The ongoing saga at the Grantley Adams Memorial School is instructive. At a time when individual rights are very much a global focus and when those of children especially, take on significant importance, the youngsters of that St Joseph educational institution are worthy of commendation. And, the teachers too.
In any form of commercial activity, whether in a bustling city store, a village rum shop, a suburban shopping mall or a school cafeteria, any buyer has a right to decline to purchase what is offered to him or her. And this stands whether the buyer is a bearded octogenarian or a khaki-clad, clean-shaven 13-year-old. And where the commodity to be purchased is edible and the quality is deemed by the consumer to be unsatisfactory and overly expensive, then the justification for refusal to conduct business is perhaps magnified.
The children have a right to refuse to purchase what the cafeteria is selling. That they engaged in a peaceful protest during their lunch break demonstrated they not only were keenly aware of their rights but that also they were respectful of their location and the need to conduct themselves with decorum.
But, of course, officialdom must respond in these situations. And there is usually only one way that officialdom responds – by official, blanket statements related to procedure and responsibilities. The school’s administration is responsible for the safety of the children during school hours and while they are on the school’s premises. Needless to say, closing the gates during the lunch break can be easily fitted into this official mandate, even if it was not previously done before the cafeteria controversy. Of course, to make the response to the children’s protest even more official, the matter could be looked at from a health perspective. Thus, if the school’s administration and by extension the Ministry of Education goes the route of official statements related to ensuring the good health of students, they cannot be faulted even if there is no history of unhealthy items being served by vendors outside the school’s premises.
But there is a level of hypocrisy in this entire scenario that runs deeper than some rivers. There are vendors outside Combermere School where children make purchases before school, at lunchtime and after school. There are vendors inside and outside the Foundation School’s yard where students make purchases. There are vendors outside the Alleyne School. Indeed, one vendor reportedly sells fruits inside the school premises, inclusive of the staffroom. There are vendors outside Westbury Primary, Wesley Hall, one old lady in the vicinity of the canteen inside the Harrison College compound, the approach to Frederick Smith, Alexandra; the list goes on and on.
Vendors positioned outside schools are as widespread and traditionally Bajan as cou cou and salt fish, pudding and souse on Saturdays, conkies in November and going to church on Sundays just to show off a new outfit. And children have patronized these vendors who invariably offer other options – most times less expensive – than canteens, without their rights to do so being compromised by officialdom falling back on official statements about “responsibilities” and the need for cooperation – blah, blah, blah. Where is officialdom on the approximately 150 other schools on the island? Are their gates closed at lunchtime? Has the Ministry of Education or anyone else issued statements over the last 50 years on these schools?
The most important personalities in this scenario are the children. The parents, the school’s administration, the Ministry of Education – and indeed the vendors – must do all in their power to ensure that the students at Grantley Adams have access to lunch that they the children deem palatable, that is healthy and that is as reasonably priced as possible. There should be no official or unofficial gerrymandering of any process simply to flex muscles or to protect the interests of anyone.
The impasse has also highlighted another unsavoury aspect of Barbadian politics. Several of these canteen tenders frequently change when political administrations change. And these changes occur even if the incumbent was providing an excellent service. The changes materialize simply to satisfy some political promise to someone in the shadows. If the past is to be used as a gauge, the students at Grantley Adams were not complaining about the quality and price of lunches provided by the previous tender. Why then the change? And just why are wagons of protection seemingly circling around the new tender? Perhaps, the time is ripe for greater transparency in the process of tendering for these lucrative opportunities at our nation’s schools.
The admirable children at Grantley Adams Memorial have demonstrated that democracy is very much alive and well. That their teachers are also forsaking the cafeteria and doing business with the vendors speak volumes about the impasse and our democracy. But some of the ensuing fallout has also shown that subtle manoeuvring can often be used to undermine the best of what is being demonstrated on that hill at Blackman’s.