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Governance, please!

Peter Wickham

Governance, please!

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The intimate details of the Alexandra School crisis appear complex and, if properly understood, span the life of both political administrations and, as such, is challenging to understand, far less pass judgement on.
Notwithstanding, I think it necessary to make some cursory remarks about the basic facts and the manner in which it has been handled to date, which, in my opinion, speaks volumes about a far larger problem that we now encounter.  
This most recent flurry is said to be linked to remarks made by principal Jeff Broomes at the school’s speech day; however, this perspective ignores the gravity of the antecedent issues.
If I were forced to “pick a side” I would be inclined to fall behind the teachers of Alexandra School for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that I too have had challenges with an obstinate academic manager in the past and appreciate the damage that their well entrenched dislike can do to the psyche of a person who is called upon to educate.  
The teachers in question are fortunate that, unlike me, they have security of tenure and are represented by a union which is brave enough to take up their case.  
I therefore wish them well in their efforts to “slay” this dragon.
It is always difficult to gauge the reaction of the public in these circumstances from call-in programmes, but it seems that yet again, the public is differently inclined than this author is.
The reaction gleaned thus far appears to categorize the teachers in question as a group of somewhat wayward public servants who simply don’t want to work and are looking for any excuse such as this to avoid teaching “the people’s children”.  
In Barbados we often appear to have an unhealthy presumption that those in authority are always right and also have little regard for public servants who we believe “do little”.  
Barbadians quite rightly believe that education of the nation’s children’s is the only central issue here and we could care less what is inhibiting this process; we just want them taught or looked after during the day, depending on our perception of the role of the school.
Although this author has his own opinions on the Public Service as a whole, I am personally familiar with a few of the key teaching actors in this drama and, as such, I am persuaded that these teachers are taking action out of an abundance of frustration and, ironically, in the interest of the students who are still their primary concern.  
I therefore do not challenge the legitimacy of their action, nor its timing, since I believe that there comes a point when one exhausts all options for verbal discourse and thereafter the “muscles” of those in authority might need to be “massaged” by industrial action that will ultimately benefit our educational system.
Specifics aside, this author is inclined to see the Alexandra crisis as the most recent manifestation of the extent to which the Freundel Stuart administration is drifting in what appears to be a rudderless ship of state towards a general election that is now due in 12 months.  
Workplace disputes are normal and with a teaching service that employs hundreds of well educated professionals, it is inevitable that there will be disagreements between teachers and their academic supervisors.  
Problems arise
Contrary to popular belief, schools are not managed like plantations (top-down); and where there are insufficient avenues for subordinates to assess their supervision, these problems will arise and, if properly understood, are testimony to the maturing of our teaching service.
The root cause of this issue is therefore of a lesser concern than the manner in which it has been managed, and here the Government needs to take full responsibility for the fact that it has come to this.  
Certainly, our Government is in place to manage the day-to-day operations of schools and other academic institutions, but it must also manage extraordinary events such as this; and one does not get a sense that the Ministry of Education has ever managed this issue well.  
This absence of control is ironic since the Ministry of Education consumes a substantial component of our national budget and employs the services of a supposedly elite management team that includes a Chief Education Officer, a Permanent Secretary, Deputy Permanent Secretary and supervisors in all educational spheres, along with an army of officers, the vast majority of whom have ordinary and advanced degrees in educational management.
All of these officers are presumably doing what they can, but one is inclined to believe that there is some amount of political inspiration that is needed and missing at this time, and this is reflected in several “hints” such as the fact that this ministry had been without a Chief Education Officer for the past two years.  
This type of delay is not inconsistent with the general approach of the Stuart administration, which also left the post of Chief Justice vacant for close to two years and this does little to reinforce the importance of these two institutions to governance.  
It is also noteworthy that as this crisis evolved from the precincts of the school to embrace the full membership of the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union, the Minister of Education, who is otherwise styled as the “Acting Prime Minister”, commented from overseas; while the Prime Minister is yet to bring the weight of his lofty office to bear on this important issue.
Although one respects the need for political functionaries to avoid jumping into every “catfight”, this appears to be one in which the good offices of the relevant minister along with the Prime Minister (who is incidentally also head of the Public Service) would serve us well in pursuit of permanent resolution of this issue.  
Ironically, this author has again recently been criticized by his colleague opposite, along with another from the University of the West Indies, for being critical of our Prime Minister’s “style”, which both gentlemen seem to have no problem with.  
I am, however, inclined to argue that this type of incident exemplifies the danger of “Governmental drift”, which is hazardous to both party and country.
• Peter W. Wickham ([email protected]) is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).