Sunday, August 9, 2020

Suspension of School Sports unfortunate but necessary evil

For a decade now, the payment of teachers’ allowances for extracurricular activities has been a thorn in the hell of school sports. Left alone to shoulder the responsibility of school sports, the Ministry of Basic Education (MOBE) struggled under the burden.

While the other relevant stakeholders figuratively ‘hid their heads in the sand’ as the crisis deepened, things continued to fall apart as MOBE tried to hold the centre together. 

That is until Friday a week ago when the centre could not hold anymore and MOBE took a bold but catastrophic decision ‘to suspend competitive sports in schools in 2020.’ 

In the savingram dated 6th March 2020 and signed by MOBE Permanent Secretary Bridget John, the ministry said the decision was taken ‘owing to budgetary constraints.’ 

“The Ministry has been struggling to pay participation fees as its budget for sports remains at P2 million a year against an annual cost of about P60 million,” John wrote.

She went on to explain that while the Ministry had managed to get funds from its training and feeding votes to pay for teachers’ participation in athletics in 2019, it still owed about P32 million to teachers ‘for their participation in ball games in 2019.’

While the decision may have been unexpected, and could have come as a shock to many, for others, it was a crisis long in the making.

In 2010, the teachers’ unions took a then unpopular decision to bar teachers from participating in students’ sports.

The ban would last for two years. However, in 2012 and against the will of the unions, Botswana Primary Schools Sports Associations (BOPSSA) and Botswana Integrated Sports Associations (BISA) decided for willing teachers to go back to school sports.

This decision was not received well by the unions, who, as expected, felt that it impeded their mandate to safeguard the welfare of their members.

“BOPSSA has gone to schools without our consent, instructing teachers to start sports, violating union’s agreement with the Ministry of Education and Skills Development (MoESD),” the then Botswana Teachers Union Modise Maeletso said at the time in an interview with this publication.

“The decision by BISA and BOPSSA for teachers to return to school sport despite lingering concerns over payments of allowances brought us into a conflict with the unions,” BISA president Joshua Gaotlhobogwe explains.

While the unions were not happy, the return of teachers was welcomed by the various stakeholders, more especially the sporting codes as they rely on schools to unearth future stars for them.

In the years following the return of teachers back to school sports, the uneasy truce continued. The status quo however remained. MOBE struggled while the other stakeholders turned a blind eye.

“It has not been an easy journey since then,” Gaotlhobogwe says. “No solutions were put in place to help MOBE and the participation of teachers remained uncertain as monies were not forthcoming,” he adds.

According to Gaotlhobogwe, “while this was ongoing, both BOPSSA and BISA came under pressure from unions as they felt we were undermining and interfering in their efforts to improve the teachers’ welfare.”  

The BISA president says even then, teachers would agree to continue with school sports on the promise that they would get their allowances later.

“You would have realized that during all this time, we would attend some regional games and miss some as there were no funds,” he explains.

For his part, Botswana National Olympic Committee (BNOC) Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Tuelo Serufho says ‘while the suspension of school sports is unfortunate and regrettable, it is however a blessing in disguise.’

A staunch advocate of sports development, back in 2012 when teachers finally came back to sports after a two year absence, the BNOC CEO called for a multi-dimensional approach to ensure the problem did not reoccur.

“Firstly, we have learnt that our sport development system has been one dimensional and this has proved costly. We must seek a multi dimensional approach to sport to counter such unexpected eventualities as the one we found our sport in,” he said at the time.

At the time, Serufho said the lesson from the two years teachers’ absence in sports was ‘the need for sport administrators, teachers and other stakeholders to continuously engage in regular dialogue to clear out issues before they blow out.’

Now with the crisis back as he had predicted in 2012, the BNOC CEO says it now forces all the stakeholders to go to the discussion table and find permanent solutions.

“I am happy that now a dialogue is ongoing to find sustainable solutions for schools sports,” he says.

For sustainable and permanent solutions to be found, the BNOC says there is need to have all stakeholders on board.

“We need to have all the relevant ministries, sports authorities, sporting codes, private sector as well as parents on board. Everyone needs to know and play his or her role,” he says.

Of much importance to Serufho is that the previous Botswana National Sports Council (BNSC) board had endorsed the Botswana Long Term Athletic Development plan (BLTAD), which he believes may have a blueprint to help solve the sport development problem.

“My hope is that sport governance in Botswana will also embrace the BLTAD and endorse it,” he says.

As such, he says the BLTAD as adopted by the BNSC board may be the foundation to find everlasting solution to Botswana’s grassroots sports development.

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