History & Background
The Republic of Guyana, formerly British Guiana, lies between Suriname and Venezuela on the northern coast of South America. Brazil lies on the southern border. More than 90 percent of Guyana's population of almost 800,000 people occupy an arable coastal range 40 miles wide. Guyana's ethnic mixture and educational system are the result of the country's colonial economy. Early plantation owners brought in African slaves. When slavery was abolished in 1838, indentured workers became the main source of cheap labor. The largest number came from India, and their descendants now comprise nearly half the population. Afro-Guyanese make up a third of the population, and the remainder consists of Amerindians, Asians, and Europeans. Nonetheless, Guyana's official language is English.
Public schools, operated by religious organizations, began to appear in the early 1800s. Elementary schools flourished under the direction of the London Missionary Society, and in 1876 primary education became compulsory for children aged 6 to 14. Textbooks were prepared in the United Kingdom favoring continental history and literature. All the examinations were given in Great Britain. Technical education was not available. Trades were learned solely from an apprenticeship to a journeyman. Until the University of Guyana was established in 1963, those seeking higher education had to attend universities abroad.
The educational system underwent major reform in 1961, when the government assumed control of the schools and established the Ministry of Education. Gaining independence in 1966, the country inherited a well-established educational system, but its curricula and educational aims were patterned after the British system. The government introduced changes to align the schools with the country's political goals, ethnic blend, and economic needs. In 1976, private education was abolished and education became free from nursery school through the university. Anyone, no matter their income, could attend school. The Constitution of 1980 guaranteed everyone the right to continuous education and training. Those attending high school would choose between academic, academic and technical, and vocational high schools. The government also established trade schools, which offered job training in such fields as engineering and construction.
With these improvements in place, the literacy rate rose above 95 percent, but conditions in the schools were far from ideal. In the 1970s, schools became overcrowded, and teachers who resisted government efforts to make all teachers teach loyalty to the government and its socialist objectives were fired. Truancy and illiteracy increased. As teachers departed and conditions deteriorated in the schools, scores on the Caribbean-wide examinations vastly dropped.
Guyana's economic troubles in the 1980s, combined with the government's commitment to finance free public education, led to underfunding of the schools. The quality of education declined even further. The school structures were neglected, educational materials became scarce or nonexistent, and equipment deteriorated. Teachers' salaries were poor, and as supply budgets dwindled, so did the number of trained teachers, many of whom sought positions out of the country to escape political oppression and job insecurity. In 1989, the government introduced an Economic Recovery Program, turning from a state-controlled, socialist economy toward a free-market system. By 1999, improvement in education was among the government's top priorities of the government. Teachers' salaries have been raised and new schools are being built, reflecting an upturn in the country's struggling school system.