The crisis at Alexandra School, being played out before the nation, is but a reflection of the generally meltdown in education in Barbados. Although the Inquiry itself may be the public humiliation of a man, his stubbornness and the notorious Barbadian culture of spite and vindictiveness, the message it sends to the rest of the world is not a very nice one.
There are two broad reasons for this symptom of decline: first, the authorities have failed to make education as attractive professionally as law or medicine and, therefore, have not seen it necessary to spend a reasonable share of GDP on education, nor to attract the best graduates, because they do not appreciate its central importance in the future development of the nation.
Second, there is a traditional policy of promoting the longest serving and best connected person, rather than the most competent and best able. We must skip a generation in order to professionalise teaching. Following on from this is a lack of proper training provisions for teachers at all grades, and especially head teachers, who are not only the senior teachers in schools, but also the chief executive of the enterprise.
However, this can only be done once there has been a radical transformation of the structure of schools, their management, and their relationship with the ministry, teaching and non-teaching staff, parents and their children, the local community and other stakeholders. Too much power in Barbados is centralised under the control of ministers and civil servants. It is a system that creates little Hitlers, intellectual Napoleons who desperately want to show who is in control. One way forward is to turn all secondary schools in to individual charities, run by a board of trustees, with the school head/CEP reporting to a management board.
Teaching is one of those professions in which team work, unity, and formal respect for colleagues, especially in front of the children, is essential if it is to succeed. The head teacher is not only the formal head of the school, s/he is also the moral leader as chief guardian of all the pupils. Given this, good managers do not manage teams as a collective whole, but as individuals. People have different personalities, what may be funny to some, may be offensive to others, some, members of the team may want to conspire and form cliques, while others will be only too keen to put the children first.
It is the job of the head teacher to manage this by first having universal rules that apply equally to all staff, not showing any favouritism or dislikes and, most importantly, not being over-familiar with members of his team. While not being aloof, s/he must be sociable, yet maintain a distance which would not compromise any need for disciplinary action or, generally, making unpopular decisions. S/he must avoid gossip and tittle tattle and at all times, on or off duty, demonstrate that s/he is a person of the highest ethical standards.
It is a myth that a senior manager, which is what a head teacher is, can one day go to Kadooment and behave in the most awful way, and the next return to the class room and command the same respect from the very staff and children who had seen him or her as s/he did the day before. This, of course, does not apply to the Alexandra head. In general, a head teacher should at all times behave with dignity and authority; it is not important to be loved and be popular, but to command respect, which is very important.
A key part of being a senior manager is controlling dissent, allowing those who may have opposing views to have their say, while at the same time preventing them from being disruptive. A simple device is to have regular team meetings, allowing the dissenters to speak out, then once back working, enforcing the basic workplace disciplines. It is important that if the dissenters have good ideas that they be given the same objective consideration as those coming from ‘favourites’. In this maelstrom of dissent and conflict it is important not to lose sight of the objective: educating children to the best of your ability.
So, team solidarity and cohesion, although good qualities for many manager to have, are secondary when it comes to the key objective of the institution – preparing young people for their future careers, a responsibility that goes far beyond teachers being classroom mates. A good manager must show tolerance, patience, decency, fair play, objectivity, impartiality and honesty. The crude fact is that whatever the management failure and lack of staff discipline at the local level, the reality is that the fundamental failing is at the ministry and government levels.
First, the ministry has failed to deal with bullying unions, which quite often behave like street gangs; it has failed to put in place a proper disciplinary code for all staff, including head teachers and non-teaching staff; and it has failed to devise a proper management contract between individual schools, stakeholders and the ministry. On top of all this, to have an outspoken, demonstrably over-promoted person in charge of education at this particular time on our history, cannot be nothing short of irresponsibility on the part of the prime minister. But Alexandra School is but one manifestation, even if a publicly humiliating one, of the failure of the education ministry.
Look, for example, at the money-wasting, empire-building that is going on at the Cave Hill campus, at the decades long failure of school leavers to get five or more CXCs/GCEs at grade C or above, or, even more, just look at the scruffy, bearded, dread-locked staff that stand in front of school children every working day as moral examples. Education is too important for our future development to be allowed to drift uncontrollably like this.
Analysis and Conclusion:
Throughout this conflict the union, led apparently by a most uncompromising activist with a perceived propensity to thuggery, has been making it clear that the head teacher had to go for there to be any progress in the negotiations. If this was a negotiation tactic, it was crude and barbaric, if it was meant as a threat then the authorities – from the head master to the ministry – should have refused to have any further discussion with her. As a matter of democratic principle, you do not enter any negotiations with a gun at your head; and this is particularly so when you are a government minister and the person is representing staff in a single school.
The second serious mistake the government has made was when the prime minister publicly humiliated his minister by taking over the negotiations, inviting the rebels to Llaro Court, pouring further slime on his minister’s face. That the minister did not offer his resignation immediately was a mistake; that he did not do so publicly is career damaging.
Ignoring the civil war within the DLP government apart, at a time when the country is crying out for proper economic management to spend nearly Bds$1m on a needless inquiry is unforgivable. That money would have benefited the Alexandra School, its pupils and staff and the nation far more if it had been spent on teacher training and the delivery of lessons.
The Inquiry itself is theatre, with witnesses ignoring the finesse of being dignified in the witness box, with many demonstrating clear clinical mental problems, and others just about being able to control their brawling manners. What was even more insane was the head master excusing himself from the hearing for days to such an extent that the commission chairman had to raise the issue in public.
If, as the Inquiry was led to believe, the head master was absent on those days because he had visiting relatives, it must have said something to interested parties about his judgement, or lack of it. That he could not postpone entertaining a visiting child and her offspring to attend a career-threatening Inquiry must say something about his inability to priortise.