Queen’s College protest

Reacting to information that a section of the Queen’s College agricultural lands located within the school compound was to be utilized to facilitate the construction of a multi-complex canteen, students staged a protest on Tuesday through Thursday last to oppose the decision. It was noted at the time that no prior consultations were held with the student body, neither does it seem that any consideration was given to the impact the decision would have on the school’s Agriculture curriculum, and the ability of all students to complete their School Based Assessments (SBAs) in Agricultural Science.

Student protestors demonstrated in the school compound during their lunch break, demanding that the decision be reversed. Less than 24 hours after the protest action on Thursday last, stakeholders, excluding students, met with officials from the Ministry of Education and a compromise was reached on the farming plot which will avoid any disruptions to students writing CXC (both CSEC and CAPE) next year. It must be noted that the details of this compromise and several accommodations that have been promised as revealed to the media, point to what appears to be a gross indifference to the school’s Agriculture curriculum in the design of the project.

In summing up what went wrong, Chairman of the school’s Board of Governors Conrad Plummer downplayed the fracas as merely a result of “miscommunication and lack of communication,” and observed that after last Friday’s meeting “everyone” has agreed on the solution. Without questioning Mr Plummer’s conclusion that the matter has been favourably resolved, we note that in situations such as these, there can exist the opportunity for prescribed remedies to have unfavourable side effects of their own, and only carefully negotiated, tactfully implemented, flexible solutions are usually able to stand the test of time.

As a subject taught in our schools, Agriculture Science continues to attract students who display a strong level of commitment to the discipline. This year, the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC), which administers the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examinations reported “excellent performances” for Guyana in 15 subjects including Agriculture Science where the Grades One to Three passes exceeded 75%.

Agriculture Science (Double Award) was also singled out as one of the subjects where Guyanese students recorded performances of 90% or better. When compared with previous CSEC examinations results in this subject area, a pattern emerges of notably solid performances from local students.

It’s important to note that these students were also throwing their voices into the ongoing debate on the role of agriculture in our economy. One of the students carried a placard which read, ‘Less land, less food, less life,’ and other sign read, ‘No Agri, no food, no life!’

Even as stakeholders here in the sector point to a decline in agriculture as a major income earner, the 2013-20 National Agriculture Strategy dubbed ‘Vision 2020,’ promotes agriculture as an important source of livelihood, employment and wealth generation in Guyana, and notes it remains important to the country’s food security and as a competitive export bloc.

While the board and our education officials may reduce the incident to a communication problem, the affected student body and many other citizens looking on are not likely to agree. At the very least, the protest action is telling us that something is fundamentally wrong at a conceptual level in how we develop our agro-business sector and bring it in tune with the 21st century, and we must not lose the opportunity to fix this matter at its most rudimentary level.

Just last month our Parliament adopted the National Youth Policy which encourages youth participation, leadership and representation at all levels; now we have this incident where students at the nation’s premier secondary institution were neither consulted nor properly informed about a decision that stood to affect them positively on one level and negatively on another. It took militancy on their part to reverse the decision, no matter how small, and more important, draw attention to the inconsiderate action by school officials.

Some key questions arise as we seek to get to the core of this issue: Was this multi-complex canteen project originated by the school or by the Ministry of Education? If the latter, did the school’s administration adequately assess the impact of the proposed development on the school’s curriculum and the ability of the students to execute their important assignments prior to the decision being made by the Ministry of Education?

Was the first inkling of the proposed development given to the student body via the arrival of chainsaws felling trees, and excavators and sand trucks on the grounds? Does the school’s administration feel that the student body should have a say (at the level of their student representatives) in such developments? The answer to these and similar questions may prove instructive.

Indeed, this incident seems a microcosm of the highhandedness in government which is creeping across many countries in the world, including our own, and which has led to spontaneous eruptions of public protest movements resulting in unprecedented and unexpected outcomes within society and government – such as the Brexit vote in the UK and the stunning rise of United States President-elect Donald Trump.

There seems to be a weariness on the part of citizens about having decisions foisted upon them by their governments, without any consideration as to how such decisions impact on individuals, families and communities.

There is a growing authoritarianism creeping through societies and creating unease among citizens, individually and collectively. The developments at Queen’s College, though most likely originating in innocuous inefficiency and misplaced expediency, are nevertheless a warning to all and sundry that authoritarian behaviour is a creeping malady, a debilitating and dangerous virus, not often recognizable for what it is, eating away at the democratic checks and balances in our institutions.

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