.
Following the increased demand for places in schools (especially secondary) since the 1960s and with the take-over of private schools by the State in 1976, the public education sector has expanded to such an extent that there is almost total access to education at the three levels (Nursery, Primary, and Secondary) in all Regions and in Georgetown at present. What is of major concern today is the quality of the output from the Primary Schools and both the quality and quantity of the graduates from the Secondary Schools.
When one examines the statistics of the pupils who write the National Grade Six Assessment (NGSA), one finds that more than 50% of the pupils score less than 50% of the Raw Score and thereby obtain less that 430 marks out of a maximum of the Converted Score of about 560 marks.
It has been found that more than one-half of the pupils leaving the state primary schools cannot read at an acceptable level. This is not like 50 years ago when the situation was healthier. While over 80% of primary school graduates gain places in secondary schools (including Senior Secondary Schools and other List A Schools), the majority enter the Fifth Form schools hoping to cope with the necessary reading of textbooks and written material on the chalkboard.
We move from about 17,000 candidates at NGSA to about 14,000 in Form I (Grade 7) in State Schools to about 13,000 (country-wide) writing CSEC to less than 2000 matriculating (passing 5 subjects with English A and Mathematics) at the end of the formal school career. When one considers the successes at CSEC of the private schools, one wonders how far the education system provides real equality of opportunity. In another light, it is noted that demographically males comprise about 50 % of the population, and that up to the end of the primary school cycle boys are just under 50 % of the total school enrolment. The gap in enrolment between boys and girls widens during the secondary school years, not to speak of the post-secondary enrolment. Also, in attempting to examine the performance of schools, it is useful to consider the role of parents as major stake-holders in education. Too many parents are not discharging their responsibilities.
Let us now look at teachers and their impact on the education system. There are now about 9,000 teachers in the state schools at the nursery, primary and secondary levels. These teachers are change-agents in academic development of students, and it has been said that ‘a scholar makes a scholar.’
Now the present system does not attract the best and the brightest students to seek a career in teaching. There is a constant need for more competent teachers whose teaching is stimulating and challenging to students. Graduates with the Bachelor’s Degree in the Arts or in the Natural Sciences do not become teachers. Over the last 30 years the majority of teachers in our Sixth Form Schools come from the Fifth Form Schools.
While we moan about the country’s under-performance in Mathematics at CSEC, it should be pointed out that the University of Guyana is not producing from the Faculty of Natural Sciences Mathematics graduates. It may be argued that the School of Education and Humanities graduate majors in Mathematics for Secondary Schools, but the courses there are more about Methodology than Content. Many a B.Ed. graduate is ‘afraid’ to teach at the Form Five level. And let us not forget that there has been no Physics graduate from U.G. in the last seven years. There is a dearth of Physics lecturers. Consequently, the stream of Physics teachers for Secondary Schools will dry up!
What is at the heart of the problem of attracting more able teachers? The low salary scales. The low earning power of teachers. Here is a striking comparison. Thirty years ago, two years of the gross salary of a Graduate Teacher was the equivalent of the price of a decent three-bedroom house in Georgetown. Today, a similar house cannot be acquired for less than the equivalent of 10 years of the gross salary of the same category of teacher. Furthermore, because of bunching of teachers within a scale and because of the cessation of payment of increments based on performance, there are no differentials in the salaries of teachers of the same category. Experience here counts for nought. And you cannot confer experience on a person, nor can you legislate commitment.
In the not so distant past, relatively small batches of teachers (30 per year) were trained at a time. Then it was 150 teachers in training per batch. Today, the initial training of teachers has an annual intake of over 600 Trainee Teachers in Pre-Service Programmes and In-Service Programmes. These programmes are conducted at the Cyril Potter College of Education (at the Turkeyen Campus) and at Centres in out-lying Regions. It must be noted that a Distance Education mode forms part of the methodology for off-Campus Centres.
However, the expansion in the number of students has not kept pace with the recruitment of staff. In recent years it has been a problem to appoint lecturers for some core courses and enrichment subjects. It is normal and expected to recruit lecturers from the pool of competent experienced teachers who are willing to change their career paths from school to college. But the conditions of service must be attractive. Such conditions must include Sabbatical Leave and Study Leave so that lecturers may expose themselves to practices in overseas Teacher Training institutions and/or seek to earn Higher Degrees.
Further, it is embarrassing to see and inconvenient for lecturers to be hustling to catch public transportation. In this day and age it is necessary for lecturers to enjoy a Motor Car Allowance. How could a senior member of the College staff not own a car? Position and status must be real. Therefore, the attempts to expand training for teachers must be accompanied by provision for satisfied staff.
While the Ministry of Education may boast of the provision of an adequate number of school places country-wide and of the increasing number of trained teachers, that in itself is not sufficient to ensure success for the majority of students in the Public Schools by the end of the third cycle of formal education. There are two problems that must be addressed. In the first place, schools need to be properly managed by the 11 Departments of Education (10 Regions and Georgetown) to ensure that the schools are performing at optimum levels. In the second place, the national curricula (which are revised from time to time) must be readily available in schools together with adequate resources for their implementation.
For Departments of Education to properly manage their schools, these Departments must essentially be staffed with officers who have proven their competence and are thereby respected by teachers. You should recruit your Education Officers out of the ranks of successful teachers, especially Headteachers. At this time, Departments need more Officers who are knowledgeable of the teaching of Mathematics, Science and Technology. Having the B.Ed. (Admin) is not enough, because the Officer is not a mere co-ordinator, but a leader in his/her field. With respect to curricula and teaching resources, both NCERD (National Centre for Educational Resource Development of the Central Ministry and the Resource Centres in the Regions must be adequately (not fully) staffed. Adequate staffing comes from offering attractive salaries and other benefits. One cannot expect to recruit only retired persons. Hence, the vision of NCERD established in 1986 is still to be realized.
There was also a vision for the University of Guyana at its establishment 50 years ago. UG is at the apex of the education system. According to the University of Guyana Act Chapter 39:02, the aims of the University are “to provide a place of education, learning and research of a standard required and expected of a university of the highest standard …”
The University’s Mission Statement says in part ‘to discover, generate, disseminate, and apply knowledge of the highest standard for the service of the community, the nation …” By the time of the last Convocation (November 2013), there have been 15,000 graduates including 1,600 from the Turkeyen and Berbice campuses in 2013.
The Historical Note in the 2013 Convocation booklet states that the graduates have “gone on to successful careers both locally and internationally. True, but more of the graduates are overseas. Hence, local institutions are suffering from a shortage of personnel and personnel of quality.
Like the Public Schools, UG cannot attract and retain enough qualified staff. The Salary Scales are such, that the quantum of pensions for Lecturers (including Senior Lecturers) in a Contributory Pension Scheme after 20, 25,or 30 years of service is LESS THAN THE NATIONAL MINIMUM WAGE. Therefore, the quality of teaching has declined.
The teachers graduating today are not being exposed to the quality of lecturers as in earlier years. Hence, they proceed to schools where many of them offer a level of instruction that portray a case of diminishing returns. The students they produce later are admitted to UG and produce work of a lower quality, notwithstanding there are exceptions. Apparently, the education system is in a vicious circle, and the Ministry of Education has been tinkering with solutions to the problems in schools. We are being consumed by the mini-bus culture. The drivers and the conductors run things with their reckless driving and loud music.
The policemen, including Traffic Police, are the products of our schools from which many leave (not graduate) with limited literacy and limited knowledge of science. Since a scholar makes a scholar, the salary must be right to attract and retain more teachers/lecturers of quality in the schools and in the University. Only satisfied and respected teachers/lecturers can make a difference in the effectiveness and efficiency of our education system.
Walter B. Alexander is A Retired Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education and Former Lecturer at the University of Guyana. Mr Alexander’s article first appeared in Insight’s Volume 2. Edition 1 (2014)