Notes From a Native Son: A Cautionary Tale Of An Education System In Decline, Alexandra Impasse The Symptom

Hal Austin

What is Barbados coming to when in the early years of the 21st century a small group of teachers can walk out of a school on the grounds that they do not like the head’s management style and his competence as an administrator?

What is even more scandalous is that government and trade unions are taking this rag bag of activists seriously and crippling the education of some of our brightest young people, the very future of Barbados. In the midst of all this our prime minister remains embarrassingly dumb, unable to even call a successful meeting of both sides.

Of course, the obvious action is to give the teachers a deadline to return to the classroom and start teaching the pupils, and set a date for serious discussions of their grievances. But it must be made clear in no uncertain terms that no matter what they think of the head’s management style, it is not a striking issue. We cannot replace one perceived sense of bullying with another, because one side is shouting louder than the other.

The crisis at the Alexandra School also exposes the inability of the minister of education to deliver on his duties, and the street-fighting bullying tactics of a small clique of trade unions. Those of us who are big supporters of and active trade unions can only look on in amazement as a major union, not involved in the silly show of strength at the school, has now thrown its considerable weight behind its sister union.

Now is the time, if ever there was a right time, for the government and parents to back the headmaster and show the unions the door. But it should be made clear to him that he is on probation and unless improvements be made – both in management and in exam results – then he will be out of a job.

However, the crisis is just a symptom, not a cause. The real cause is the declining state of Barbadian education and the poor quality of teachers, on the one hand, and the failure of government and the administrative class, on the other. If Barbadians want to test the quality of their secondary schools they only have to travel as far as St Lucia and visit St Joseph’s, the most successful affiliate of the Caribbean Examination Council, for an example of how a top school in a developing nation can perform. It may also explain why St Lucia is the only English-speaking Caribbean island to have two Nobel Laureates. Apart from the economy, the educational system is in urgent need of a complete overhaul.

We can start by raising the status of teachers by making it a graduate profession for all recruits and returning all those aged 45 and under to the class room for advanced training. They should also be offered salary increases and better career prospects, along with enhanced responsibilities for heads, including control of their profit and loss, hiring and firing, reporting to a board comprised of teachers, non-teaching staff, the local community, parents and secondary school pupils, with observer status for the ministry of education.

Along with this improved responsibility at a local level, the ministry should also have the right in an emergency to send in a flying squad of experienced teachers to take over in cases of failure. This improved status for teachers should also be accompanied by certain conditions, such as non-union membership, although the formation of a professional association focusing exclusively on standards should be encouraged.

The final test, however, should be a ten-year programme to raise the educational standards in Barbados to international levels, based on approved benchmarks, such as the international baccalaureate. It should also be accompanied by a widespread overhaul of the school structure, creating specialist schools for some disciplines and fast-tracking exceptional bright pupils.

As a small and relatively poor nation, despite claims to the contrary, the long-term future of Barbados lies in the quality of its human capital. We must not only return to the days when the quality of Barbadian education was unmatched in the Caribbean, but we must raise our game and produce school-leavers and graduates who can compete in a new digital world, which is borderless for its brightest and best. There is no real reason why Barbadians should not have a berth in Silicon Valley, alongside the best of the Singaporeans, Indians and Malaysians.

There is no reason why Barbadians should not be alongside the best high-tech engineers, alongside the Germans, Japanese and Chinese. There is no real reason why young people should not be entering secondary school already equipped with a foreign language and computer competence, which they acquired at nursery and primary school.

This bright future is partly in the hands of striking, gnarling, aggressive teachers picketing Alexandra School, rather than spending their time thinking of improving classroom standards. Instead of this, we have a so-called teaching union looking for a fight with the CXC authorities because he messed up and did not get his documentation in on time.

This, in a nation where 70 per cent of secondary school-leavers leave statutory education without any formal qualifications and, which the ever-expanding university is prepared to lower universally accepted standards by accepting practically semi-literate and under-qualified students as undergraduates. You just could not make it up. And, in the middle of all this, the prime minister has chosen to remain silent while what is best in Barbados declines almost to the level of the most primitive of nations.

Prime minister Stuart, in a most bizarre decision, announced from a church service that he planned to intervene in the Alexandra School crisis with the intention of bringing it to a ‘swift end’. If it was not so serious it would be funny. Maybe his interpretation of a swift end differs from that of all reasonable people. As prime minister he must give leadership by supporting his minister and head teacher. Rowdy trade unionism is not the way to run a nation’s educational system. The victims in all this are the children.

Industrial Relations:
The row at Alexandra School also exposes the wide gaps in industrial relations policy and legislation and it tries to rush through new legislation. There is quite clearly no proper conciliation mechanism to resolve these industrial conflicts, apart from strike action by workers and capitulation by managers. And, in a panic, the government is proposing the legalisation of industrial relations in a backward-looking and reactionary way.

One problem is that in a culture dominated by lawyers we have failed as a society to develop a legal consciousness, which explains the flaw at the heart of our legal and social policymaking. Yet, trade unions are a key part of the so-called Social Partnership, which some deluded people see as the governmental structure for small jurisdictions. Arbitration and conciliation should be written in to law as an industrial relations process all parties must go through before strike action or locking out.

Can courts bring about social change, or should be look to them as institutions of social change?

Analysis and Conclusion:
The challenge of education in the 21st century, no matter where one lives, is to nurture talent and close the gap between those who are naturally gifted, those who are well-taught and those whose ambitions and skills lie elsewhere. The key to unlocking this human capital is good teachers and first-rate teaching. Teachers are the guardians of our future. The economic crisis may be temporary, but the education of future generations will be with us forever.

But, as the Alexandra School crisis has shown, there is a level of obstinacy, arrogance and aggression coming from the BSTU that is offensive for an organisation which claims to be representing professionals, when it can even refuse to meet with the opposition. How we manage this is also part of the task of good government and policy-making. First, we must attract the brightest and best in to teaching by making it a profession with the same, if not a higher, status as lawyers and doctors.

This would be reflected not only in remuneration, opportunities for further study and societal recognition, but by raising the bar to entry. For example, teaching in a secondary school should be a graduate occupation. This is the one feature shared by all the leading nations which score high on international educational benchmarks, including Singapore, Finland and South Korea. All these nations recruit top graduates, develop their careers further, and battle to give them a lifelong career in education and part of their long-term strategic plans.

The action by the Alexandra School teachers is in many ways symptomatic of the failure and post-independence decline of Barbados. The one promise of independence was progress and prosperity, driven by equal educational opportunities. This promise has been broken at every level, from nursery to university, and scandalously so with Sir Hilary Beckles and his senior team building an empire in Cave Hill at the expense of ordinary Barbadian taxpayers, many of whom would never have the chance of entering a university. But the striking Alexandra  School teachers take the biscuit. Their selfishness negates everything about teaching as a progressive discipline.

The silence of the wider society is also worrying. Where are the still active recently retired professionals who should be passing on their knowledge to this coming generation? Where are the aspiring and ambitious law undergraduates looking for experience who should be providing pro bono legal advice to the poor and underprivileged parents?

We are a society that has lost its moral compass, adrift in a sea of materialism and amorality. I have seen enough of this in Britain, from the so-called free sex and rock ‘n’ roll 1960s, to the greed and selfishness of the Thatcher years to the idiocy of the Blair years to the buffoonery of the Cameron years. Whereas the economic crisis will be resolve in a relatively short time, investments in our human capital, the most important of which is the coming generation, will last forever.

To allow our most precious gift is our talented young people and to waste it will be a grave sin. Ultimately, the crisis poses a number of questions about the maturity of Barbadian democracy and, in particular about the social responsibility, transformative justice, institutional limitations and the decaying Barbadian state. What those who really care about Barbados should worry about is that the so-called New Barbadians, the silent people in our midst, are quietly plotting to take control.

If they do, we will be marginalised like aboriginal peoples.

442 thoughts on “Notes From a Native Son: A Cautionary Tale Of An Education System In Decline, Alexandra Impasse The Symptom

  1. How can anybody praise the Prime Minister for simply capitulating to the BSTU’s unreasonable position?
    He has completely undermined and made ridiculous his appointed Minister of Education, without having the balls to sack him.
    He has not spoken to any of the substantive issues behind the dispute and appears to want it resolved behind closed doors.
    Gollop on Starcom News kept talking about “getting the children back to school.” Errrrrrr….the children didn’t go anywhere – the teachers abandoned them (and are to be rewarded for it.)
    The only positive that may come out of this whole idiotic affair is substantive and immediate reform of the way the public sector is managed. But not from this Prime Minister – immediate is not a word he understands. He moves glacially. Stage Two may be a long time in coming, Mary, and when you stuck it out for so long on this one single issue, he may yet make you look like an idiot.

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