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Our teachers in the spotlight

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The noble and very often undervalued profession of teaching has been in the national spotlight for a few months now, with the topics generating some interesting discussion among the public.

When secondary school teacher Jozette Bibby-Bowens was arrested and charged last month with two counts of obscene publication, most reasonable persons questioned the heavy handed approach taken by law enforcement authorities in this matter. We take note of and welcome, the discontinuation of the criminal charges by the Director of Public Prosecutions.{{more}}

Freedom of expression is guaranteed under our Constitution, but this recent incident questions whether we, as a society, are justified in expecting from our educators, a higher level of expression and deportment than that which emanates from the average citizen. It is our opinion that such expectations are justified, as our teachers are not just dispensers of facts and methodologies, they model behaviour and influence the attitudes and opinions of their young, impressionable charges.

Then there is the proposal made to the Government by the Public Service Union (PSU) and the St Vincent and the Grenadines Teachers Union (SVGTU) for their members to be compensated with a one off payment of one month’s tax free salary for the three years they did not receive a salary increase. At a press conference on Wednesday, Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves said the proposal from the public sector unions would cost the government over $25 million overall (see page 24). So far, the public has not heard from the PSU on this matter, but the SVGTU has publicly stressed the importance of this matter to them on their television and radio programmes.

We are in no way implying here that our teachers and other public servants do not deserve pay increases, as what they are asking for barely allows them to keep up with the increase in the cost of living over the last three years. But their proposal has to be taken in the context of the economic situation of the country.

Just a few months ago, the International Monetary Fund reminded the Government of the need to contain the wage bill; advice which is supported by the Parliamentary Opposition. The Leader of the Opposition very often stresses the need for the Government to exercise fiscal discipline in these times. We also have to consider that in St Vincent and the Grenadines, since the global meltdown of 2008, there have been no large scale public sector layoffs as has been the case in neighbouring Barbados and in our own private sector.

We also need to ask ourselves a serious question: if this one-off payment of $25 million is made to the public servants, will the Government have to take a loan to pay it or what social service or programme will have to be deferrred or cut back so that we can afford it?

Demands for increased remuneration, at least in the private sector, are usually linked to performance. What do the statistics provided in the OECS Education Statistical Digest 2012/13 really mean in terms of our overall teacher performance? Those statistics indicate that despite having among the highest percentage of trained primary and secondary school teachers, the highest public recurrent expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP, among the lowest pupil to teacher ratios, our student outcomes appear to be among the lowest. We acknowledge that student performance is dependent on several factors, of which parenting and the home situation are critical ones. But where does teacher performance fit in here?

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