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Bad-john minister should cool it!

Someone, perhaps his prime minister, should inform Education Minister, Dr. Tim Gopeesingh that his bad-john attitude in seeking to manage schools, teachers and the education system is sadly outdated.

Particularly in the instance of the education minister, the holder of ministerial office needs to have people-management skills. Those are absolutely vital for the minister who has to deal with students, teachers, principals, schools supervisors and the stakeholders of the industry, parents and guardians.

What is more, and not for the first time, the education minister ventured close to seeking to manage teachers with threats and powers which do not belong to him but rather rest with the constitutional body responsible for such matters, the Teaching Service Commission:

“The power … to remove and exercise disciplinary control over persons holding or acting in such offices (i.e. teachers) and to enforce standards of conduct on such matters shall vest in the Teaching Service Commission.”

As education minister, if he is made aware, reportedly by the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers Association, that principals of 19 schools took the decision to remain closed because of infrastructure and other kinds of problems at the schools, he should be concerned.

However, the focus of his concern should be directed towards enquiring as to why the principals of these schools took such a decision. The minister must start from the position that principals of secondary schools are rational and responsible professionals who are committed to their students and the success of the education system.

Principals also have a level of autonomy and power to make decisions of behalf of the schools entrusted to their care; the school system would grind to a halt if all decisions relating to all schools had to be channelled through the ministry.

The minister’s enquiry should have been first directed at seeking information from the principals involved as to why they took such a decision, rather than being officious about their first having to check with his ministry.

Perhaps Gopeesingh was irritated because, by not opening the 19 schools, the principals were saying to the country and to the ministry that the repair work on the schools in question was either unsatisfactory or perhaps had not even been started.

The fact is, however, that this is part of an annual cycle. The two-month period at mid-year when schools are closed is the obvious and ideal time to carry out repair work. But despite promises from successive political administrations, the programme of repairs is never completed in time for the new term.

What the minister’s outburst also did was to make it very difficult to arrive at an amicable resolution of this matter. TTUTA is going to stand with its members, the principals, and there is likely to be further contention between the two sides. In addition to which, the minister must be aware that negotiations for a new industrial agreement between the Chief Personnel Officer and TTUTA have been ongoing for two and a half years and that teachers, including principals, are working on 2008 salaries.

For the minister to start off the school year by declaring hostilities against principals is likely to be a counterproductive approach. Judging from Gopeesingh’s track record, it may not come easily to him to adopt a more collaborative and conciliatory and less authoritarian style.

Perhaps it is time to insist that those who would be made ministers undergo training in management and human relations, which in many instances may be the most difficult but also the most important aspects of their portfolios.

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