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Education Minister Dr Tim Gopeesingh has written to President George Maxwell Richards complaining about the lack of cooperation from the Teaching Service Commission. Although he cannot pinpoint any specific reasons for this untenable situation he hopes that it is not being influenced by partisan politics.
Dr Gopeesingh, who gave up a very lucrative practice in gynaecology to serve the nation in a political capacity, stresses this has not daunted his resolve to leave the country’s educational system in a much better position than he met it when he was appointed to the post by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar almost two years ago.
Q: Mr Minister, there is a perception that the almost two-year-old PP Government has not done anything tangible so far. Can that perception be properly laid at your ministry?
A: (In his Hayes Street, St Clair, office Thursday morning) First of all, I would like to actively dispute that statement, and in fact when we presented the first year of achievements you saw about eight pages in the newspapers and we also prepared a 34-page publication outlining our achievements. We have kept our promises and as far as the Ministry of Education is concerned we are moving by leaps and bounds.
So why this perception?
(Furrowed brow) Well, we are in a society now where there are more than 30 radio stations, four major television stations, and three major newspapers...weeklies also. People try to find things to write, and in this electronic age information moves around and negative information always takes precedence over the positive ones.
But as we move to educate the society we hope this type of thinking will find more assertions in positive aspects of the country’s development rather than the negative perceptions on a daily basis.
I don’t want to give the impression that I came here to do a PR interview with you but...?
(Interruption with a hearty smile) I hope not...and that this will be an objective interview. Very well. What are some of your major accomplishments so far? The first is we have developed for the first time a strategic business report.
What is this all about?
The whole processes for the operation of the ministry which would carry us forward in the PP’s initial five-year term in office. We have identified 16 priority areas and we are working feverishly with all the areas. We had 100 quick-wins in the first 100 days and we were able to achieve almost 80 of those.
What is this fancy term about...quick-wins, it sounds more like quick-pick to me (laughs)?
This is a system to affect the immediate concerns of the ministry such as the laptop issue, universal childhood education, early diagnosis of students with special needs, we are doing some institutional strengthening and restructuring at the moment, we’re doing massive infrastructural improvement, teacher training and development and so on.
OK...no need to boast now is there?
(Laughs) These are things we are doing at this time so they are at the forefront of my thinking on a daily basis and they are all on the ministry’s Web site—moe.gov.tt
Dr Gopeesingh, more than 25 years ago then government minister Dr Cuthbert Joseph complained to me that the most lowly clerk in a government department or ministry could derail a minister’s programme by simply “misplacing” a file and that the minister could do virtually nothing about it in the context of it being almost impossible to discipline a public servant. Does that hold true today?
(Adjusting his jacket and leaning forward) Clevon, the Ministry of Education is constrained by about four major institutions—the Teaching Service Commission, the Public Service Commission, TTUTA...which we have to work with, and to a much lesser extent the Concordat.
Even in the ministry here is the question of the massive bureaucracy. The TSC appoints, transfers, disciplines teachers. The ministry and the minister have no authority over the 16,000 teachers in Trinidad and Tobago (frowning).
I am aware that the commission was also designed to insulate teachers from the politicians, but there must be cooperation between the PSC, the TSC and the ministry. We have cooperation with TTUTA, we are working well. We have found out there are more than 700 bodies that are not filled within the ministry by the PSC and some people are acting for almost 15 to 20 years.
I don’t want to break your trend of thought but the PP came into office almost two years ago promising to do things differently, but still there is this lingering perception that nothing has changed and they have remained the same. Why can’t you take effective measures not to circumvent the rules of the TSC, but to work around the red tape to ensure that your plans, programmes and projects are properly carried out?
Well, this involves major constitutional change for dealing with those commissions and to effect that we have to go to stage a stakeholder’s consultation. But Clevon, how can a ministry of education and a minister run education when all the authority for 16,000 teachers is held in the hands of the Teaching Service Commission? When you try to discipline a teacher, a principal or whoever, it eventually reaches a tribunal which sometimes takes two years and at the end of it you have no result?
Does any particular matter stand out where the minister cannot make prompt remedial action?
Yes. (Wringing his palms) There are numerous cases before the Teaching Service Commission...and tell me something, why should this matter of the Tunapuna Hindu School be drawing out for greater than a year? This is just one example.
Some commentators have criticised, saying you as minister...?
I do not have that control. I can exercise general direction and control in the Ministry of Education...general directions, but the TSC is the one who appoints, transfers and disciplines teachers, principals, supervisors.
Would you rather have that power vested in the minister?
No. It is not necessary the power, but there must be cooperation, coordination between the two. I am not getting that at all. I have had just one meeting as Minister of Education with the Teaching Service Commission and no correspondence.
Isn’t there anything in the constitution to compel the Commission to cooperate with the minister?
Well, I have written to the President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago indicating such...that I am not satisfied with the cooperation I am getting from the Teaching Service Commission where there are hundreds of vacancies for principals and vice-principals and nothing is being...
Do you think, Mr Minister, that perhaps partisan politics is behind this lack of cooperation or is it the prevailing system which allows them to get away with what I would think is a very untenable situation?
I hope it is not an issue of politics because they are supposed to be independent thinkers and they are appointed by the President. I also hope politics does not get in the way of their performance and their relationship with the Ministry of Education and the minister.
Was the TSC appointed under the last PNM administration?
I am not too sure when they were appointed but I cannot be satisfied when there are hundreds of vacancies for principals, vice-principals, deans and heads of departments. And they can affect that very easily by appointing a number of committees from the TSC and even from the PSC.
Why should a director of Personnel Administration be responsible for all four service commissions...almost like the CEO? How can the CPO be responsible for almost 60,000 public servants? This is not practical at all and this is the aspect of governance we have to look at, and we have been speaking about it and as I said this necessitate constitutional change.
But if we go into that direction you would hear a hue and cry from the national population that we are trying to interfere with the independent institutions of Trinidad and Tobago. This cannot continue the way it is going.
Dr Gopeesingh, do you get the impression that in this scenario you as the Minister of Education are spinning top in mud?
(Eyes lit up and in an upbeat tone) I am not a person who would throw my hands in the air and say I cannot work. I work feverishly, non-stop and I must thank my staff here at the ministry from the permanent secretary, the deputy permanent secretaries, straight through the ministry for their excellent cooperation, their diligent work and I believe we are in an active process for the transformation of the Ministry of Education particularly in our 16 priority areas.
How can you achieve this transformation process if you are not getting the cooperation of the Teaching Service Commission, Mr Minister?
Clevon, we work as a team here in the ministry and generally the permanent secretary is able to assist us in finding ways and means of getting around some of these bureaucratic channels. It is not that we are moving away from what is supposed to be the norm and what is legal, but we are being creative in what we do.
Dr Gopeesingh, when a previous UNC administration instituted universal free secondary education this was roundly condemned by the PNM. From your present vantage point was this condemnation valid?
It was not valid at all because for too long, almost 30 years, 7,000 to 10,000 students annually were unable to get a place in a secondary school, so we threw out almost 300,000 children who are citizens today in their 30s. That was unacceptable and unpalatable. The previous PNM administrations did not take the necessary steps to ensure that the system worked for every student.
Mr Minister, last week psychologist Daryl Joseph spoke to me about the anti-social behaviours that could occur and in fact were occurring if appropriate steps were not taken to deal with the high incidence of anger among the school population, girls included. What is the ministry doing?
I read that article Clevon, and it outlined a lot of those problems lay within the home and the community and the article said 90 per cent of the problems in the schools emanated from the lack of proper parenting and community situations. I agree with that.
But the ministry has moved actively and we have set up a national task force to implement several recommendations made as early as 1985, which were not implemented; we are working with the Ministry of National Security in the Citizens Security Programme; we are working with the other ministries on matters relating to bullying and other dysfunctional behaviours.
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