Within the last five years or so, there has been a growing impasse between the teacher trade union movement and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. This persistent battle between the two entities at times tend to overshadow the long period of collaboration and the subsequent benefits that have accrued to the development of education in Barbados. The present situation is unfortunate since, as stakeholders, the teacher unions have become an integral part of the delivery of quality education.
It is my observation that the underlying problem seems to be the lack of a consistent policy of communication between the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union and the Barbados Union of Teachers on the one hand, and the Ministry of Education on the other hand. The fact that at times over a year passes without a formal meeting is highly untenable and regrettable. It is astonishing that the union leaders, both Mary Redman of the BSTU and Pedro Shepherd of the BUT, seem to echo the same chorus of the lack of engagement between themselves and the Ministry of Education.
It is also ironical that representing the Ministry of Education at this time are the Chief Education Officer, Mrs Karen Best, the Parliamentary Secretary, Mr Harry Husbands, and the Minister, the Honourable Ronald Jones, who were three of the most aggressive combatants in the teacher trade union movement.
There is no denying the fact that the education system in Barbados is being faced with very serious problems which cannot easily be discarded. Take the issue of the School Based Assessments that the BSTU has instructed their members not to mark. There is no doubt that continuous assessment is a critical component of the Caribbean Examinations Council process as detailed by Susan Giles, a former CXC official. However, this is not in contention by the BSTU. What seems to be the main issue is the fact that since 1979 there has been an expansion in the number of SBAs, in addition to the scope and depth of the projects.
Former secondary school teacher and SBA marker John Goddard very succinctly summed up the issue this way: “It is tedious work, demanding much effort and patience. The process has become more stressful in all subject areas. Even CSEC English A and Mathematics now have SBA components, and the magnitude of work required of teachers of Food and Nutrition, for example, has to be seen to be believed.”
It is clear from statements coming from the BSTU President that the SBA issue is becoming a Caribbean wide one. Rather than teachers being threatened for not marking SBAs, there should have been serious ongoing discussions on the matter to seek some kind of resolution. It must be pointed out that in the case of Barbados, where traditionally examinations have been intensely competitive, teachers would be under greater pressure than perhaps in other CARICOM countries. There must therefore be dialogue on this matter.
Undoubtedly, there is a growing public concern over the state of violence at both primary and secondary schools within our school system. Particularly at the secondary level, we have had pupil on pupil and pupil on teacher violence that continues to capture the national headlines. The recent attack by a group of school girls and a boy involving mostly students from the Lester Vaughn Secondary School, where some of the participants were arrested and detained by police, represented the most shocking display of school violence within our schools.
Prior to this was the case where a pupil was so viciously struck, that he had to be admitted to the Intensive Care Unit of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. While these acts of indiscipline may be attributed to a small group of students, the intensity in which the violence is escalating must result in serious action by the authorities.
Commentators have contributed various reasons for the prevalence of violence in our schools. Perhaps the most prominent reason given has been the inability of parents to properly discipline their children. Other reasons given have been the widespread use of marijuana and other banned substances, the emergence of gangs, bullying and the so-called bashment culture.
Whatever the cause, the violence must have an adverse impact on the environment of these schools, particularly as it relates to the health and well being of the teachers. It is impossible for the teacher to be the caring professional, if a student who is suspended can enter the compound of the school and wantonly damage a teacher’s car. It cannot be a wholesome teacher/learning environment if female teachers are afraid that they may be slapped on their “behinds” by male students.
It is therefore inexplicable that the teachers’ unions seem unable to engage the Ministry of Education on a matter such as this. One of the cardinal principles of teacher trade union representation is to ensure that their members operate in an environment where they can fully exercise their professional obligations with the minimum of interference.
The daily papers seem replete of instances where teacher unions have been calling on the Ministry of Education to have discussions on this matter without any success. According to Mary Redman, the BSTU President, “We can’t get a meeting for [this] workplace violence.”
Union /Government Estrangement
There is no doubt that since the second term of the Democratic Labour Party government, there has been a growing estrangement between the trade union movement and the government. The election of persons like Toni Moore of the Barbados Workers Union and Akanni McDowall of the National Union of Public Workers seem to have moved the trade union movement more away from seemingly always “in bed” with the ruling party and to a more independent path of defending the rights of their members irrespective of political consequences.
This new union departure has so invigorated the BSTU that while ten years ago, their numbers could be accommodated within a secondary school class room, today they have to do so within an auditorium.
Pedro Shepherd of the BUT occupies a position unlike that of Mary Redman. He heads a union whose former executive stalwarts have now graduated to leading posts within the present government. For example, there is the Minister of Education Ronald Jones and his Parliamentary Secretary Harry Husbands. Occupying the post of Chief Education Officer is a long term president of the same BUT, Karen Best.
It seems reasonable to believe that Pedro Shepherd would be able to call on his former union colleagues to easily resolve issues on behalf of his union members. This has not occurred since he too seemed to have adopted, like his other non-teacher union colleagues, a completely independent approach to matters concerning his membership.
Shepherd’s recent call to the Ministry of Education indicates his frustration with the inept and almost indifferent attitude of the Ministry in dealing with teacher issues. According to him: “The teachers are frustrated but they are coping, but I’m saying that there’s going to be a time when they are going to break and the entire system is going to collapse” – strong words.
The teachers’ unions represent a major stakeholder in education and therefore must be treated with greater respect. The issues in education are serious and I sincerely recommend to the Ministry of Education the suggestion by Redman for the introduction of quarterly meetings between union and Ministry. It is only by constant dialogue and interaction that matters such as the SBAs, school violence, teacher appointments and the unnecessary provocative ‘docking’ of teachers’ salaries can be amicably addressed.
(Dr Dan C. Carter is an educational historian and author)