Western News

Balaclava High — a test case

Education Minister says policy changes could flow from review

By Garfield Myers Editor at large, South Central Bureau

Thursday, March 10, 2011    

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SANTA CRUZ, St Elizabeth — If Education Minister Andrew Holness has his way an administrative review of the troubling circumstances - including public protests - which surrounded the recent appointment of a principal at Balaclava High School will have a long term effect on policy.

"...the outcome of the review will not change decisions already taken but it will be of use to inform me going forward of what would be some policy changes necessary to avoid such situations as occurred here," Holness told journalists following a visit to the North East St Elizabeth School last Friday.

A week earlier Holness had told the Observer West that "we (Education Ministry) see Balaclava as a test case for accountability, for preserving the teaching standards in the country and for the minister's control of the system."

Holness said then that "I have a duty to preserve and ensure the integrity of the system and Balaclava brings into question the integrity of the selection process, so much so, that it is the view, or was the view of persons who protested, that the system was unfair to an individual and the system was not responsive".

Last Friday's visit to Balaclava was the first by the Minister since parents, students and teachers indulged in angry protests over the appointment of Paula Miller-Foster ahead of vice principal, Lenvas Cole in early February. Cole who was in his third stint as acting principal at the time of the new appointment has taught at Balaclava High for 33 years.

Following what he described as "a frank discussion" with teachers, Holness told journalists of his "impression" that "the school is trying to repair any breaches" and that "the principal and vice principal have assured me that they are working together".

But the Education Minister ruffled feathers in the administration of the Jamaica Teachers Association (JTA) by suggesting that one possible outcome of the administrative review could be disciplinary action against teachers for their role in the February protests.

Flanked by Miller-Foster and Cole, Holness told journalists that "issues" to be dealt with included "the process of appointment" and "certain actions taken by teachers ... and I took the opportunity to inform them (teachers) that I will be referring those actions to the Teachers Services Commission for them to review and where necessary take action".

He later reiterated his position insisting that "as it relates to breaches of the Education Act we have a duty, an obligation, to ensure that where such breaches occur they are addressed because if they are left without being dealt with, then we could very well have difficulties in the future appointment of principals ..."

And further, that "once there are visible actions that could amount to a breach then I have a duty to pursue those..."

Inevitably, the teachers union saw red.

"The JTA rejects the act of any politician at whatever level, issuing charges against its members and what could amount to be intimidation and threat," JTA president- elect Paul Adams declared.

He insisted that "no act of concealed intimidatory tactics, threats, or the setting up of 'kangaroo' interim management committees, to carry out the wishes of the Minister of Education, will deter the Jamaica Teachers' Association from representing the interest of its members at Balaclava High School and any other school in Jamaica."

The 'kangaroo' reference was apparently in relation to the scrapping of the school board that had seemingly become dysfunctional, paving the way for Balaclava High to be - in the words of Holness - "directly run by a team appointed by the Ministry of Education until a full board is assembled ..."

Claiming last Friday that there was a "breakdown" at the "local level," Holness was highly critical of the former school board chairman Ricardo Gayle. But the minister was obviously also very displeased with the Ministry's regional office.

"In a sense I agree that the actors on the ground who should have intervened to prevent certain actions, that those actors were themselves in a way part of the difficulty," said Holness.

"For example, the role of a chairman in such a circumstance would be to bring the parties together along with the regional office to see if positions of understanding could be reached. Clearly, the chairman was embattled and could not play that critical role. Indeed the chairman was absent during the protest.

"One of the major concerns raised by the teachers was that they were not informed of who would be their new principal, there was no formal introduction ... that is the role of the chairman. I have been informed that my officers were here (but) the teachers here are explaining to me that while officers may have been here they weren't here for that purpose... There was a breakdown at that local level but the issues raised here would also direct me to take a second look at the regional office ..." the Minister said.

And while noting that there had been improvements in academic performance at Balaclava High, Holness pointed to concerns "in terms of behaviour management and security". The St Elizabeth police have confirmed that as recently as last week there was a stabbing incident at the school.

Space was also a problem, the Minister said. He told journalists he had given "a commitment for six classrooms which they (Balaclava High) will have in the next financial year".

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