Our crippling political stalemate

The University of the West Indies (UWI) at St Augustine Campus is seeking the permission of the University hierarchy to adjust the entry requirements for the Faculty of Social Sciences.  I suspect that this could be an issue that will shortly engage the other UWI campuses.

I base the guess on an experience I had recently in a government-run secondary school.  The Head of the Science Department, at an Options meeting with parents, was encouraging parents and children to research STEM jobs. STEM is an acronym which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

The department head was indicating that jobs in these areas were the ones with increasing demand.  She was persuading children to commit to choosing subjects from the science options to facilitate entry into training for these STEM careers.

Frankly, she was doing a little more than persuading the children to choose a science subject, she was ‘singing for her supper’.  She was trying to boost the numbers of students in her department. The reality is that there are usually very small numbers of children in the science classes at the secondary level in Barbados.

At the schools which facilitate children who gain 50% or less in the Eleven Plus School Entrance Examination, there can sometimes be no students entered to do mathematics or science subjects at the Caribbean Examinations Council level. Over the last few years, the performance in Mathematics at the Eleven Plus level has been the cause of national debate.  However, the Ministry of Education has not revealed any real plans to gather further information about what students experience in the classroom or how teachers can be more effectively trained in Mathematics instruction in the classroom.  Added to that, science is not a subject which is taught for the secondary school entry examination.  This can result in students missing science lessons in the final two years of their primary school life to premium Mathematics and English.

When students see science and other parts of the syllabus discarded in this manner at primary school, they form attitudes and beliefs about which subjects are important and which are not. Additionally, many students do not grasp the practicability of mathematics and science due to the segmented subject models which we are still using in classrooms.  Students interested in the applications of science and mathematics do not realize the linkages between their interests and the esoteric content which is being offered to them.

Based on the trends in the secondary schools, it would not be surprising if our own Faculty of Social Sciences soon has to reevaluate their entry requirements.  Along with the issues of what our students are choosing at the Caribbean Examinations Council level, another issue for UWI, St. Augustine was the cost increase to students.  Since the Government of Trinidad, like the Government of Barbados, has reduced the subsidy to students enrolling in UWI, less are finding the means to do so.

Barbados is not having any kind of discussion about these future concerns.  We are firmly stuck negotiating the political issues which have gripped our country subsequent to the 2013 election.  The talking point currently engrossing the nation is the continued action by unions and other social partnership associates to bring the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance back to the bargaining table.

When issues become long and protracted with all sides using the media to vie for public attention and sympathy, the foundational issues of the arguments can be lost.  Last week, the big talking point inserted into the debate was the need for respect for the office of Prime Minister.  I hope leading on from that point, that one of the fundamental issues for discussion this week is the fiduciary responsibility for the holder of this high office to conduct him or herself with the wisdom and decorum needed such as not to bring that high office into disrepute.

The Prime Minister of Barbados is quoted as saying that he had the opportunity to stave off the march and semi-shut down action which occurred across Barbados on Monday. He however chose not to use the office which he holds to guide the country away from the action.  When one side of a negotiation is so rigid and impermeable, where does that leave the other side in the negotiation?

One fact which to my mind needs to be restated as this entire debacle plays out is that Barbados is a democratic society.  The constitution states that elections are constitutionally due every five years.  However, a key pillar of democracy is that the government serves at the pleasure of the people and if that pleasure is spent before five years have elapsed, there is nothing stopping an election from being held. Put another way, elections in Barbados are due constitutionally every five years but there is no minimum requirement on when an election can be held.  If the confidence of the people runs out before five years, our practice had been always to call elections.

Indeed, when Prime Minister Owen Arthur called the election of 2008, the election was not constitutionally due for a few more months.  Prime Minister Arthur, as the holder of high office and in respect of the pillars which gave his office validity, took the high road and gave the people of Barbados an election when they started to call for it in unison.

This type of action is needed to ensure the integrity of high offices. It keeps the office respectable and when the holder of an office deviates from all historical and philosophical moorings previously associated with the office, the issue is not disrespect of the office, the issue is the systematic erosion of democratic principles and practice.

Barbados needs an intervention. What complicates the intervention is the absence of a government willing to engage in meaningful dialogue.  Barbados seemingly no longer has a government which adheres to democratic philosophies.  Yet, we have no mechanism in CARICOM to help countries in this position.

From the experience of Grenada in 1979, to the turmoil raging in Venezuela for at least the last year to the out of control situation in Barbados, we are still hoping and praying that our ‘big brothers’ will save us – either that or that our governments will always work seamlessly.

It is sad that our integration efforts have not yet reached the point where a governance committee can be activated in cases like ours to ensure that the interest of the country is the maximum concern and not the desire of one party to retain government at any cost.

The time that it is taking Barbados to sort its political issues is taking focus away from other issues such as the critical reforms which are needed in the educational sector to keep us globally competitive.  Barbados shall pay dearly for the time elapsing.

Source: (Marsha Hinds Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies. Email: mhindslayne@gmail.com)

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