By MORGAN ADDERLEY
Tribune Staff Reporter
WHEN the Free National Movement took office in May 2017, education was among the top priorities.
In the Speech from the Throne, the Minnis administration identified education and the training of Bahamians as “key factors in the progressive and sustainable economic development of our nation”.
Last week, The Tribune interviewed Bahamas Union of Teachers (BUT) president Belinda Wilson on how she viewed the status of education in the country after one year of the FNM.
“I would say that in the past year I’ve not yet seen any fundamental changes,” Mrs Wilson said.
However, she applauded Education Minister Jeffrey Lloyd, who she said has improved “communication” and “open dialogue”, by being accessible to union executives.
According to Mrs Wilson, the “best” thing that has happened so far is the education forum that took place last month.
The forum’s theme was “From policy to implementation”, which Mrs Wilson said was “a step in the right direction”, stressing a major challenge in the country has always been implementation. She added she is waiting with “bated breath” to see these ideas put into action.
Teacher shortage and strike
The first challenge Mrs Wilson discussed is the ongoing teacher shortage, which is compounded by the significant number of teachers still awaiting confirmation.
“There are several teachers who would have attended orientation [in August 2017]. They’re still at home awaiting employment,” she said.
“And what is so disturbing for me is that some of those teachers that are at home have been the recipients of scholarships to the then-College of The Bahamas, now The University of The Bahamas, on tax payers money.
“We still have the perennial problem of teachers confirmation letters, teacher salaries that have not been adjusted.
“We still have teachers who are awaiting reassessment and reclassification, some of whom who have been waiting for ten, 12 years,” adding that BUT is in conciliation in the Department of Labour on some of these matters.
When asked if these issues could culminate in a strike, Mrs Wilson reiterated that at a meeting several weeks ago, teachers gave her the mandate to file a trade dispute.
She added they have several options.
“Now you know filing a trade dispute is really one of the first steps toward industrial action, so if these matters are not resolved in a timely manner in the Department of Labour, then we have the option of the industrial tribunal, we have the option of the Supreme Court, we even have the option of taking a strike-out,” said.
“So we are hopeful that these trade disputes would be settled during our conciliation with the Department of Labour so that we do not have to take drastic measures going forward.”
In response to those who berate teachers for taking industrial action, Mrs Wilson said critics do not see the behind-the-scenes efforts that the Union makes before taking such extreme action.
Single gender classrooms
In the FNM’s manifesto, the party promised to introduce a pilot programme of single gender classes and schools.
According to Mrs Wilson, this is not a new idea. She recalled such a programme was introduced at the Stephen Dillet Primary School several years ago. The BUT president suggested the Ministry access this data, assess it and determine its success. Then would she suggest doing a pilot programme.
However, she noted the idea needs more thought, consultation and discussion with various stakeholders.
While noting the rate of school violence has decreased in recent years, Mrs Wilson acknowledged it still exists. While advocating for security measures such as metal detectors and security officers, she also suggested more preventative solutions be implemented.
“What my concern is that we are too reactive and we’re not proactive,” she said.
She referenced a violent incident at a school prompts people to discuss policy without ever making steps to concrete change.
“When you see violence in our schools emanating from our students, [there is] a deeper underlying issue than just a student came to school today and he or she got in a fight.”
Mrs Wilson suggested a holistic approach. This includes having teachers, parents, administrators and other community members identify children with behavioural changes or challenges.
She also discussed the need for collaboration with Social Services.
“[In my mind], Social Services should be collaborating and consulting with education, letting education know who the families or children of school age are [in their system] and who may need a closer eye by the guidance counsellor or their teachers,” she said.
In addition to this proactive approach, Mrs Wilson said she is a proponent of metal detectors in schools to locate weapons, and called for security officers to be “beefed up”.
She also referenced the need for officers to be dressed in a manner that would allow them to respond to urgent situations swiftly.
Mrs Wilson also called for assistance programmes to receive more funding, space and teachers, citing the Star Academy on Wulff Road.
“We’re still waiting to find out what is the status of that institution, when is that going to be prepared and ready, because that is supposed to be an institution for our at-risk students,” she said.
She added a suspension programme had been created, whereby students who had been suspended could have sessions with guidance counsellors, and pastors; and still complete and get assistance with assignments. However, it has not come to fruition.
“So it is so much — education is so vast, and I am not yet convinced that we have the right team in place right now, to move education to the level that I feel that it should be heading at this time,” she said.
Mrs Wilson said overall, the state of education is in “transition”, with a need for “clear articulation” as to where it is going, by what means, and what the main priorities are. She also hoped that a follow up to April’s forum would occur.
“Now I noted that in that forum, the ministry has a cycle of 2018-2023. So I’m hoping that within [that] time period … the stakeholders are back to the table to be able to analyse and to asses written documentation as to where it is that education is going, and what role the stakeholders such as the Bahamas Union of Teachers, would play in ensuring the success of education.”
She also hopes that going forward, students and parents are able to play a more major role in the educational system.