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Kaieteur News – It is a rarity in the educational history of any country for one school to provide an example that could be adopted by the national education system to improve itself. In 19th century England, Rugby School under the headmastership of Dr Thomas Arnold is one well known example. Dr Arnold’s methods of school administration, and his approach to discipline among the students, his curriculum and his elevation of the cultivation of ethical and moral life as a necessity, influenced other great British Public Schools and the English education system. The Saraswati Vidya Niketan (SVN) School at Cornelia Ida, West Coast Demerara, stands out as a school most deserving of such accolade. However, before we focus on the ways SVN has impacted on the assumptions of mainstream educationists in Guyana, we think it is appropriate for readers to understand how private schools like SVN have evolved.
At the end of the 1930’s, a revolution in secondary education began to explode here in Guyana. Into the societal changes which were responsible for this, we shall not go, but only to point out that at that particular juncture, many parents, even from the remote villages of the countryside, felt that their children could have a better future by joining the Civil Service, the commercial banks and the big stores. Further, many now saw the achievement of a university degree was now possible without going to England to study, an expense which no one could afford. This was now possible since University of London had started offering overseas degrees and there were a number of correspondence colleges offering tuition. The first step in the ambition to join the Civil Service and to graduate with a London degree, was the passing of the Senior Cambrigde or London Matriculation examination.
The secondary schools which offered these examinations were Queen’s College and The Bishop’s High School which were Government owned and St Stanislaus College for boys and St Joseph’s High School and St Rose’s High School for girls which were foundations of the Roman Catholic Church. The image of these schools was that their fees were very high and that they catered only for the elite and upper classes.
To meet this need for the demand of a large expansion of the secondary school system, numbers of persons who had a vocation for teaching and had some entrepreneurial skills founded secondary schools in Georgetown and New Amsterdam. These schoolmasters became legends and among these were J.C. Luck who founded Central High School; R.B.O. Hart, Enterprise High School; J.I.Ramphal, Modern Educational Institute; O. Alleyne who founded Alleyne High School; and R. E. Cheeks, Cheeks High School. These schools competed with each other and advertised their successes at the Junior and Senior Cambridge examinations and the London Matriculation. These schoolmasters would visit parents campaigning for recruitment of students and selling the virtues of a secondary education. The staff recruited was persons who did their Senior Cambridge and many of these teachers were trying to study for London University degrees via correspondence courses. Queens, Bishop’s and St Stanislaus still remained the premier and elite schools, whose results were infinitely better than the private secondary schools; almost all staff of these schools held degrees from British universities. Yet, the private secondary schools were able to supply staff for the Civil Service and businesses and many of their graduates went abroad after World War II and qualified in various disciplines.
The private secondary schools had now become an integral and necessary. In 1966 the country became a Socialist state and Education was nationalized. The private secondary schools fell under government control and students paid no fees. No private schools were permitted to be established. Secondary schools were graded with the three top schools, and the system of streaming children of the primary schools by the Common Entrance Examination was instituted.
With Socialist management, standards declined and at the beginning of the school year, parents desperately tried all means to have their children accepted into the “better part” of the country’s Educational System. Independence was granted in schools. It was a time of great confusion and great anguish for parents and even children and those in the countryside felt even more hopelessness and despair.
Eventually, the State recognized that State control was not functioning well and allowed private schools to be re-established. Private schools, both in Georgetown and the countryside, sprang up. Most were below the standards of the better government schools and were, in most cases, entrepreneurial ventures. Two in particular, however, stand out – the School of Nations in Georgetown and the Saraswati Vidya Niketan at Cornelia Ida in the countryside which, in time, turned out to have as good results as the top of the line Government schools, which once had a monopoly of the outstanding results at the Caribbean examinations. School of Nations has now moved away from being a purely secondary school to one involved in University Education.
Swami Aksharananda was the founder of the Saraswati Vidya Niketan School. Before he became a Swami, he was a brahmchari devoted to a life of discipline and abstinence. In that persona, he did many notable things among which was his membership of the Working People’s Alliance with Dr Walter Rodney, manfully struggling for Democracy and a better Guyana, and his achieving a PhD, a Doctorate from one of the better American Universities. He saw the futility of politics and went to Benares to study. Here, after ten years of rigorous tapasya and study, he was accorded the rank of Swami. We shall refer to him as Swami – ji, ji being an honorific term of respect.
Swamiji assessed that in addition to poverty, the other great evil which had beset the communities of West Coast Demerara and Essequibo was the impossibility of the poor and disadvantaged having equal access to Education. He therefore decided to establish a school, synthesizing the best western techniques with the ancient time-tested values of Vedic Education.
The name chosen for the school was Saraswati Vidya Niketan, which roughly translates as “An abode of learning which humbly invokes the inspiration of Saraswati; the Cultural and Educational aspect of God”. This lengthy English attempt at conveying the Sanskrit meaning is to be expected since Sanskrit is a language with compact meaning.
The school depended on the community for its financing, since Swamiji, like all Swamis, had no material possessions. The school began with a small building with the support from the Temple, on the swampy portion of the land, and admitted children of any religion, race or class. All of its first intakes were children who would not be admitted to any other school since they were in effect streamed out of the Education System. Gradually, teachers were trained, buildings and equipment were acquired and Swamiji had the unrelenting task of administering the school, building new structures and raising funds locally and from abroad. In a few years, the buildings, equipment and physical surroundings of the school compared with the better Georgetown government schools. Far more important, is the performance of students at the CSEC and CAPE examinations which was superlative when compared with the best in the country and the entire Caribbean. Just as an example, SVN’s Atishta Seenarine topped the entire Caribbean in CAPE in 2022 with 18 Unit I and II grade ones.
Employers are increasingly having a preference for SVN graduates.
SVN has provided an example which could be adopted by other schools in raising educational standards of the country and we will identify a few of its characteristics: The early intakes of SVN were children who would not be admitted to other schools and its admission policy has always been ‘first come first served’. Such a policy saved hundreds of children from being denied an education and indeed, many of these children have developed into being students who have performed well at both CSEC and CAPE examinations. This policy has also freed numerous parents and children from the anxiety which afflicts them at the beginning of the school year. It has also prevented intellectual waste. The SVN example should lead to a review of the present policy of admission to Secondary Schools based on CE marks and on streaming.
Secondly, SVN has exposed the long held myth that a student has to go to a Georgetown school to do well. SVN has shown that the Education System countrywide could be uniformly elevated and is capable of delivering a good education anywhere in Guyana.
Thirdly, the moral and ethical aspects of life are stressed. In almost all schools, their motto encapsulates some moral or ethical guidance, but students pass through the school without knowing the relevance of the motto. At SVN, in addition to the unobtrusive daily ethical teaching, the students know the motto by heart and it is prominently displayed in the school. That motto is Satyam vada Dharmam chara Swadhyayan Ma Pramadh which roughly translates:
Ever speak the Truth
Ever practice ethical and moral behaviour
Always keep to your studies and pursue intellectual development.
There are other aspects of the school administration worthy of emulation in elevating the Education System. At this point, we would like to remind that SVN is a non-profit institution and that its fees are subsidized and kept affordable to the community by much voluntarism. The School is doing a great deal for the Social and Educational Development of Guyana.
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