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The wrong solution

Facing closure: Bermuda’s best primary school, St George’s Prep

In July 2017, the Progressive Labour Party released its General Election platform.

In it, it pledged to “reform public education by phasing out middle schools and introducing signature schools at the secondary level, which focus on the learning styles and interests of our children, including academic, technical and the trades, business, sports, arts, and special needs education”.

This promise did not get a great deal of attention in an election overshadowed by other issues, including immigration and the controversial plan for a new airport terminal.

Three and a half years later, the PLP government’s long-term education reform is taking shape.

It has moved some way from that statement, and attention now is not on the middle schools facing abolition or on the proposed signature schools.

Instead, the focus is on primary schools, and the proposal to close nine of the present 18 and replace them with parish primary schools — one in each parish except Pembroke, which will have two.

Under the plan, a new primary school would be built in Devonshire, whose two existing primary schools would be converted into an alternative signature school and a replacement for the Dame Marjorie Bean Hope Academy.

This proposal to close half of Bermuda’s primary schools was not mentioned in the 2017 election campaign. That’s understandable; it might not have been even thought of.

But nor was it in the PLP platform in October when the Government sent voters back to the polls.

The reasoning for that is not surprising: education ministers have lost their jobs in the past for suggesting that just one school should be closed, let along eight or nine.

But the fact it is not surprising does not make the PLP any less duplicitous. There is no conceivable way that the idea of closing primary schools was not alive in September when the election campaign was under way.

This is hardly the first time that the present administration has put political advantage ahead of principle. Indeed, the entire election campaign was based on a lie and the public, far from punishing the PLP, rewarded it with 30 seats.

Perhaps the Premier, David Burt, and the education minister, Diallo Rabain, have learnt that the public are happy to be deceived.

Even so, the merits of the closures should be considered carefully.

Bermuda’s primary schools are unbalanced in size and quality, and it is inarguable that if some were closed, the resources available could be better distributed.

It makes little sense to maintain the infrastructure of a school with just 70 students or fewer when there are nearby schools that could accommodate the students and benefit from more resources, specialised teachers and facilities.

So Bermuda has too many primary schools, especially when enrolment has dropped from 3,000 students to 2,000 in 20 years and yet the number of schools remains unchanged. However, this is only partially explained by a declining birthrate. Flight from underperforming schools is also a factor.

And the declining performance of primary schools can be seen as another reason for reform. For a long time it was felt that Bermuda’s primary schools did a relatively good job and that performance declined only later.

But this is no longer the case. The education minister is right to be concerned about the primary schools. Testing shows that more than half of primary-school students perform below their expected age level. Results worsen in middle schools and senior schools, but students are already falling behind beforehand. As in a running race, the less successful students simply fall farther and farther behind.

Yet not all schools are struggling. Some produce consistently better results.

Given that, one might expect the Ministry of Education to look at the schools that perform best and to find ways to expand their enrolment while closing underperforming schools. This has not happened. Instead, at least two of the best schools face closure.

Mr Rabain and his team have fallen into the same trap that their predecessors have. They are arguing that if Bermuda’s students could just have the best facilities, it would all come good.

Bermuda did indeed end up with two superb educational edifices at CedarBridge Academy and the new Berkeley Institute in the last restructuring. But results have barely improved. Indeed, they are almost certainly worse.

There is an assumption that it must be the structure, buildings, curriculum or facilities that are the problem with Bermuda’s education. No one would dispute that these factors are important, nor that Bermuda’s ageing schools need improvement.

But most educational research over the past 50 years shows that teacher quality is the single greatest influence on student performance.

There is a section on teacher quality in the consultation, which promises to ensure all teachers have internationally recognised certifications and are recertified every five years. A further proposal to have all schools internationally accredited would presumably demand higher standards of teaching than those on offer now.

That's fine as far as it goes, but it is not a great distance. There is nothing in the report about making greater efforts to recruit potential teachers with stronger academic backgrounds or ways to ensure the profession receives greater respect. Nor is there anything about rewarding great teachers and principals while removing poor ones.

The former principal of St George’s Preparatory School, perhaps the best primary school for the past two decades, has said the ability of the school to choose its own teachers was its greatest asset. And yet this idea is nowhere to be found in the consultation.

Bermuda has been attempting to improve its education system for more than half a century with distressingly little success. At the same time, a thriving private-school sector has emerged. The parents who can afford it are voting with their feet.

This will further stratify wealth and opportunity in Bermuda, and yet the present round of reforms — in which, for all the talk of consultation, the big decisions have already been made — falls into the same trap as the previous ones.

For politicians who wish to be seen to be doing something, whether it is passing legislation, building new buildings or cutting ribbons for new IT labs, these reforms fit the bill. And in many cases, Bermuda’s education facilities below the senior level need improvement. But they will not solve the system’s problems any more than abolishing middle schools will.

Improving teaching and holding teachers and principals accountable for their performance will. And these reforms will not achieve that.

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Published December 23, 2020 at 1:17 pm (Updated December 23, 2020 at 1:17 pm)

The wrong solution

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