Free education from nursery school through university was a major reason for Guyana's 1990 estimated literacy rate of 96 percent, one of the highest in the Western Hemisphere. As of 1985, the average worker in Guyana had completed 6.8 years of schooling. Families of all ethnic groups and classes took interest in the schooling of their children, and education reform has had a central place in government policy since the 1960s.
The earliest record of schooling in Guyana dates back to Dutch rule and the arrival of a religious instructor in Essequibo in 1685. Because seventeenth- and eighteenth-century planters sent their children to Europe to study, local education developed slowly. Private schools and academies for the children of prospering non-British colonists were established and maintained in the colony during the nineteenth century; the first known reference to the establishment of public schools was made early in the 1800s.
By 1834 there were numerous schools, both elementary and secondary, in British Guiana's urban centers. After the cessation of slavery in 1838, many Africans quickly made use of the educational opportunities open to them. By 1841 there were 101 elementary schools, most of them under the direction of the London Missionary Society. A teacher-training school and a college were opened in the 1850s. Primary education became compulsory in 1876. Truancy, however, was common.
The British planters and bureaucrats discouraged the education of the Indo-Guyanese indentured laborers. The government stated in 1904 that Indo-Guyanese should not be prosecuted if they objected on religious grounds to sending their daughters to school. Planters used this policy to discourage workers from sending their children to school. Not until 1933 was the Indo-Guyanese leadership successful in changing government policy.
For most of the colonial period, secondary education was restricted to the upper and middle classes. With the exception of a very few scholarships, secondary education was paid for by parents, not the government. Thus, most of the students who completed primary school were excluded from a secondary education.
Guiding the development of the colonial school system was the traditional British view that the purpose of secondary education was to prepare the elite for its role in society. The two best secondary schools, Queen's College and Bishop's High School, both in Georgetown, employed the same curricula and methods used in British "public" schools. During most of the colonial period, there was little interest either in vocational training or in expanding educational opportunities. The requirement of a single, standard certificate based on a highly literary curriculum prevented education reform well into the twentieth century.
In 1961 the government took steps that greatly increased access to education. Many new secondary schools were opened, especially in rural areas, and school fees were abolished. Two years later, the University of Guyana was established. The percentage of children between the ages of twelve and seventeen attending school increased from 63 percent in 1960 to 76 percent in 1985. For those between ages eighteen and twenty-three, school attendance increased almost threefold, from 4.7 percent to 12.9 percent, between 1960 and 1985.
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