August 21, 2014

Education need of the hour

Last week’s announcement of the CSEC results for the year and the conclave on Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) held a week later at the National Centre for Education Resource Development (NCERD) is a tale of the status of two systems of education in Guyana.

In the former, the Education Minister herself took centre stage in front of TV cameras to deliver the “Top 50” in the CSEC. In the latter, only stakeholders were engaged in an interactive seminar to discuss the way forward in TVET.

In Guyana, the British bequeathed a system in which the focus was on “general” rather than “vocational” education – the model being the “grammar school” exemplified by Queens College. Viewing the natives literally as the “hewers of wood and drawers of water”, this meant they were to be qualified in the skills necessary only to produce the primary products that were needed at most, basic skills. Secondary processing and manufacturing that demanded higher technical skills were for the “Mother Country”. This was the genesis of “underdevelopment”.

The Minister’s conspicuous absence symbolises the fact that we have not yet jettisoned that “colonial mentality”. And this is really the irony: that we give such low importance to TVET in our country even though at our level of development, it has the potential to most develop both our youths and the needs of the country.

At this point in our history, TVET can play the necessary vital role to develop our human resource by creating the skilled manpower to enhance our industrial productivity and not so incidentally, to provide the wages that can enable our people to improve their quality of life.

It might surprise many, and maybe some officials in our education system, that we are in the last year of a five (and final) year of executing a plan guided by a “Policy on Technical and Vocational Education and Training 2009-2014”. The “Strategic Plan 2008 -2013”, in terms of TVET, “recognises a shortage of trained staff in some sectors and the need to improve existing facilities and provide better equipment. It recommends a gradual increase of the number of TVET schools and ensuring that they are properly equipped”.

That these same needs were identified last Tuesday should be cause for concern – not least by those in the Education Ministry responsible for this area as much as for passes at CSEC.

At this time, there is still some uncertainty as to what constitutes “TVET” and in the literature used in Guyana, the terms Technical Education (TE) and Vocational Training (VT) are sometimes used synonymously. However, more rigorously, the term TE should refer to post-secondary courses of study and practical training aimed at preparation of technicians to work as supervisory staff. The term VT refers to lower-level education and training for the population of skilled or semi-skilled workers in various trades and it does not enhance their level with respect to general education.

Both systems are part of the TVET programme in Guyana and are covered at the Carnegie School of Home Economics; Government Technical Institute; Linden Technical Institute; Essequibo Technical Institute; New Amsterdam Technical Institute; Guyana Industrial Training Centre; Upper Corentyne Industrial Training Centre; Leonora Technical and Vocational Training Centre; Mahaicony Technical and Vocational Training Centre; Craft Production and Design Division and the University of Guyana.

The latter focuses totally on TE and offers diploma and degree programmes in Civil Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Geology and Mining.

At Tuesday’s seminar at NCERD, which appears to have occurred in a media Black Hole from which no information can escape, the Director of Council for Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET), Mr Sydney Walters, made some pertinent remarks that should be of interest to all Guyanese. We invite the Education Minister to confer the wider coverage that is axiomatic when she is involved.

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Matching talk with money

Among the highlights of the just concluded Caricom-Japan Summit which was recently held in Trinidad and Tobago is an initiative which entails a US$15 million grant to boost the Region’s capacity to overcome the impacts of natural disasters. This project will enable countries in the Caribbean, including Guyana, Suriname and Belize, to enhance their adaptive capacity to climate change and natural disasters.

Caribbean countries share common vulnerabilities, ranging from debt and excessive dependence on international trade to climate change and rising sea levels. For example, most of Jamaica was left without electricity, and public infrastructure suffered damage valued at hundreds of millions of dollars following the passage of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

In Grenada, Hurricane Ivan left damage worth 203 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and St Lucia lost 365 per cent of its GDP following Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. Most of us in Guyana would also recall the massive floods in 2005 which resulted in severe damage to agricultural crops and livestock. In addition to significant damage to property, several Guyanese lost their lives.

The Caribbean needs help in fighting climate change. Most of the economies of the Region are small and national governments are occupied trying to find jobs and creating more opportunities for their citizens. They do not have the necessary resources which amount to millions of US dollars to make the kind of investments in mitigation and adaptation projects.

We therefore welcome this new Japan-Caribbean-UNDP Partnership as it will boost national policies and plans to cope with climate change-related adversity, among them, being aiming to reduce dependency on fossil fuel imports, setting the Region on a low-emission path and improving access to sustainable energy.

There has been much talk by the big players such as the European Union and the US. While they have all expressed how concerned they are, they are not matching their talk with the massive level of investments needed to help poorer countries put systems in place to adequately deal with the impacts of climate change.

Countries which are the biggest producers of carbon emissions are some of the slowest when it comes to implementing meaningful measures against climate change. The Caribbean countries are perhaps among the lowest polluters in the world, yet they are the ones who are facing (and will continue to face) the brunt of the impact of climate change.

The world has committed to finalising a legally binding climate agreement by 2015 and that is now only a few months away. Former President Bharrat Jagdeo who has been a global advocate on climate change issues had said that if we are to have a chance at winning this battle, urgent and necessary action will need to be taken at the highest level of world governments and international bodies.

Jagdeo had also warned that there are practical interventions which could be taken now to minimise the effects of climate change, these include: building hurricane-proof hospitals and schools; making agriculture and other economic activities more resilient to climate events; and creating new financial mechanisms that make clean energy more attractive.

These are practical solutions that can be delivered today. Jagdeo had argued: “Not only do they make moral and economic sense, but they are indispensable to building trust within the international community that the world is serious about addressing climate change.”

Climate change and rising sea levels no doubt pose severe threats to countries such as Guyana considering we are below sea level and much our people live on the coastland and depend on agriculture for a living. The big question is how do we move forward.

There is general agreement that industrialised countries have a moral obligation to do more in terms of helping poorer countries avert the catastrophic effects of the climate change phenomenon. Japan and Norway are among the countries that have matched their talk with money, others should follow suit.

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Health Research-Practice Gap

Even in the more developed countries, there exists what has been called a “Health Research-Practice Gap” (HRP-Gap). As one of the accepted “basic needs” for humanity, the improvement of the health or “well being” of a country’s population is one of the goals of every Government in the world.

In fact, several specific aspects of the health spectrum, such as maximum allowable levels of maternal deaths and child mortality are two of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) established by the UN to be achieved by 2015.

This HRP-Gap was very evident in the poorer countries that attempted to achieve the MMG and struggled to touch their targets in the specified areas. It also became obvious that the phenomenon was not even confined just to the health sector. The gap can be illustrated by reference to the efforts to get a handle on deaths by suicide in our country. For almost two decades now, there have been persistent outcries for “something to be done” to bring down the suicide rate, which is one of the highest in the world.

Several research projects, beginning with one by Dr Frank Beckles in 2000 and followed up by others privately and by the Health Ministry were conducted. But just this week there has been another initiative launched by a private group to deal with the scourge that takes over 200 lives every year in the country.

The Health Ministry had collaborated with PAHO and Dalhousie University in Canada five years ago to launch a “Gatekeepers’ Programme” as an intervention in what was defined by then as a “mental health issue”.

While there has been no definitive analysis as to why the programme petered out and must be seen as a “failure” – at least in implementation, one reason was that it was not explicitly tied to research in the subject done in this country.

In one of the WHO designated World Suicide Prevention Day, the specific role of culture was highlighted and this is obvious in the statistics in Guyana: the suicide rate amongst Indian Guyanese is at least four times that of other ethnic groups.

Dr Beckles’ research paper of almost a decade and a half ago stressed this point – yet in all the dozen or so initiatives launched since then – both public and private – there has been no connection to this research find and a linked implementation strategy. This is a paradigmatic example of the HRP-Gap.

What this lacuna highlights is that the formulation of health policy must be a much more dynamic and iterative process that it is now between those in charge of that area in Government and researchers in the field.

The question is why this is not done more than it is at present: why our HRP-Gap? One reason is that some researchers do not work directly with policy makers, but see themselves as simply “seeking knowledge”. On the other hand, policy makers also seem to prefer to work in a vacuum, ignoring local researchers and simply imitate foreign practices that may not be applicable to the local reality.

It is our considered judgement that we can begin to bridge this gap between practitioners and researchers in our country by bringing together researchers, activists and Health Ministry workers together on this particular health problem that presently confronts our society.

In the last week there have been at least two suicides that were reported in the press and the announcement by at least one new private group of an initiative on suicide prevention. The Health Ministry can begin the process of instituting a cultural shift in how we address health problems in Guyana now.

World Suicide Prevention Day falls on September 10 and this would a good time to start bridging the HRP-Gap. The approach can then be used as a model in other areas as the relationships between the two groups become formalised.

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Marketing rice

News of the rice deal struck with Panama on the monthly exportation of 5000 tons of rice to that country is very welcome. This newspaper has been vociferous on the imbalance between our rising production of rice and the anaemic efforts at marketing the surplus for the export trade.

Even a man-in-the-street would be aware that such a state of affairs inevitably results in falling prices for the producers, millers and exporters and hitches in the flow of revenues occasioned by the gap between production and sales,

Once again, we have to point out that this new market was opened up because of the personal intervention of our sitting Head of State, in this case President Donald Ramotar with his counterpart in Panama, on the sidelines of an international meeting.

This was also the case with the Venezuelan rice-for-oil barter arrangement worked out between former President Bharrat Jagdeo and the now deceased Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. This is ironic in light of the vaunted opportunities claimed to be presented by the removal of governments from market interventions.

During the 1960s, the PPP Government had developed the Guyana Rice Marketing Board (GRMB) to handle the then burgeoning rice production, which resulted from expansion of the acreage under rice, through initiatives such as the Black Bush Polders’ Scheme. All of this had collapsed under the PNC Government by the end of their 28-year illegal rule in 1992.

During that time, under the influence of the US that had installed the PNC into Government, the rice industry was forced into producing the specialty “extra long grain rice” for the premium European markets. This locked us out from many other markets, such as in Latin America, which did not place a premium on such a variety. By the end of the PNC regime, the Europeans had moved on to other arrangements – as they would soon do in sugar.

After a loophole in the EU agricultural regime resulted in a temporary spurt of rice exported to the EU in the late 1990s, the Europeans soon closed this off and placed the issue of marketing rice on our front burner once more. By this time, however, the GRMB had been dismantled under the dictated “night-watchman” role of the state, envisaged by the IMF-imposed policies dubbed the “Washington Consensus”.

Under this dispensation, rice marketing was supposed to be handled by private players – a circumstance, for whatever reason, never really took hold in this country.

And we arrive at the present anomalous situation where the Government has been forced (in the persons of its Heads of State) to secure markets for rice – even as it is blamed for “low prices” and lagging payments. But the Government has not been completely blameless for the angst of the paddy producers. Through a levy of all rice exports the Guyana Rice Development Board (GRDB) has been funded to the tune of over $500 million annually to “develop” the industry.

While it has correctly pointed out that the GRDB is not formally mandated to market our rice, it has not been as diligent, for instance, as it ought to be to insist on ensuring through the enforcement of its regulations, that millers do not take paddy producers for a ride.

This could be done by a more rigorous regimen to ensure that moisture content, broken and coloured grains, weights etc are not used to penalise farmers as they presently are. Responsibility for ensuring that farmers are paid on the schedule mandated by law should become the responsibility of the GRDB.

In terms of the explicit marketing of rice for exports, we suggest that a new Rice Marketing Board be constituted and staffed as it was during the early PPP years – dominated by representatives of farmers and millers. The rice levy should go to this institution rather than the GRDB.

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India’s Independence

Friday was the 67th Anniversary of the Independence of India from Britain. As the “Jewel of the Crown” in an empire on which the “sun never set”, the fateful decision of Britain on August 15, 1947 was a signal to the rest of the colonies on three continents that it was not inevitable they had to wage violent wars of liberation to also become independent. Guyana, then called “British Guiana” was one such colony.

But India had a powerful impact on what later became known as the “Third World” even before independence in 1947. The Indian Congress Party – which became so well known that it was henceforth known simply as the “Congress Party” – was founded as far back as 1885 and played a pioneering role in demonstrating to nationalists in the colonies the path to creating institutions that could replace the British Raj.

It is not by coincidence that political parties in countries as far apart as South Africa (African National Congress – ANC), Guyana (People’s National Congress – PNC) and Ghana (National Democratic Congress – NDC) adopted the name.

The British insisted on political parties in its colonies adopt the norms of “Westminster parliamentary democracy” with its insistence on debate and discussion within a largely liberal tradition. In India, however, while the early leaders had become “Brown Englishmen” and quoted Locke and Hobbes with the best of them in England, Mohandas Gandhi introduced a nationalism to Indian politics that was peculiarly indigenous.

This was so not only in his method of mobilisation, but also in the premises of his politics, which was based on the ancient notion of “satyagraha” or “truth force” confronting the brute force of colonial role. In Guyana, Cheddi Jagan, in his book, “The West on Trial,” described the tremendous influence the man who was to become a “Mahatma” or “Great Soul” had on him.

In South Africa, Nelson Mandela was also to follow in the path of the Indian Saint who had actually worked out his politics of non-violence during his long, 20-year sojourn in South Africa (1893-1913).

As the other colonies followed India’s independent path after 1947 – Burma, Pakistan and Ceylon in Asia during 1948, Ghana in 1957 (Africa), Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago in 1962 (West Indies) – they were all affected by the polarising effect of the Cold War between the US and the USSR.

India, under its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, was one of the pioneers of an alternative effort to create a more neutral and less polarising world order. In 1955, he and leaders of Egypt, Yugoslavia, Ghana and Indonesia met in Bandung in the last century, and launched the “Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). In this manner, India’s influence continued unabated.

Internally, it also stuck fast to a pragmatic combination of liberal methods of parliamentary politics and socialist insistence on economic planning. While the results in the economic sphere were not exactly stellar, growth was steady and in the present most commentators insist that while its democratic method of selecting its leadership might be somewhat messy, ultimately it should redound to the country’s long-term stability.

Since 1990, India began to “liberalise” its economy – but not to the extent of those countries that were forced to do so under the International Monetary Fund’s ideological doctrine summarised under the “Washington Consensus”.

Here again, and continuing into the present, India has been able to demonstrate a third way in development to its fellow ex-British colonies. Its conservative banking policies, for instance, have prevented the creation of the “casino-type” banking system that precipitated the financial meltdown in the developed world.

Internationally, after the lessened importance of the NAM following the end of the Cold War in 1989, India continued to be very active in multilateral agencies such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the UN system, which benefited smaller countries such as Guyana, immensely.

In its latest effort to launch a new development bank with its BRICS partners, India continues to promote independence for the less developed countries.

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UG student loans

There seems to be no definitive solution to the financial problems being faced by the administration of the University of Guyana (UG) as they relate to student loans for new and continuing students. The new academic year is fast approaching and there is a high level of uncertainty amongst the student population regarding their ability to access loans.

Although 40 per cent of the student population acquired loans in the last academic year, this percentage is expected to skyrocket with the increase in tuition fees that will take full effect this September.

During consideration of the 2014 National Budget, $450 million which was budgeted by Government for the Student Loan Fund was disapproved after it was lumped with items the Opposition had deemed objectionable.

By June, the Finance Minister moved to the House with a Statement of Excess on the Current and Capital Estimates totalling $4.5 billion for the period ending June 16. This sum included $225 million for the Student Loan Fund.

Vice-Chancellor (VC) Dr Jacob Opadeyi called a press conference where he updated the media regarding the financial problems being faced by the institution.

Dr Opadeyi said if the Finance Ministry does not signal its approval for the disbursement of student loans, the university will temporarily freeze operations. He explained that the non-responsiveness from the Loans Department and by extension the Finance Ministry could trigger a total shutdown on both campuses at Turkeyen, East Coast Demerara and Tain on the Corentyne, Berbice.

The level of impatience and perhaps frustration on the part of the VC may be acceptable in some quarters, but the utterances made by him, who is in effect the Chief Executive Officer of the institution in relation to shutting down UG are out of order. His ill-conceived comments were premature and reckless, considering the fact that the issue of student loans is currently engaging the attention of Cabinet.

As head of one of Guyana’s premier learning institutions, he should have known that such statements have the potential to lead to further stress and confusion amongst the student population, who at the moment, are very unsure about their academic futures.

To begin with, students are dissatisfied with the present conditions on campus where they sometimes have to settle for sob-standard services and facilities offered by the institution. Added to this, students are also bracing themselves to deal with the increase in tuition fees and other costs associated with acquiring their degrees: these include transportation, textbooks, photocopying, and lab fees, etc.

Ordinary Guyanese students who do not have access to the kind of finances needed to pursue higher education would certainly find this burdensome.

Even though the VC has since clarified that his comments didn’t mean there would be a total shutdown of the institution if the monies for student loans are not approved, it would be wise if he were to carefully think through the likely impact of such statements before making them public in future.

That aside, we wish to underline what we had said some time ago, that is, the demands of UG are significant and ever-changing, and to continuously meet them, there must be a sustainable source of financing – and this goes beyond the annual subvention it receives from Government.

UG cannot and should not depend solely on central Government or donors for its finances. It would need to explore alternative ways of raising funds to sustain itself as other international learning institutions are doing in order to remain competitive and relevant.

In the meantime, we urge both the Government and Opposition parties in Parliament to do all that is necessary to ensure that the sum budgeted for student loans is approved as soon as possible, as thousands of students stand to be affected.

This is an issue of national importance and a bipartisan, nationalist approach must be adopted to ensure a solution is found soon.

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Blurred lines

A dangerous trend is developing in Guyana where there is a blatant and clear misuse of the notion of press freedom for personal attacks on businesses, public officials, foreign investors, and organised interest groups. It is becoming evident that sections of the media are engaging in yellow journalism, libel and slander, and political campaigning.

Each media house is entitled to its own editorial position and may endorse various political groups. It is, however, unacceptable when news reports lack balance and credibility or are engaged in the proliferation of concoctions.

These same sections of the media believe, by virtue of their reporting that they are acting in the public’s interest when they take on the roles of the investigative detective, judge, jury and executioner. The truth is that they are doing a major disservice to the populace and are in breach of the basic tenants of journalism.

Despite this, some media outfits continue to be in denial about their hidden agendas. They turn a blind eye to the valid objections being raised by businesses, Government and civil society about their abuse of the notion of press freedom and their positions of influence as they seek to grind axes.

It appears that there is an acceptance in Guyana that the news must no longer be factual and, consequently, there are too often blurred lines between pursuing and inventing truth.

In addition, some media houses appear comfortable even when sued for the deliberate distortion and misinformation disseminated by their establishments with the aim of injuring and bringing into disrepute the reputations of hard working patriotic Guyanese businesses, investors, officials and young professional public servants.

The media here, no doubt, believe that somehow issuing retractions and minor corrections usually will suffice for the damage and harm of their actions.  This is most worrying, because the notion of responsible journalism and confirming information as far as possible appears to have been thrown out the window.

Unfortunately, civil society, these investors and other stakeholders do not have the luxury of having mechanisms or associations in place that will be bold enough to upbraid the media in a fair and independent manner when media practitioners violate their rights.

These stakeholders cannot issue a call for media houses to be sanctioned for the spread of deliberate misinformation, but are wholly dependent on a court system which takes an inordinately long time to hear and determine matters where stakeholders and people are alleging that the actions of media have caused much harm.

No media house is empowered by the Constitution of this country to pursue and attempt to punish people because of their perceptions of the actions of those people. No media house should feel comfortable profiting from the earnings of articles and broadcasts that are wholly skewed, untrue and part of revenge plots.

There is urgent need to advance legislation aimed at strengthening Guyana’s libel and defamation laws, in light of this new media trend. Some form of regulation is needed to ensure that, apart from the courts, there is an independent entity that can hear and determine complaints against media for their excesses.

No one is in agreement with censorship but there is a clear need for the media to be held accountable, as it would appear that self regulation is not working as it should. A look at the news pages of some media houses and the number of lawsuits filed against them would prove that this position is worthy of consideration.

In the end, the victors must be the victors and they must be afforded the opportunity to benefit from the dissemination of wholesome, true, unbiased and professional journalistic practices. Anything else cannot be accepted or tolerated.

If we do otherwise, then we become part of the problem and are in full support of this new form of uncivil, excessive, irresponsible and revengeful journalism that is trending.

Someone must draw the line.

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High school conundrum

In possibly no other country in the world, do high school graduation results engender as much interest as in Guyana. It may be a commentary on our education system. So once again, all eyes are turned on the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) results for Fifth Formers (CSEC) and Sixth Formers (CAPE). As usual, there is great fanfare about the ‘high flyers’.

Of the 13,724 students who wrote the CXC, the Ministry requested a list of those securing Grade One passes in eight or more subjects – and this amounted to 192. This was further refined to those that secured 11 or more Grade Ones – numbering 52.

But the more pertinent question not asked was how many students matriculated – that is, secured at least five passes including English A and Pure Mathematics with Grade Three to One – to qualify as being “graduated”? This would have satisfied, for instance, the minimum requirement to enter the University of Guyana, or be accepted into a CAPE programme.

With only 38.7 per cent passing Pure Mathematics – a nine per cent increase over 2013 – at the very best, this is the highest possible percentage of students that matriculated. Since it is most likely that not all of those that passed Pure Mathematics, also passed four other subjects with English A, the matriculation rate is most likely considerably below that 38.7 per cent.

While the Minister stressed that the overall pass rate for Grades One to Three was 60.21 per cent – a marginal increase from last year – this is rather irrelevant in view of the fact that so many have not matriculated on criteria that even our neighbour Trinidad considers too low. For entry to UWI’s St Augustine Campus, in addition to the Guyanese requirement, applicants must also have passes in two CAPE subjects. The consequence of this low bar for entering the tertiary stream is too well known to bear repetition.

Another significant statistic was that private candidates amounted to approximately 37 per cent of the total entries – 5082, to 8642 from public schools. When one considers that the “cream of the crop” from the National Grade Six Assessment generally attend the “top” public schools, it would be instructive to disaggregate the performance of the private schools.

From the performance of Saraswati Vidya Niketan, a private school, which was third in securing at least eight Grade Ones, it becomes clear that the mode of instruction in the public schools for average students must be improved. As our editorial from yesterday pointed out, these schools and their staff are given a tremendous amount of incentives to do their job but the results are certainly not commensurate.

The absolute dominance of female students as top performers at CSEC is not surprising, since this is simply the continuation of a trend that started more than a decade and shows no signs of abating.

At one level, it might reflect simply the preponderance of females writing the exam (8837) versus males (4887) this year, but this simply shifts the question one level downwards. Why are less boys writing CSEC, when the birth rate for boys and girls are almost equal, and it is the law of the land that ALL children up to age 16 attend school?

The authorities, not just the Education Ministry, must initiate a national conversation to address these ticking time bombs, some of which have already exploded in juvenile criminality. The statistic in CAPE that is most revealing is that only 798 students bothered to sit for it. It reiterates the point we made earlier of the low bar that we have set for matriculating into university and higher education as a whole.

A few years back, there was an announcement that there would be the creation of CAPE schools but this appears to have been abandoned. At this level, however, males have performed as creditably as females. Is it possible that males mature later than females?

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CSEC results

The Caribbean Secondary Education Examination (CSEC) results are out and it is encouraging to see the Education Ministry recording an improvement in overall performance compared to last year, albeit marginal. The Ministry is more of less playing catch up with the level it was at three years ago, when it should really be building on the successes achieved.

In 2009, the overall percentage pass rate counting Grades One to Three was 63.7; in 2010, it was 66.2; and in 2011, 64.4 per cent, compared to 58.69 in 2012; 59.31 in 2013 and 60.21 in 2014. The Ministry has therefore managed to achieve slight improvements in the past three years.

In 2014, the Ministry with more than 70 per cent of trained teachers in the school system should not be reporting a 60 per cent overall pass rate, which was achieved six years ago, but should have been striking in the range of 70-75 per cent. Government has been investing billions of dollars in the education sector every year on ramping up teacher training, improving quality education delivery, resourcing schools, providing meals and uniforms to students, subsidising the cost of poor students writing CSEC, expanding education access and enhancing school infrastructure.

Teachers are the highest paid public servants. Every year, at least 25 get scholarships through the Government-Guyana Teachers Union (GTU) multi-year agreement to study at the University of Guyana (UG). Headteachers of Grade A schools get duty-free concessions to purchase motor vehicles. Teachers are also given uniform allowances and a host of other allowances to supplement their salary.

There are still far too many slackers in the school system, and they should not escape the scrutiny of Chief Education Officer (CEO) Olato Sam, as their failure is causing the Ministry much embarrassment. On the flip side, negligence to act decisively will continue to result in the Ministry making limited progress.

Certainly, this is not a record the subject Minister Priya Manickchand wants under her watch. So, it is within this context that the 2014 CSEC results must be viewed, as imperative criteria, such as greater monitoring and value for money, are weak.

The Minister did mention at a recent press briefing that the Ministry has stepped up monitoring of teachers, and the overall results pointed to the evidence of a one per cent improvement from last year. But encouragingly, students’ performance in Mathematics hit a historic high – 38.7 per cent, counting Grades One to Three – a nine per cent jump from the 28.98 per cent recorded in 2013.

However, with some 8413 students failing Mathematics, and another 7277, or about 53 per cent failing English, there is still much more work to be done. Students’ performance in English has slumped from 50.29 per cent in 2009; 59.16 in 2010; and 60.82 per cent in 2011; to 37.02 per cent in 2012; 45.69 per cent in 2013; and 46.98 per cent in 2014.

The performance in Mathematics reflects that Minister Manickchand has yet to achieve the promise she made in 2011 to raise the Grades One to Three passes in the subject to 50 per cent.

Quite, ironically, the Ministry has been unable to secure an overall pass rate of 50 per cent, counting Grades One to Three in English, even though English is not a second language in Guyana. Parents of students who failed these subjects or generally have performed poorly should also do some introspection, as the onus is on them to also monitor the performance of their children and ensure that they do well.

The Ministry and parents can still get some success out of the students who flunk English and Mathematics, with the Ministry funding an intense “Operation Comeback” programme through the school system, preparing them for the January examinations.

The students are still fresh from their studies, and many of them cannot wait to make amends. It is commendable that the Ministry is giving them the opportunity.

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When elephants fight

There is an old African saying that whether elephants fight or make love, the grass suffers. When applied to the international state system, fights or alliances between the “big” powers are usually to the detriment of smaller nations. However, in the present face-off between the Western and Russian elephants, there might be an opportunity for some smaller nations to improve their condition.

It started with Russia taking sides with separatists in Ukraine seeking to resume their unification that was sundered only a couple of decades ago. In the larger scheme of global affairs, this was not surprising since during the long period of unity as the USSR, there had been a heavy influx of ethnic Russians into the Ukraine.

In the Eastern part of that country abutting Russia, as in the Crimea, they were actually the majority – hence the referendum during the Ukraine turmoil, which successfully reincorporated it back into Russia.

Even though, the Cold War between the US and the USSR was supposed to have ended with the dissolution of the latter; tensions had remained as Russia under Putin sought to reassert itself – at least with the countries along its borders. The US had pushed its allies in the European Union to take a harder line against Russia as the situation in the Ukraine “deteriorated”.

When they balked, the top US diplomat for European and Eurasian affairs Victoria Nuland had exclaimed in exasperation to US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, at the beginning of this year, “F**k the EU!!”

After Ukranian separatists downed a South Korean passenger jet last month, evidently using Russian-supplied surface-to-air missiles, the EU decided to make amends and squeeze the Russians by cutting off Russian Banks’ access to their capital markets, trade in arms and technologies in deep-water and Arctic oil drilling. The US, in what was a clearly orchestrated move, “followed suit” by also denying the Russian banks access to its financial institutions. These sanctions were to last for “three months”.

From the onset of the imposition of these sanctions, there were questions about their blowback on the economies of the EU and the US, since their trade in the restricted areas with Russia was very significant.

However, what was unexpected was that Russia would in turn, impose its own sanctions – which it did last week by banning for 12 months, the importation of foodstuff such as beef, pork, fruits and vegetables, poultry, fish, cheese, milk and dairy products, not only from the US and the EU but also some of their closest allies such as Canada and Australia. It also prohibited use of its airspace to flights from these countries.

Apart from the shock of the Russian move, the actual cut-off in imports has already began to bite the EU’s economy, especially its agriculturally dependent southern members, which never fully recovered from the 2009 financial meltdown that plunged them into a recession. But there will be three further damaging repercussions from the Russian gambit.

Firstly, the surplus created in the food-producing EU countries will soon drive down prices for the banned items and the rest of the world will benefit, while they will suffer.

Secondly and more significantly, most of the smaller and not so small countries that will pick up the slack to supply Russia with the banned items, should be able to maintains these markets and deepen their productive capacities. Latin America will definitely benefit and if Guyanese poultry producers had used their decade-old tariff-protected status to become more efficient rather than making monopoly profits, they could have also enjoyed this new opportunity.

Lastly, Russia will also be using the opportunity to incentivise its local producers which could not compete with the entrenched and more efficient producers in the west when its markets were “liberalised”. All of these moves will have profound effects in the evolving world order.

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