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A comedy of errors

Peter Simmons

A comedy of errors

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During my first year preparing for the Advanced Level English examination at The Lodge School, I came across the following quotation from William Ellery Channing: “Mistake, error, is the discipline through which we advance.”
Following the report on The Alexandra School Inquiry headed by retired Justice Frederick Waterman recommending that principal Jeff Broomes be “separated” from the school, which is what the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union (BSTU) wanted, Channing’s mantra shines brightly as the apparent guiding light of the decision-makers.
Not only was a decision made to transfer Mr Broomes to Parkinson School, but in excess of 20 teachers at Alexandra also got letters (apparently before the principal got his) transferring them to schools islandwide. Reports suggest there was no consultation whatever with any of these teachers or their replacements.
Mr Ronald Jordan, who has taught at Princess Margaret School, St Philip, for 35 years, received a letter transferring him to Alexandra from next Tuesday. Reacting in a way highly unusual for a public servant but highly commendable for one feeling disadvantaged and prepared to stand up for his rights, he went on a call-in programme and to the Nation newspaper expressing his outrage.
Saying the entire situation was “unprofessionally handled and in a way that was reckless and irrational”, he made the point that a number of fellow teachers were being transferred against their will. The target of his ire was the Ministry of Education and he called on the minister, Chief Education Officer and his associates to “book a flight and go on a long vacation”.
Seldom can I recall in my many years following public affairs in Barbados such a powerful put-down of a minister and his senior staff by a ministry employee. His courage and professional integrity are admirable. What he said is supported by some alarming facts.
His overarching complaint is that the subjects he teaches at Princess Margaret – autotronics and auto mechanics – are only taught there and at St Leonard’s. His replacement from Alexandra does not teach these subjects. He asks the critically pertinent question: what happens to the students he has been preparing for the City & Guilds examination when he goes off to head the industrial arts department at Alexandra?       
He correctly said that the transfers would affect the ways the teachers approach their work and would be a “serious setback” to the students, “the biggest losers”. These transfers, said to be without consultation, will be a major disadvantage to students whose examinations are imminent, confronted by new teachers, at least one of whom is identified as not familiar with the subjects to be taught.
Voltaire made the point that “common sense is not so common” to which these indiscriminate, unilateral transfers lend new credence. The BSTU’s primary, irrevocable objective was to separate the principal from Alexandra. The end product is that not only is he supposed to go (it seems certain that court action will follow) but half the teaching staff will also be “separated”.
It is ironic that the teacher at whom Mr Broomes’ comments were allegedly directed in his speech day address and which led to the tumultuous stand-off and BSTU/Alexandra strike was transferred to Harrison College, considered our leading secondary school.
There may be more fulfilment than regret in this transfer reflecting adversely on the decision-makers. Our relentlessly hierarchical society is saying that while she is promoted, the principal is demoted. What example does this set?
The students, the raison d’être for schools and teachers everywhere, entirely free of any deleterious involvement, will suffer most to the anxiety and annoyance of their parents and possible setback to their very life chances. The end product of this dispute and the Waterman Commission is that many more than the principal’s feet have been set in motion.
Schools reopen after the Christmas recess on Tuesday in an atmosphere hardly conducive to the academic progress of Alexandra students and creating challenges for students in other schools with transferred teachers. Embellishing general concern, Thursday’s DAILY Nation reported an attempted meeting between the BSTU and the Ministry of Education ended abruptly when the union’s legal advisor arrived.
It is naught for the comfort of the students whose solitude and tuition have been trespassed upon, the disrupted teachers, the Minister of Education and his staff, the parents and country at large that the term opens with the ministry and union not finding it possible to sit down together at the table of reasoned sobriety to talk through their problems.
All Barbadians know that the year just gone was difficult globally. It is the wish of people of goodwill that 2013 will be a significant improvement. Reading the Press over the first three days of the new year suggests no relief from the difficulties and depressions of 2012.
Lord, please put a helping hand for Barbados!
• Peter Simmons, a social scientist, is a former diplomat. Email [email protected]