Blessings in disguise?

For some time now Barbados needed a new conversation about education. Not simply about the 11-plus exam, or about student behaviour and curriculum, but about empowering our teachers, about building citizenship and community, about quality and standards, about adult education and about regaining our Caribbean leader ship edge.

We have become complacent and no longer export “Bajan” as we did not so long ago, when, we exported people, teachers, and, public servants to the Caribbean and elsewhere. Then, being Bajan had a value. It did more. It created space for those who remained at home to grow.

Somewhere along the line we have lost the will to create space. Too many issues are being resolved by the litigation process. We are at risk of becoming a “crab in the barrel” society.

Now we can pick at the problem — likely course — as if we were using a shortcut route to remove pond grass from the ground. We can pick off pieces and leave the roots in the ground to come back, or fork the land up so that the roots can be removed and new plants can grow without bother.

This view makes the Alexandra affair an opportunity to create a 21st century educational model and system that will position our schools as centres of influence and change in the community and empower administrators, teachers, and students to create an environment where citizenship, innovation, thinking technology and entrepreneurship prevail.

Why do we need to restructure and not maintain the system?

The Alexandra School is part of a system and this affair has many extenuating circumstances that are yet to be discussed as a resolution is sought. Some of the unattended conflict has its seeds in the history of our schools, the absence of a strong human resource management structure, the 1982 Education Act, and the limited attention that is often paid to public, community and industrial relations until, everything has broken down. The foregoing makes the Alexandra affair complex and requires an integrated solution.

Three examples of unattended mitigating circumstances:

I hold the view that the 1982 Education Act only gives the chairman of the board the authority to facilitate matters of hiring and firing. Once this is clearly understood, then all meetings and documentation with regard to staff must be able withstand authentic industrial relations scrutiny.

Thus, the board must make a case that can stand as evidence and with due regard to rights of the worker. Therefore if these things are not in place, the hands of the ministry will be tied, since this cannot be done retroactively.

It becomes more complicated if the school is one of the older schools like Alexandra. Again, I hold the view that when the act was implemented the letter which was circulated to principals did not constitute “a letter of offer” which is an industrial relation practice for the transfer of authority when new companies are formed out of old ones. The details were never released, but it is a fact that the principal of an older school remained in its house for about four years after he was replaced.

Therefore, the Waterman Commission report should be reviewed against this background.

Another matter is that of climate. I believe that all schools have qualified staff and senior positions are generally filled. And unlike the past when principals would came and went, it is a closed shop and left to attrition. This fact alone makes the appointed of a principal critical and gives rise to the following questions:

* Who recommended the appointment of Broomes?

* Was it clear that he was head and shoulders above other persons who worked at the school?

* If this were not considered, then it was only a matter of time before conflict would start.

It is ironic that many politicians who say that they despise slavery and hate colonialism will not take the initiative to free our children by creating an independent environment for them. The 1982 act needs to be amended to an extent that it would at least support but not be limited to the following:

1. The Ministry of Education should concern itself with broad policy and quality reviews.

2. As schools transition and develop other areas within their remit, they should have the support of a human resource, industrial relations, community and public relations team that has a fixed lifeline.

3. The leadership of the schools should be upgraded and holders should be familiar with industrial relations and Human resource management.

4. Schools would be allowed to develop an identity within the communities which they serve. This should include relationship with businesses.

Sometimes, an opportunity presents itself and we say we can’t take it. No doubt debate will escalate over the next few weeks, and intensify during the upcoming general elections campaign. My guess is that “who is right and who was wrong” will continue to dominate the discussion.

This is not in the best interest of the future of Barbados. The evolution of our school system presents the best opportunity to give further meaning to Independence, and self-determination.

If the past is any guide, for at least two reasons, the name of Jeff Broome will be indelibly inscribed in the history books of Barbados. This often happens when persons take a stand — right or wrong — that eventually exposes a critical societal nerve. More often than not, as with this affair, the initial action appears innocent, but gathers momentum as other nerves start to hurt and the pain travels along other veins. In retrospect, such situations always become turning points and blessings in disguise.

Can you imagine the pages of history if everyone joins hands and stands up for a big upgrade.

* Walter Edey is an educator who was chairman of Springer Memorial Secondary School Board and secretary of the Public Relations Society of Barbados.

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