The last results of the National Grade Six Assessment (NGSA) were belatedly announced last September, less than two months after the new People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) Administration had taken office. The exams had been delayed for almost a month in April 2020 and written under the new COVID-19 restrictions. The results were followed by the usual media hype, signalling that even though we have achieved the Millennium Goal of providing “universal” primary education, the event is still significant for our people. Meaning that for several reasons, the NGSA, which replaced the old “Common Entrance” examination, still signifies the latter’s old promise of a better future for the children who perform well.
In our society that was grounded in slavery, the way out from the penury of the descendants of the poor ex-slaves was through “education”. This tradition was picked up by the descendants of the indentured servants who followed them on the sugar plantations. The avenues for advancement in colonial society dictated the logic of that path. But to the poor of the post-slavery era, on the avenue from the Church-run primary schools to the elite grammar schools of Queen’s and Bishops established in Georgetown for the children of the upper strata, who were expected to run the society when they graduated, money for fees proved to be the major stumbling block. The same impediment, albeit smaller, was placed on the entrance to the private high schools that sprung up mainly in Georgetown.
After WWII, the Common Entrance examination offered a place to the elite schools for a handful of the very highest performers across the country, who were now prepared in special “scholarship” classes for the examination. With the nationalisation of all schools in 1976, it was expected that the “scholarship” classes would have disappeared now that there was supposed to be a place for every child in the secondary stream.
But all that actually changed was that the “scholarship” classes became “privatised”, which they remain to this day. What the great excitement about the present crop of top performers – the “top one percent” — is all about is that they now have an opportunity to attend the same elite schools of Queen’s and Bishops, joined now by three others below them in ranking. Almost every “top” child interviewed spoke of how excited they were to be about to enter “Queens”. In a certain sense, then, not much has changed in the past half a century.
Not that the anomaly had gone unnoticed by then Education Minister Priya Manickchand back in 2013. There was the promise of “equalisation” of all secondary schools in the country, which would ,therefore, have made the existence of “premier ” secondary school’ moot. It is rather unfortunate that the change in the Government in 2015 obviously derailed those plans. But now that she is back in the same portfolio with a clear mandate from the electorate, it is hoped that in our new oil-fuelled economy, those plans would be dusted off and implemented.
The change from “Common Entrance” to NGSA was itself a move to make the entrance to secondary schools less of an “all or nothing” event. “Assessments” rather than “examinations” were supposed to be more equitable, especially when they were spread over three grades – 2, 4 and 6. But from what we have seen, no one uses the early assessments for remedial action and critics maintain that they simply tripled the stress on the young students.
With Guyana poised to make a quantum leap into higher orbitals of growth rates, unless the educational system retools itself to allow every student from the primary system to believe that he or she can make a valid contribution to that growth, the youths who infer they are failures because of their poor performance at the NGSA can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We can talk all we want about increasing the “local content” from the new economy, but we have to accept that the latter demands a qualitatively and quantitatively more educated populace.
We have to start at the beginning.