Wed | Jun 26, 2019

Editorial | Give Reid’s code the short shrift

Published:Thursday | February 28, 2019 | 12:16 AM

Ruel Reid has a problem of judgement. His is poor. That is why when in early February, he disclosed his plan for a code of conduct for teachers involved in politics we advised that he first commit his idea to a Green Paper, thus opening it to broad public discussion, including by the people it would most affect – teachers. Talks with the political opposition wouldn’t be sufficient.

What this newspaper didn’t know was that Mr Reid had already drawn up his regulations, which were quietly making the rounds within his ministry, before, apparently, being leaked to the opposition People’s National Party . The document, it turns out, confirms our worst fears. This is not a code aimed primarily at encouraging high ethical standards in the teaching profession, but an insidious attempt, too ham-fisted to be artful or Machiavellian, to erect ramparts for the protection of Minister Reid.

There is much uncontroversial overburden in the proposed code. For instance, it would require teachers and principals who enter the political fray to inform their school boards of their decision and time off for their political activities would “be subjected to the normal rules relating to leave or casual leave”. And teachers should avoid conflicts of interest.

These, largely, are basic management issues. If politically active teachers don’t turn up for classes, that can only be because their heads of departments and principals aren’t doing their jobs. If a head teacher is regularly absent from school, fails to attend to his duties, or is biased towards staff, it can only mean an absence of oversight by his board. The solution to these problems is to employ effective and accountable managers and governors, not restricting rights.

However, these are not the real, or fundamental, concerns of Mr Reid’s proposed code. The nub of the document is its wish to preclude politically active teachers from “criticising the programmes and policies of the Ministry of Education in any media, including social media, unless it is in the context of a public meeting of the teachers’ union or any such non-political forum”. Similarly, members of school boards would not be allowed “to criticise the minister of education or ministry of education personnel in any public fora, including the media”.

Many people will probably seek to remind themselves of Mr Reid’s posture towards government policy when he was a high school principal and an opposition member of the Senate.

Colliding with constitutional rights

Mr Reid’s proposed restrictions seem likely to collide with the constitutional rights of Jamaicans, including teachers, to free speech and to hold and exchange ideas, via whatever media, except when those rights are constrained by the provisions of the Defamation Act, in which event, offended persons, including political opponents, can seek redress via the courts.

Moreover, it would be useful for Minister Reid to explain why a teacher’s right to freedom of expression and association would assume greater value at a meeting of the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) than, say, at a Sunday school Bible class. Or why criticism of programmes for education is of greater or lesser virtue than the questioning of fiscal policy.

Perhaps Jamaica’s teaching profession is in need of a code of professional conduct and ethics, beyond the regulations appended to the Education Act, in which case, Minister Reid might find of some use those that exist in many Commonwealth jurisdictions. Some of these codes appreciate the sensitivity of teachers’ expression of political positions at the workplace, but none attempts to employ Minister Reid’s muzzle.

The National Council on Education, to which Mr Reid has been embarrassed into referring his code, should give it the short shrift. The minister can begin to think about a more relevant code of professional conduct and ethics for teachers that doesn’t trample on constitutional rights.