EDITORIAL - Teachers on edge
As public-sector teachers enter a new phase of wage negotiations, there are early indications that their approach will be marked by militancy. These are tough economic times and, while the Government seeks to protect the country's fiscal health in abiding by conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), teachers will likely argue that they are also facing economic challenges like the rest of society.
Peace and stability in schools is at the core of the matter. And while the rhetoric is already heating up, it is hoped that any decision made by the roughly 22,000 teachers will not adversely affect the children whose education lies in their hands.
Undoubtedly, increasing wages and fringe benefits for teachers will raise the tax burden on everyone and will ultimately contribute to a further hike in the public debt. However, on the other hand, it does not seem reasonable that a wage freeze can be seen as a permanent solution, especially when other members of the public sector are showing no signs of restraint. Spanking new SUV's and high telephone bills are two glaring examples of public-sector excesses that have irked the nation in recent months.
Three-year wage freeze
The teachers will argue that they have already made sacrifices by accepting a three-year wage freeze in the national interest. It seems teachers are now in the mood to recover lost ground when the current arrangement ends in March.
How will Government convince teachers that it cannot raise salaries when there are reports that the economy is growing? Teachers could legitimately ask how come no benefits of growth are filtering down to them.
The successful outcome of these negotiations is in everybody's interest since what occurs in our schools is a reflection of the wider society. There are societal and economic benefits to be gained when the educational system is performing at its optimum. Teachers are not likely to be motivated if they are underpaid and feel they are not fairly treated.
Above all, we would hate to see any disruption in the school timetable or to see our teachers engaged in rowdy demonstrations across the country.
Arguments about performance
The business of education is a serious one. Alarming numbers of children are leaving our classrooms without being able to read or write. Arguments about performance are bound to be raised as the negotiations intensify and some teachers may be harshly judged. But the answer for poor performance ought not to be underpayment. A way has to be found to weed out dead wood and properly compensate competent talent. Can we honestly place all the blame at teachers' feet? Are they being given proverbial baskets to carry water? Has the Government placed the requisite emphasis on education in appointing principals and school boards, as well as providing an enabling environment for teachers to teach and students to learn?
The arguments about illiteracy are pitched so low that the population has no concept of how critical it is to the country's development. But the experts say literacy improves a student's earning power many years after graduation.
These illiterates will find it hard to operate in society and are quite likely to end up on the streets doing menial jobs or being recruited into criminal activities such as the lottery scam.
The eyes of the country will be watching to see how the negotiations turn out. In the meantime, better governance, greater accountability and systems to reduce corruption will free up resources for the more pressing needs of the country, education being one of them.