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So the last shall be first ...

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St George’s Prep: Bermuda’s best primary school for decades faces the threat of closure (File photograph)

Today, The Royal Gazette embarks on a series examining some of the most far-reaching set of education changes in half a century.

Overall, the reforms envisioned by the Ministry of Education propose to revamp the system for every child from the age of 4 to the age of 18. Only tertiary education is left alone.

This week’s series looks only at primary schools, the subject of the first consultation by the ministry.

Under the proposed changes, Bermuda would move from a system of small neighbourhood primary schools, many with long histories, to a system of single-parish primary schools, each capable of accommodating up to 300 students and including a preschool on the premises for four-year-olds.

The idea is that larger parish schools would have similar facilities and presumably would benefit from economies of scale, particularly for the teaching of subjects outside of “the core” — art, music, physical education and so on. There would also be more scope for helping children with learning and behavioural problems.

At the same time, the ministry and its reform teams are rethinking everything from curriculum to approaches to teaching as part of a system-wide reform.

Inevitably, the focus of debate has been on the closures of nine, or half of the island’s primary schools. This is not the first time the ministry has attempted to close primary schools. There have been failed efforts for two decades, all of which were sunk by waves of public opposition.

There are good reasons to close some schools. Some have very small enrolments — fewer than 70 in one case and often fewer than 100. This is a waste of resources in administrative terms and where teacher-student ratios are well below the maximum of 15 students per class.

The reasons for this are twofold. The population has been declining for years because of a falling birthrate and emigration since the 2008 financial crisis. Thus, there are fewer five-year-olds entering Primary 1. At the same time, lack of confidence in the public-school system has been endemic, meaning that while enrolments at public schools have slumped, the decline in private schools has been less marked and there has also been an increase in home or alternative schooling.

Historically, and it is worth noting that when the Progressive Labour Party returned to power in 2017 — and was re-elected in 2020 — there was no promise of primary school reform, it has been assumed that primary schools did a decent job, and problems arose in the middle schools and secondary schools.

But there has been a precipitous decline in primary-school performance since 2012. Where English and science averaged a shade over 3.5 in Cambridge checkpoint examinations in 2012 — generally considered to be “good”, the third level below excellent or very good — the average fell to just barely 3.0 by 2018 and dropped below that level in 2019.

Mathematics, always weak, was measured at 2.9 in 2012 (at the top end of “OK”) and slumped to 2.0 by 2018 (barely OK) and to 1.75 (poor) in 2019.

So the problem is real. The question, as ever, is what to do about it. Does the crisis justify the scale of changes envisioned by the education ministry and, if sweeping reform is needed, are these the right reforms?

The truth is that no one really knows the answers to those questions, but the ministry is putting the cart before the horse by seemingly focusing on buildings first and teaching second.

What is missing from the consultation document is a hard look at why standards have dropped so much. There is a suggestion that the Cambridge curriculum is the wrong one for Bermuda. In the words of the consultation report, it is “misaligned, antiquated and has limited offerings”.

There is an acknowledgement of sorts that teaching standards are inadequate because there is, rightly, a great deal promised in terms of improving teaching.

But unlike the Hopkins Report, full of never-implemented good ideas from a decade ago, the consultation document does not look at those parts of the system that are working.

Thus, as The Royal Gazette’s reporting shows today, two of the three best-performing primary schools will be closed under the proposed reforms, while the school that performs least well in that particular parish will remain open.

In response, the ministry has argued that the physical location of the school has little to do with its performance. This may be right, but begs another question: why then is the criteria for school closure based entirely on location and physical standards?

The former principal of St George’s Prep, consistently the best primary school in Bermuda for decades, has stated that the reason it is successful is because the school is able to select its own staff. As an aided school, it also has the final say in selecting its own principal.

Diallo Rabain, the Minister of Education, has left open the possibility that the new primary schools will have more autonomy. But these plans are vague, and the idea that schools should be able to recruit their own teachers — commonplace in the private sector — is anathema to many in education because it would set off competition among schools for the best teachers.

So rather than tackling the key question of why standards have declined so much in so short a time, the Ministry of Education has fallen back on the hope that improved and more equitable facilities will reverse the decline.

This is exactly the same argument that was made about 30 years ago when the last major education restructuring took place — the one this one seeks to effectively reverse. Then, improved facilities in middle schools and two new senior secondary schools were going to solve the problems in secondary education.

One of the many former education ministers, Terry Lister, who inherited the upheaval caused by the restructuring, later said words to the effect that it had been learnt that bricks and mortar were not enough.

And yet, 20 years later, with most of the people involved in that mostly failed effort off the stage, Bermuda seems set to make the same mistakes again. On Friday, the consultation period for primary-school restructuring comes to an end. People who care about education should make sure their voices are heard before final decisions are made.

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Published March 08, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated March 10, 2021 at 2:29 pm)

So the last shall be first ...

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