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The real facts

My attention has been drawn to some recent comments by the Prime Minister carried in the media concerning the BSTU and the Barbados Community College, the 1969 strike, and alluding to the fact that in the Alexandra School matter some of the “actors” are still around.

The Prime Minister is correct that Barbadians should know about historical developments in our educational system. That is my cue to recite some demonstrable facts to separate truth from myth.

1. Erskine Sandiford, then at Harrison College, in the Sunday Advocate of January 10, 1965 advanced the idea of a sixth form college. He was supported by Philip Greaves in the other Sunday paper on February 21, 1965 and I joined the debate in that section of the press soon after.

The members of the Association of Assistant Teachers in Secondary Schools, AATSS (now the BSTU), after much lengthy discussion concluded that it should object not to the establishment of a sixth form college, but to the abolition of all sixth forms to accommodate it.

2. The AATSS argued that the fifth form schools should not be denied the chance to have their own sixth forms. Education at that level was then, sadly, limited to academic subjects and in 1967, according to a working paper before the Advisory Committee of the Barbados Community College, only 285 students had passed in four or more subjects at “O” level. The AATSS served on that advisory committee — first by Desmond Clarke up to February 7, 1968 and thereafter by Dr. Elsie Payne. So much for the story that the AATSS (now the BSTU) tried to prevent poor people from having a sixth form education.

3. The Government wisely did not pursue the removal of sixth forms. Prime Minister Barrow in his address at the Harrison College Speech Day on March 16, 1967 included some remarks about the proposed Barbados Community College. The AATSS a few months later submitted to the Ministry of Education a memorandum formally supporting a Community College, and welcoming the addition of the subjects mentioned by Barrow — “advanced commercial studies, accountancy, engineering drawing, business studies, computer methods, surveying and things of that sort.”

4. Grave concerns were raised, however, by the AATSS about the legislation to establish the college, particularly the minister’s powers. The Minister of Education, then Sandiford, met an AATSS delegation and, according to the Government Information Service press release of July 15, 1968 (No 307), agreement was reached on four points which formed the basis for the joint statement issued after the meeting.

5. Some of us in the AATSS argued at the time that the college staff should not be employed by a statutory board, but should, together with teachers in all other Government educational institutions, fall under a Teaching Service Commission.

6. The 1969 strike by the AATSS had its origins not in any objection to the higher amounts to be paid to academic staff at the Barbados Community College, but in the abandonment of the long established principle of payment according to qualifications and experience which resulted in a wide differential between the two sets of scales.

7. The refusal on the part of the Government to continue the collective bargaining process to resolve that departure from principle, and the resulting differential, led directly to strike action on May 1, 1969.

8. Vernon Smith, another 1969 actor happily still around, was teaching at Combermere and was one of us on strike for 19 days. He succeeded me as Honorary Secretary of the AATSS.

9. The strike ended when the Government acknowledged the validity of the AATSS position, and conformity to the above mentioned principle was achieved in the college’s revised salary scales. The AATSS for its part accepted that evening classes at the college should allow some “institutional edge” in their scales. This was valued at two increments and it has remained ever since.

10. In 1969 the Barbados Union of Teachers fully supported the AATSS.

I trust the Prime Minister will, in retrospect, agree with me that it was unfortunate that the Government did not defer to the views of his headmaster, L. Harford Skeete, when he wrote to the AATSS on March 24, 1969 on behalf of the Association of Headmasters/Headmistresses:

“The Heads would like to place on record that they are strongly in support of the established principle of salaries in Government maintained educational institutions being based on qualifications and teaching experience.”

With such collegial support I can readily agree with the Prime Minister that “we” prevailed in 1969. I do not use the royal “we”, but refer to the real plurality — employer and worker, Government and union — reaching an agreement which has stood the test of time.

I hope the Prime Minister will, in turn, agree that “we” can again prevail in relation to the Alexandra School, provided that there is a similar willingness to ensure the statutory rightness of “transparency, fairness and justice”, and to apply, albeit late but not too late, what is fit and proper, meet and just.

If that liturgical dictum is to have authority in the current industrial relations situation then the Prime Minister must, as his predecessor in office did in 1969, ensure that the relevant agency communicates with the BSTU, and is given the wherewithal to reach a resolution.

If the Prime Minister in good faith previously left others to fashion a sensible outcome, then that trust has been betrayed in all the details of the unreasonableness which yet remains. If the Prime Minister now wishes, and not without some justification, to keep procedural purity and avoid centre stage, then his supporting cast would have to include an entity capable of finding a settlement which does not continue to associate him and his office with the blot evident in the current status quo.

Reversal is not per se loss of face; adamantine unreasonableness, however, is death of reputation from which no resurrection is assured. This is no time for bit players with bit parts.

Let not posterity blame “all of we” for leaving future actors to separate myth from truth in the plot and sub-plots of the Alexandra saga.

* Patrick Frost, now an advisor to the BSTU, is a former longstanding head of that union.

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