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Banking on public education

Spare a little sympathy — just a little — for Clarien Bank.

When it announced that it was giving $100,000 to assist Black and members of other underrepresented groups to pay their school fees at private schools, its executives presumably expected to be praised for their generosity.

Instead, they found themselves facing a storm of criticism on social media.

Clarien failed to explain that the money was for students who were already in private schools but who were having difficulty paying their fees, something many parents will be experiencing in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Worse, the bank identified the schools it would support, all of them historically White. Absent from the list was the historically Black Bermuda Institute. That suggested a severe tone-deafness on the part of the bank.

But neither of those errors get to the heart of the matter. What really came under attack, and this is perhaps more relevant now in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement than it would have been before, was that the donations bought into the perception that private schools are intrinsically better than public schools and that Black and other underrepresented students who attend historically White private schools will be more successful than if they enter or remain in the predominantly Black public-school system.

Light under a bushel: Clarien Bank

It was also suggested that this was not because public schools are worse, but because private schools tend to take the cream of students from public primary schools into their schools. On that basis it is no surprise that public schools lag behind private schools, the argument goes.

If only those parents would put the reputations of public schools first and leave their children in them, all would be well, apparently. Instead, they selfishly put what they perceive to be their children’s best interests first and try to give them the best opportunity to succeed that they can. How selfish of them.

Two major philosophical differences are at work here. The first is the principle of choice in education. This is the idea that parents have the right to determine the best means of educating their children. This includes being able to choose between private and public education, which of course also means that they are effectively paying twice for their children’s schooling.

It can be argued that this in effect reinforces class and, in Bermuda, race divisions. As a result, it stifles upward mobility and means the old school tie is more important than natural ability.

In Bermuda, where the majority of private schools were once segregated, the racial element increases the division.

There is some truth in this, but nothing in education is ever that simple. Bermuda’s private schools, while not perfect, produce good results and send the vast majority of their graduates to university.

While there are plenty of excellent students coming from public schools, the results are much more uneven, again for a range of reasons. Bermuda’s racial history plays a part in this, but it is not the whole story.

The second philosophical difference revolves around the idea of autonomy versus attempts to impose uniformity on school systems; what is often called alignment.

Public-school systems can be successful. Finland, often held up as an exemplar of outstanding education, has no fee-paying schools or universities. Even its very few independent schools are publicly funded.

But assuming that simply banning private education is the only reason for Finland’s success would be a grievous error. Finland’s success stems from a number of factors, but rests most heavily on teacher quality and that teaching is the country’s most admired profession — and one of the most difficult to get into.

Schools in Finland also give a wide degree of autonomy to their head teachers, and furthermore, their leaders say their success has been as a result of an incremental series of improvements — not a waving of a magic wand or a major restructuring.

So if all of Bermuda’s best students remained in public schools, results would go up, and there would also be an injection of highly motivated parents into public schools. But this would not be sufficient.

The other criticism of the Clarien donation is that it would have been better to give the money to underfunded public schools and to push for systemic change in the system, thus improving equity for all.

This sounds good, but does not bear scrutiny. The Ministry of Education’s budget this year is about $115 million, excluding the grant to the Bermuda College. That budget serves about 5,000 students, meaning $23,000 is spent per student. The $100,000 given by Clarien is the equivalent of $20 per student; a drop in the bucket.

Bermuda’s historical education problems are not because of a shortage of money, but the allocation and application of that money.

This newspaper has argued that the restructuring of the education system is flawed, not because ideas such as signature schools are intrinsically wrong, but because they fail first to carry out the basic improvements.

It might have been better for Clarien to take that $100,000 and use it to endow a teaching scholarship, which would have encouraged a few of Bermuda’s best students to enter the teaching profession, or to fund training for new teachers.

More broadly, instead of spending tens or hundreds of millions of dollars on educational restructuring, the ministry should spend a fraction of that on teacher training and working with the Bermuda Union of Teachers to turn the profession into a truly respected one.

That would be a good first step towards improving public education and keeping the best and brightest of Bermuda’s students in public schools.

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Published May 26, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated May 25, 2021 at 5:15 pm)

Banking on public education

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