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Monday 21 October 2019
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Commentary

Ownership rights and responsibilities

TTUTA

NOT FOR the first time, a minister of education would have had to remind denominational boards of education that along with the title of ownership of school property comes certain responsibilities. One such responsibility is to ensure that all requisite laws are adhered to when it comes to health and safety of public buildings.

The recent statement by Minister Anthony Garcia regarding the dilapidated state of many of the nation’s denominational schools is both timely and commendable and should serve as a wake-up call to the nation about this “church-state” arrangement when it comes to educating the nation’s children. Is this arrangement in the best interest of the country given our human capital development ambitions?

The simple fact is that many of the schools run by denominational boards are old and crumbling and the boards simply do not have the means to undertake the necessary repairs/improvements. This results in a situation where, on a daily basis, thousands of children, along with their teachers, are exposed to health and safety risks.

TTUTA, in such circumstances, is forced to advise its members of their rights under the law, much to the chagrin and consternation of the authorities and members of the public. Unfortunately, as employees of the Ministry of Education, we are forced to call upon the employer to ensure that our workspaces are safe and secure and do not pose any threats to our health and safety.

It would seem that it is only when teachers take the difficult decision to remove themselves from work spaces that pose threats to their health and safety that the authorities are forced to take the necessary steps to ensure that the school structures are compliant with the relevant laws and regulations.

Unfortunately, such responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the Ministry of Education, although the property is owned by a denominational board of education. During picket action by parents no one seems to remember that the school buildings are owned by a board of education and as such the owner of the property has a responsibility under the law to ensure it is fit for occupation by both students and staff.

A case of convenient ownership, some might argue, with boards happily exercising the right under the Concordat to determine appointments of staff and use of the premises, but not the concomitant responsibility of ownership. This responsibility is quietly abdicated to the Ministry of Education.

The decision of former minister Hazel Manning to vary the Concordat arrangement regarding repairs to denominational schools would have exacerbated the situation to the point where boards seem to think they have been absolved of all ownership responsibilities under the law.

It is about time boards be honest to the nation regarding their capacity to really “own” school property. Their continued justification for ownership of schools is that they “run” better schools. This claim is dubious to say the least, for while they boast about the academic performance of some of their secondary schools, the picture is radically different at the primary level. Unfortunately, this claim has gained traction in the minds of a public that is sometimes blind to the outstanding academic performances of many state-run schools, both at the primary and secondary levels.

It is rather unfortunate that in a country such as ours, schools continue to be forced shut by protesting teachers and parents because of dilapidated plant and infrastructure. Our children suffer while political games and power struggles ensue.

Many denominational bodies owe their very existence to the “ownership” of schools and hold on to them as their lifeline, eager to pounce on anyone who dares to challenge the status quo. It is time for them to be held accountable for their ownership responsibilities or give these schools up to the State.

Unfortunately, governments over the years have and continue to appease and placate denominational boards for purely political reasons, notwithstanding the fact that this arrangement has resulted in the evolution of a two-tiered system of secondary education which is characterised by inequity.

No doubt, this treatise will incur the anger and wrath of denominational boards and its staunch advocates and defenders will rebut with all their religious and moral might. TTUTA is not new or averse to this and will continue to advocate for what it considers right and good for education.

Its honest assessment and critical examination of the existing educational arrangements is one of its moral obligations as promoters of principles of equity and social justice.

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