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Education vital to hitting Guyana's sustainable development goals

Interview - November 19, 2015

With 8.3% of its GDP spent on education, Guyana ranks with countries like Cuba, Iceland and Denmark as being among the top spenders on education. Rupert Roopnaraine, Guyana’s Minister of Education, explains the government’s next set of goals now that universal primary education has been achieved, such as including extra-curricular experiences, meeting the challenges set by industry’s needs, and acting on the scope for international collaborations.



President Granger stated in the opening of the parliament that “the state of the nation requires a visionary leadership. We have assembled a cabinet of men and women who can provide this leadership”. Can you please share with us your views regarding the “new Guyana” that will come under this leadership?

The major challenge that we face in Guyana, I continue to believe, is a challenge that is at least half a century old, and that is the tension between our two major ethnic groups. I think if there’s one thing that most people know about Guyana is the fact that we do have this issue, and the issue is the relationship that exists between Africans who are the descendants of slaves and Indians who are the descendants of indentured servants. Now, you may or may not know, but after the abolition of slavery, one of the things that the planters did was that they imported indentured laborers to replace the slaves on the plantation. First of all, they tried with China – that didn’t work – and eventually they settled on India. So the indentured servants came in to essentially replace the freed African slaves on the sugar plantations.

At that historic moment, the two groups were placed into a kind of competition against each other.

I believe that was the historical origin of the conflict between the two groups.

Over the years, we have taken a number of steps designed to improve relations between the two groups. I think to a large extent we have resolved a lot of the most pressing problems. The fact is that at the moment – as far as education is concerned, for instance – we have achieved universal primary education, and we’re working hard to achieve universal secondary education. We still have some way to go to get that done, but we are on track.

Education is key. I am responsible for the Ministry of Education and within the Ministry of Education we have, in addition, responsibility for youth, sports and culture. Now, you must know that sports and culture are two areas of activity where it’s very difficult to maintain division. Those are activities that bring people together into rule-based competition. And I am very pleased that youth, sports and culture fall under the Ministry of Education. I believe that my main charge in the Ministry of Education in terms of education policy within schools and in relation to sports and culture is to address this issue that is facing us. And I think that completely harmonious relations among people are going to be achieved through education. The more that we can bring more and more people into an enriched educational space, the more successful we will be at achieving the harmony that we’re looking for.

As I started by telling you, it is no accident that the fourth sustainable development goal is education. My own feeling is that this is the goal that has to be achieved if you are to achieve the other sustainable development goals.


Guyana is one of the highest ranked developing countries in the Education Index of the United Nations Human Development Report but continues to struggle with the provision of increased access to satisfactory secondary education. What are the main short and medium-term goals for this government to increase access to satisfactory secondary education?

Well I’m hoping that by the end of the first five years of this government, we will have achieved 100% secondary education. We will have achieved the goal which we’ve achieved currently at the primary level. Universal secondary education would be, to my mind, a real mark of success in the course of the next five years.

We have a great deal to do to pick up the educational system. One problem we face which we are addressing as we speak is the physical infrastructure, the physical condition of the schools. Not just the condition of the schools, but the condition of the sports facilities in all of the schools.

I have really been stressing the fact that while we do extremely well in the examinations currently in the Caribbean as a whole, which is what you’re alluding to, I am myself not entirely happy that children are so examination-focused and that a lot of extra-curricular experience gets neglected.

And that is why I have put great stress on putting music back into our schools as well as sports. You know, it’s of course budgetary constraints that prevent me from doing what I really want to do, which is to support a full steel pan orchestra in each school. That’s not going to happen. But what I also know is that every child is born with a musical instrument, namely the voice, and there is no reason why we should not have vigorous school choir development throughout the country. I’m working towards a national choir competition around the time of the 2016 commemoration activities, with schools competing in this choir competition. Getting the children singing throughout the country is something I would really like to see. And we are beginning to work at it.

Enhancing the sports facilities in schools, this is of course key as well. There’s a lot that needs to be done. A lot of sports grounds and sports fields are run down. At the moment, we have an active program of improving all of these facilities within schools. It’s not a small problem.


So the government is already investing in infrastructure and improving the infrastructure of the schools?

That’s right. That’s a big investment we’re talking about; we have some 970 institutions to deal with.

This covers approximately 189,000 children. In the private schools, we have about 16,000 students and 62 private institutions. Now, while we are not directly responsible for private schools, private schools do have to be registered with the Ministry of Education. They have to apply for a permit to open a private school. So we do have a kind of hands-off policy with them, but of course they fall within the educational system so we have to take an interest in what they do.

One vital problem that we face, frankly, is that our teachers are underpaid and, I believe, undervalued. We claim we value them. We know we must value them. But I don’t think that we are paying our teachers enough to keep them stimulated.

We need to ensure that we address the issue of the private lesson industry that has grown up in our country. This has given rise to a situation where teachers deliver half the curriculum in the classroom, and the other half they deliver out of school at extra lessons they would organize. The children then pay the teachers.

I feel that if you address the issue of teachers’ salary you would begin to control this flourishing of the extra lesson industry, which I don’t think is doing the children any good. My feeling is that you must provide in the classrooms what the children need. I can understand topping up when the exams are coming; you can take a few extra lessons here and there. Everyone does that. But to make extra lessons the huge industry that it has become in the country is something we need to address as a matter of urgency.


We all agree that education is a key driver to attracting investment and a push for economic growth. Education promotes productivity and he government must work jointly with the private sector and the universities to create an efficient educational system that meets the needs of the country. What is the government’s take on this matter? Has it worked with the universities and the private sector to achieve this goal?

University is, unlike the schools, not under the control of the Ministry. However, we do have government representatives who sit on the University Council. The university is administered by its own independent council. But of course we have a great interest in what comes out of the university. Recently, as you know, we have had some controversies with our neighbors. We have oil that we have discovered. This means that within the next five years, which is not a long time, we have to really produce through the educational system and at the university a significant number of people who are going to be equipped to work in the oil and gas industry. That is going to be an immediate challenge to ensure that we provide what the industry is going to require.

Other than that, I think that we have begun work in other important areas. For example, we are now teaching Portuguese in schools which has never happened before. That program is now about a couple of years old. We are beginning to see the results of it now. We are going to be intensifying our work in Portuguese because our biggest neighbor is Brazil as you know. I was recently talking with the Brazilian ambassador and told him that I was going to be relying on him to provide us with some assistance for training our people. He said that as it happens, his people need training in English. That’s a good basis for us to collaborate. We can do for his people in English what they will do for us in Portuguese.


That could work in the future in terms of what you were saying. If there’s a need to create a school for oil and gas training, maybe you can create some kind of agreement with a US company, perhaps to found a school in that sector.

Exxon is here at the moment. Exxon will have an interest in this kind of development. I haven’t yet met with Exxon but I am planning to meet with them. They are very much the kind of people to whom I can put this proposal and say, “Come have a look. You know, I need some help because what I want to do is to intensify our work in terms of training people who can be useful to the oil industry. And this is something in which you must have an interest.”


As we mentioned, Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America, and the US is its major trading partner. The US has set up here universities like the American International School of Medicine. How important is to have synergies in education between these two countries, and how can the government promote student mobility with American universities?

I think it can. At the moment, we have Fullbright scholars in the United States, and I would like to see more interaction. I myself did my graduate work at Cornell so I have had some experience of the American university system.

I do believe that we must increase our bilateral work with the United States. We already have some, and we have very good relations with United States. My feeling is that at the level of university training and so on, there’s much more that we can do. We do have active relations with Ohio University and a number of other universities.


In order for Guyana to maintain its economic performance it’s essential to be updated with a global fast changing economy and ICT plays a very important role. Technology is key to strengthening the economy. How is the government promoting the use of technologies through education?

One of the things that we going to do is to provide a laptop to each teacher in the school system so that they can keep abreast of the children. The children as you know are far ahead of the teachers when it comes to ICT.

We are very aware of what ICT has to offer, and we are increasing our work in that area. I had a discussion only a few days ago with people who are into virtual reality programs. I saw a lot of possibilities in terms of the use of all the virtual reality programs that they were demonstrating to me. This is the EON Reality Group, a company that specializes in educational programs and so on.

But, yes, I think that ICT is the way forward. This is the 21st century. These children they’re teaching are way ahead of their teachers and their parents. Usually, when I want to get my computer fixed, I turn to my 10-year-old grandson.

What we still have to learn in the use of technology is bread and butter to them. It’s a question of keeping pace with them. I think we are alert to what is required there.


Next year Guyana will be celebrating its 50th independence anniversary, and you have been named to chair the National Commemoration Commission that would be in charge of the commemoration activities. What are the main events that will be held next year for this celebration, and what the does it mean for you having the honor to lead this commission?

It’s an honor but I can tell you it is a very, very onerous task. At the moment, we are in the initial stages of designing the whole program. There are some people who believe that we should treat 2016 as independence year and we should have a year-long program. This may be a little ambitious.

My own feeling is that if we can get a solid program for the month of May, which is our independence month, I think we’ll be doing very well. Secondly, the Commemoration Commission. In fact, only today I’ve sent out letters to all the people who I’m inviting to serve on the Commemoration Commission. The Commemoration Commission comes directly under the Ministry, of course. I was on the first Commemoration Commission that we had for the 150th anniversary some time ago. I recall the way we worked together. We established working groups with one group in charge of a film project, another in charge of production, and so on. We’re following the same kind of design, and trying to mobilize as many energetic people on to the working group of the commission as we possibly can.

We’re going to be designing programs. We’re going to have memorial coins. I think the highlight for me is going to be the music festival that we’re going to have. A number of ideas are in fact being put out at the moment. As I said, we haven’t finally settled on the program, but the way it is looking now, it’s going to be a very packed month of May.