Education spinning aimlessly on a cycle of rinse and repeat
Congratulations indeed are in order for Freddie Evans on his appointment as Commissioner of Education. He has made a lasting contribution to education in Bermuda, is well respected by his peers, having been in the system at grassroots level for as long as he has been, and he meets a significant prerequisite for many of being Bermudian.
However, there remain two overarching questions, among many others, in the wake of a painstaking process that has taken three years to reach maturity.
Why has it taken so long? And if Evans with 29 years of experience in Bermuda schools was not the man for the job in September 2013 when Edmond Heatley was fatefully appointed, and in the past nine months when Paul Wagstaff was identified and approached before rejecting the post, why is he suddenly the man for the job now that he has 33?
Has he not been right under our noses the entire time? What has he done in the 3½-year period post-Wendy O’Donell to elevate him to the point that he is finally being backed by the kingmakers?
More than that, Evans has been part of a triumvirate of acting commissioners since the Heatley annulment in April 2014 that includes Lou Matthews and Llewellyn Simmons. But more significantly, when the Ministry of Education relaunched its recruitment process last June to fill the post, Evans said categorically that he was not the guy when questioned about rumours of the job going to a “Briton based in Dubai” — Wagstaff.
So what has happened in the interim? Has Evans added the level of expertise to his CV by way of qualifications that was thought previously lacking? Or has the Board of Education thrown its hands up in the air and said “I give up” before settling for the last man standing at the bar after last call? If so, is that truly the best way forward or a well-worn recipe for rinse and repeat?
The scenario is consistent with the haplessly confused nature of a ministry that, despite historically absorbing a chunk of the country’s budget, has been beset by one blunder or controversy after another, mirrored by an inconsistency of thought and an absence of permanence in leadership and direction.
Twelve education ministers in 19 years and four education commissioners since the advent of the Education Amendment Act 2008, which was spawned by the Hopkins Report a year earlier, is not an accident. It is a national train wreck.
These years were governed by the Progressive Labour Party and One Bermuda Alliance, so no political one-upmanship here.
Further, the greatest contribution that can be said to be made by Wayne Scott, who promised so much as the new Minister of Education in January 2015 after he was plucked from the more suitable sports ministry but produced little before exiting stage right 25 months later, is that education should not be politicised.
The evidence of the past two decades supports as much, for the politicians have made a right mess of it — on both sides of the net, if you subscribe to the view that the OBA and disbanded United Bermuda Party are spiritual doubles partners in terms of methodology and ideology.
However you look at it, those who have suffered have been our children in the public school system. It may not be so obvious to them and to their parents on a day-to-day basis, but the results at examination time, widespread illiteracy, staggeringly high levels of youth unemployment, and a spiralling societal decline over that 19-year time frame reveal an endemic failure in our system that has shown few signs of being amenable to resuscitation; in particular, in the aftermath of the Hopkins Report, which “celebrates” its tenth anniversary in May.
One of the first admissions made in that report was that Bermuda erred in adopting the middle school system in 1996. Of this, “there is no doubt”. The rationale behind not fixing it there and then was that it might cause confusion and instability.
That was almost ten years ago, yet what do we have now, in particular at the head of the education pyramid? Confusion and instability, with a General Election around the corner eliciting the prospect of the cycle being continued.
Who would be Cole Simons? Having accepted the hospital pass in the wake of the resignation/sacking/departure by mutual consent of Wayne Scott — the official reason given is unconvincing at best and at worst prioritises the needs of one over the needs of many — does he stick or twist in effecting change? And how much time does he really have?
It could be as little as three months, if rumours of an early election call are to be believed, or as much as nine. Come what may, the common denominator is that no political entity has managed to do what is best for our students over a long period.
Tourism, for so long stagnant, has a heartbeat — take a bow, Bermuda Tourism Authority — and there can be no denying that this is owing in no small part to establishing for it a quango, restricting political interference and allowing the specialists to get on with their jobs.
Education, while the returns may not be as tangible or as immediate as the dollars that tourism pours into the economy, is in equal need of such reform.
“Suck it and see” as a modus operandi for reinvigorating our education system has not worked, yielding unpalatable results.
The Hopkins Report reinforced that, so this we know. If it is advertised as bitter and the fine print reminds that it is bitter, then no one should be surprised by the bitter taste — and its lingering effects.
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