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FIRING LINE: Stop ignoring social issues


SHANTAL MUNRO-KNIGHT

FIRING LINE: Stop ignoring social issues

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IT IS CLEAR that the issues between the Barbados Union of Teachers (BUT), the Alma Parris and Parkinson Memorial Secondary School, and the Ministry of Education represent a quagmire so deep one could easily get lost and never be found. I believe by now we are all tired and completely confused by the daily squabbling between all the parties, which is beginning to resemble a schoolyard game of finger pointing and one-upmanship.

I certainly would be grateful if someone could help me to understand why teachers from the two schools are actually staying away from their classrooms. Is it the violence and weapons that children are bringing to school?  Is it that principal Jeff Broomes supposedly did not punish students who brought to school weapons or is it that he has a drawer full of weapons and teachers feel unsafe. It is mainly the other unnamed “unresolved issues” that the principals have failed to address? Or is it in fact, the failure of the Ministry of Education to meet and act on issues raised? Really now!

I believe that there is a legitimate expectation that teachers should be able to demonstrate some coherence of thought and present a logical explanation for their actions. If you are going to take such a significant step as staying away from classrooms and putting children’s education in jeopardy the issue at root of the action should at a bare minimum be well defined.

Like every other institution from which we demand accountability for their actions, the union cannot be exempt. The daily shifting of positions gives the impression that perhaps this is more about personal agendas than a fundamental issue about protection of rights and serious challenges facing the education system. The fact that the issue of violence in schools has been thrown in as a “red herring” in the impasse is extremely unfortunate. I would suggest that the union have one day of not saying anything to the Press and use that day to have a union meeting to clarify for itself why it is taking action.

What this public squabbling has done is to obscure the real issues facing this country’s education system. It has also allowed the Ministry of Education to hide behind statements quoting the Public Service General Orders as opposed to addressing the serious need for a whole system approach to education reform.

The emphasis on teacher training, improving technology and institutional and policy fixes, while important, will not yield the expected results if the schools continue to be overrun by hooligans. The two solutions which have been mooted in the Press are that principals should call the police and that the Education Act should also be expanded to give teachers the right to flog. I dare anybody to provide me with evidence that either of these solutions have proven effective anywhere to address the issue of violence in schools.

Clearly it is an ongoing and extremely serious concern not only for teachers and principals but for the entire society. Yet we continue to treat with the issue as we do with all things – as a fad – and hope it will go away or we bury our head in the sand and attempt to ignore it. On the other hand, the day something extremely explosive happens, we will be sure to have the sky is falling down reaction. Where this leaves the thousands of schoolchildren whose main interest is getting a good education, it seems we are not too concerned.

So that while the teachers and their unions are concerned about their safety, the principals their turf and the Ministry of Education – well, they are just drowning in inertia and weight of the General Orders – the students are left to figure it out with the assistance of sporadic programmes about peace and conflict which operate on the periphery of the system.

In all of this, where are the parents and other social institutions which should be as concerned that violence in schools is perhaps a reflection of the increasing violence in society. Parent-teacher associations, whether at the school or national level, have not proven to be an effective avenue for joint diagnosis and effective problem solving.

Except for the lone voice of president Rhonda Blackman on the behalf of the National Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, (NCPTA) it seems that parents as well are happy to leave the solutions to the issue within the domain of an ineffective and apparently unconcerned system. The main societal reaction has been to leave it to the police and ensure that there are as much Facebook and media pictures of the violence as possible.

I will not be tired of saying that unless we take an integrated and comprehensive approach to addressing social issues, with the fundamental understanding they have long-term ripple effects on the whole of society, we will continue to be guilty of insanity. We will, as they say, reap what we sow or rather – in this case ­– what we continue to ignore.

Shantal Munro-Knight is a development specialist and executive coordinator at the Caribbean Policy Development Centre. Email [email protected]

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