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A different kind of education reform

Last Friday night, with little debate, the most ambitious changes to Bermuda’s education system in decades sailed through the House of Assembly.

Perhaps that is the price when the governing party has a massive majority. It may also have something to do with the public’s general preoccupation with surviving the Covid-19 crisis.

Then, too, the Government was also able to exercise the old parliamentary trick of introducing massively important legislation on a Friday night when most MPs are thinking more of going to bed — most are already at home in these pandemic times — than of engaging in a long debate.

Perhaps there will be more debate in the Senate, where the Opposition One Bermuda Alliance’s shadow minister resides and the independent senators, one of them a former school principal, will bring their experience and critical thinking to bear.

Readers with long memories will remember that it was not always thus. There was a time when education ministers such as Gerald Simons and the late Clarence Terceira were put to the test by shadow minister Dame Jennifer Smith over the last set of education reforms. Whether you agreed with that set of reforms or not, they were tested in the crucible of parliamentary debate, often into the early hours of the morning, not waved through like an express train.

If this lack of scrutiny means the proposals fail, the price will be paid by the general public and the next couple of generations of students, some of them not yet born.

Dame Jennifer Smith as a shadow minister of education in a previous era was a force of nature in holding to account ministerial heavyweights such as Gerald Simons and the late Clarence Terceira. Times have changed (File photograph)

The problem is that the new set of proposals have not really been tested or thought through. No one can say with any certainty that they will work.

This does not mean the existing system is working , or producing the kinds of graduates that Bermuda needs in this century. The system is not working.

The question is what kind of graduates does Bermuda wish to produce and what kind of system and approach is needed to make that happen?

The graduates of tomorrow need to be flexible, critical thinkers, open-minded and possessed of a solid foundation of basic skills. They will need to be technically adept. They will need to be both team players and able to work with minimal supervision. They will need to be self-disciplined and organised. Some will need to be leaders, and all will need to have a solid moral and ethical set of values.

There is a tendency to think that students are being produced solely for the workplace. This is incorrect. They need to be citizens as well, capable of participating in all facets of society and the community. They need to be able to see that there is a bigger world than these 20 square miles.

Some of these ideas are indeed embedded in the multiple plans and studies that have been carried out by the education ministry in the past 20 or so years.

But it is not at all clear that the proposals to abolish middle schools and to revert to a two-tier system will achieve this. Nor is it clear that the system of parish schools being proposed at the primary level would do likewise.

Of course, Bermuda’s schools need up-to-date facilities and need to be healthy places to teach and study.

But education is about more than structures, and block and cement.

Over the past year, the world was forced to see if distance learning can work on a wide scale. The answer was yes. It works, but barely. No one likes it.

What has been lost is the vital human interchange between teacher and pupil. The magic of the classroom cannot be replaced on a computer screen.

Nor can teaching necessarily be improved by better buildings, structural changes, trying to have specific schools focus on different segments of the economy or many of the other ideas being rammed through Parliament.

The proof that middle schools are not working, according to education minister Diallo Rabain, is that when children leave primary school, their parents send some of them to private school. Then, when high school starts, there is an increase in the entering class. Ipso facto, middle schools are not working.

It used to be true that primary schools delivered a generally satisfactory group of students. But for at least a decade, results have been falling. So it is possible that parents are putting their children into private school because they have lost confidence in public schooling altogether.

Then, not all students stay in private schools, which have the luxury of being able to ask students to leave. So some return to public school for high school. Once students enter high school, they do not stay the course. According to the Government’s statistics, S4 is 20 per cent smaller than S1. So the senior schools are not working particularly well, either.

The assumption is that middle schools are not working. The reality is the whole system is failing, not one part of it.

The success or failure of an education system is determined by many factors. Structure, curriculum and facilities all play a part. But the single most important factor is teaching and the relationship between students and their teachers.

Thus if Bermuda really wanted to improve its education system, it would concentrate on improving teaching. This would mean recruiting better, qualified teachers into the system, rewarding successful teachers and focusing on effective teaching and classroom management, especially in the first five years of the teacher’s career.

It is also true that Bermuda suffers from inequities and lack of opportunity, and these are often — but not always — predicated on race and the historic inequities imposed on Black Bermudians.

So before Bermuda embarks on a new round of school restructuring, which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps it should try this instead.

First, ring-fence a substantial sum of money, say $10 million, to be used for teacher training and improvement for teachers already in the system. Some of the money can be used to send the best teachers and leaders for additional training and preparation to be the next generation of principals and educational leaders. Convince the Bermuda Union of Teachers that this is fair exchange for not fighting tooth and nail to keep failed teachers in the system.

Next, take another $10 million to be used for a “Bermuda Teaches” programme, which will recruit the very best and brightest of Bermuda’s university graduates to commit to return to Bermuda to be trained and to teach for, say, three years in the public-school system.

Finally, set aside, say, $30 million to act as an endowment to give scholarships to academically eligible students who cannot afford or can barely afford to go to university. These scholarships would be means-tested to ensure that no one in Bermuda is denied an education if they are able. Some of the scholarships could be directed towards specific parts of the economy and trades could be included.

Not all of this money needs to come from the taxpayer. Businesses and foundations would be prepared to support programmes where outcomes can be measured and where there is a prospect of Bermuda’s schools producing better graduates.

And the betting here is that a programme such as this would succeed because it focuses on the one area that has been shown to matter the most.

At worst, Bermuda will have better teachers. That is a price worth paying.

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Published March 25, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated March 24, 2021 at 7:40 pm)

A different kind of education reform

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