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Closing Bermuda’s education gap

Struggling to make the grade: despite massive financial investment, public education has not yielded the most satisfactory results

Four freedoms are often deemed fundamental to the proper working of any democratic society — freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.

To those four a fifth is often added — freedom from ignorance.

That means guaranteeing equality of educational opportunity. It means ensuring every young person is free to develop his or her talents to their full potential — unhindered by any artificial barriers or limitations on the quality of schooling available to them.

Bermuda has long since cemented the four essential freedoms into place.

And we have made some strides in terms of guaranteeing the fifth over the last half-century.

Bermuda, after all, now boasts what is arguably the best financed public education system in the entire world.

Unfortunately the massive financial investment we have made in public education hasn’t yielded the most satisfactory results, certainly not at the senior secondary level.

It’s been pointed out more than once that Bermuda could abolish its public education system and afford to send every single student in it to the top private schools in North America or Europe.

There would in fact be enough left over to pay their round-trip airfares as well.

And increasingly critics of the system are wondering out loud why we don’t do exactly that: simply scrap public secondary education and provide parents with vouchers to have their children educated privately either here or abroad.

The sad reality is while Bermuda’s primary and middle schools are generally considered to be models of their kind, the two senior secondary schools routinely receive dismal grades from students, parents, potential employers and often teachers and administrators themselves. The facilities are modern and the staff, for the most part, is dedicated and attentive to students’ needs. But first-rate classrooms and teachers alone do not necessarily translate into a top quality education for all our children.

There can be very little doubt Bermuda’s senior secondary schools are failing our children as well as the wider community.

But we as a people have collectively and systematically failed to demand the necessary steps be taken to improve the quality of education in those schools.

This has been the case since at least the late 1980s when Bermuda first adopted an educational reform programme many argued at the time was singularly ill-suited to the needs of our children and our island.

The altogether predictable result has been the emergence of a separate and entirely unequal two-tier education system in Bermuda.

Children in private secondary schools graduate with demonstrably better opportunities to succeed in life than their siblings, cousins and friends in public schools. In fact what could be termed an education and attainment gap between those attending private and public schools has continued to widen by the year.

This is a shameful and unnecessary situation, one which reflects very poorly on our Education Ministry, successive governments and Bermuda as a whole.

Long manifesting a siege mentality and a magisterial contempt for all criticism — no matter how constructive or well-informed — the island’s public education authority has been allowed to become an almost self-regulating enclave within the machinery of government.

And this has come about largely because education has too long been regarded as a hot-potato issue by our politicians, not the increasingly pressing priority that it is.

The thankless but essential responsibility of presiding over the massive restructuring and curriculum changes which our secondary schools require has long been seen as the poison chalice of Bermuda politics.

Consequently it’s been shunned by United Bermuda Party, Progressive Labour Party and One Bermuda Alliance administrations.

There are a number of reasons for this, among them an entrenched and change-averse bureaucracy and a powerful teachers’ union. But parents have also been understandably reluctant to ditch what most have deemed to be a bad system for what they fear could be an even worse one given Bermuda’s unhappy history of experimentation with educational reform.

So since 2000 there have been 11 different Education Ministers and perhaps as many short-term, stopgap government education policies. Additionally Bermuda has had no dedicated Commissioner of Education in office since Edmond Heatley resigned the post in April 2014.

And, as might be expected, the consequences of such protracted inattention are becoming ever more severe by the year.

Whatever else we expect of Bermuda’s public school system, it must prepare students for a productive life. Those secondary school graduates who do not go on to college need not only the knowledge and practical knowhow to be a responsible citizen, but skills enough to get and retain a good job.

Hundreds of young Bermudians graduated from secondary school and entered the workforce at the beginning of the summer — in a time of increasing competitiveness for jobs, when even basic skills are at a premium. Too many of them have doubtless already discovered they left school with only marginal skills, or skills which are not really much needed in this community.

A Bermuda secondary school certificate should not be a ticket to such frustration.

With a new school year getting under way this week and a new parliamentary session set to convene soon, it would be encouraging to think education might finally receive both the concentrated focus and support it deserves from politicians on both sides of the aisle. If ever an issue entirely transcended Bermuda’s nasty partisan political divide, it’s surely this one.

And even our most obtuse elected officials must recognise that our four fundamental freedoms are actually reliant on the fifth one, freedom from ignorance, if they are to in fact long endure in Bermuda.