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Thursday, 16 January 2014 00:00

Imagine teachers in Belize entering their classrooms one morning to find them half empty.  The Ministry of Education does not have any information to explain the empty classrooms but enquiries reveal that a letter had been sent to the various Managements informing them that students would be attending rallies on designated Fridays to learn more about their rights.  The rallies are being organised by a group of concerned parents who have read reports showing that high repetition and drop-out rates can be largely attributed to poor teaching and school administration.  The Management Authorities appear ineffective in weeding out poor teachers, the Teachers’ Union mandate is to protect teachers and so the full brunt of this institutional failure falls on parents and students. Some parents therefore decided to take matters into their own hands and hold sessions in every district to teach the students and their parents how to monitor the quality of the education they are receiving, rate their teachers and school administrations as well as report instances of inappropriate or inequitable behaviour and poor educational practices.

Managements, Unions and the Ministry of Education would be outraged and the students who missed school would be subject to demerits, suspensions and even expulsions even if they brought letters from their parents supporting their actions.   Some voices would query whether the parents were not overstepping their authority and these issues should more properly be dealt with by the government and managing authorities.  However, many people would agree that the sessions were an important component of raising educational standards.  Regardless, almost everyone would be concerned that the sessions had been scheduled for a school day.  They would want to know how students who missed school would catch up with the work covered during their absence.  Most teachers would reasonably be unwilling to hold extra classes after school or on weekends to teach the missed material.  Re-teaching it during regular sessions would not be fair to the students who had gone to school and ignoring it would leave the absent students at a disadvantage for tests and examinations.  Other concerned persons would also reasonably ask if any roll call was taken to show which students had actually attended the full sessions, who had gone for only a short time and then left and who had just taken the day off.

In light of the decision by the Belize National Teachers’ Union (BNTU) to hold a series of rallies in every district to discuss a range of issues, many of them unrelated to their conditions of service, the same questions must be asked.  One of the reasons the leaders of the BNTU give as their rationale for the rallies is that they are dissatisfied with the terms of the pay raise that they along with other unions negotiated and signed off on last year.  The agreement was for wages to rise according to a formula based on the growth of the economy during fiscal year 2013/2014.   The Prime Minister has already apologised for mistakenly giving the initiation date of the raise as August and confirmed that it will be paid from July, retroactive to April 1, 2014 as per their signed agreement.  The leaders of the BNTU are now agitating for changes to the agreement to include a minimum percentage raise.  Not only is this a breach of a consensual agreement but at this time they have made no formal request to the government to discuss any such change. Another point raised by BNTU leaders is the issue of Social Security payments to teachers injured travelling to and from work.  As far as we know Social Security already covers injuries sustained by ALL workers whether travelling to and from their workplace, travelling on work related business or at their place of work.  Obviously, it would be unreasonable to expect teachers to have additional coverage that other workers do not enjoy.  However, if BNTU has a specific proposal that covers ALL workers they should submit it to the Belize Social Security Board (BSSB), understanding that the BSSB has a fiduciary duty to ensure that the level of benefits is matched by the level of contributions.  The BNTU has also echoed the concern of the National Trade Union Congress about delays in the introduction of a Workplace Occupational Health and Safety Bill to the House of Representatives.  The public has only just heard about this and it would be more useful to educate the general public on what this Bill entails, what consultation has taken place and which other entities have a stake in the outcome.

Moving on from these specific issues, the BNTU leadership claims that they need to discuss more general governance issues such as corruption and the role of the Social Partners.  These might be worthy goals but there is no evidence of a crisis that would necessitate inconveniencing thousands of parents and cheating students of the education they need and deserve.  Some individual instances of dishonesty have been discovered both within and outside the government but there is no evidence of any institutional corruption.  If teachers will not attend rallies ON THEIR OWN TIME then there is not a sufficient level of motivation and interest to warrant holding such rallies.  Parents who had to pay for additional childminding and students who missed out on a day of learning might also question whether any meetings or rallies took up an entire working day and whether ALL teachers who did not report to school attended the full proceedings. The highlights of the speeches shown on the news show a very confrontational approach even though the Minister of Education has been very measured and careful in his comments about the rallies.

The lessons that students learn when the BNTU closes schools with very little advance notice and for no pressing reason are not lessons that will help them understand good work ethics such as giving your employer value for money; thinking of the needs of others when taking decisions; respecting the agreements you have made and always choosing negotiation above confrontation.  Teaching these attitudes will not help our young people in their struggle with violence and conflict resolution or raise our educational standards.