You can’t improve a closed school
It may be that the Government’s plans to close half of the island’s primary schools are so popular and make such good sense that that is the reason there has been virtually no opposition to the announcement last month.
But that seems unlikely. But it is undeniable that outside of the supporters of West End Primary School and, to a lesser extent, the backers of St George’s Prep, there has been barely a whimper over the closures of St David’s Primary, Prospect, Northlands, Gilbert Institute, Port Royal and Heron Bay.
Most of these schools have proud heritages and have served their communities for decades and, in a few cases, centuries. So why was there no uproar?
Few have disputed the sense behind closing some schools, especially those where attendance had dropped below 100 students. Closing some schools and consolidating resources and services makes sense in these cases.
But the Ministry of Education appears to have gone to the other extreme by deciding not only to close eight schools but to create a new concept of parish primary school where, it is said, 21st-century learning will take place.
This may be the reason why there has been so little opposition. Diallo Rabain, the education minister, has painted a picture of primary schools having modern, technically equipped classrooms where learning will take place in radically different ways and where all schools have similar and up-to-date facilities.
Mr Rabain may be right. Certainly, education in the future will need to be different than the rote learning of the past, although basic numeracy and literacy will be still essential for the modern citizen.
But Bermuda has been this way before. It was argued that CedarBridge Academy and the Berkeley Institute were needed because Bermuda’s secondary schools were out of date and lacked facilities. Then, in the late 1980s, the problem was declining results in secondary schools. Middle schools and senior secondary schools equipped with wonderful new facilities were going to solve all of that.
And both schools are indeed wonders to behold, even if CedarBridge is showing its age. And the results from the schools do appear to have improved.
But that ignores that the changes to the system caused massive upheaval. It took the best part of a decade for the system to settle and to start to produce better results after a long period of underperformance. Now, 30 years later, a new and even more fundamental restructuring is planned. The primary school changes are only the first part. Next is the conversion of the middle schools and the two senior schools into signature schools, although that concept has been watered down from the original conception.
But the promises are the same. Somehow, new bricks and mortar and new structures will make the whole education system work better.
Except they probably won’t. That’s because new buildings and facilities, while important, are not the most critical factors for success. Nor are larger schools better schools. In fact, at the primary level, the opposite may well be true, according to much of the research.
What are the best predictors of educational success?
Some are difficult for an education system to change, at least in the short term. These include the socioeconomic status and education levels of parents, which may be the single most effective indicators of student success.
It is harder for schools to bring forward children from deprived backgrounds. But if public schools can demonstrate success, they can attract students back from private schools.
The one factor that schools can control is the provision of effective teachers. There are a number of ways to do this. Treating teachers with respect and rewarding them accordingly would be a start. Intensive mentoring programmes for new teachers would help, too. Encouraging good teachers to stay in the classroom is also necessary. Finding ways to get the best students to join the profession would help.
These are less politically attractive methods than building new schools and cutting ribbons at shiny new facilities. But they are proven and, in the long run, cheaper.
Still, the fact remains that there has been little opposition to the closures.
It may be that educational results have deteriorated through the school system so badly that there is no faith in it. Any change is welcomed — or worse, is greeted with apathy.
It is possible that many, although not all, of the parents who would be most invested in the system have already removed their children and put them in private schools.
And it may be that the curse of a large government majority is that all decisions can be presented as a fait accompli and that resistance is not only pointless but disloyal.
If that is the case, that’s too bad. Good policy comes about through rigorous and constructive debate. Ideas should be tested in the crucible of past experience, critical thinking and common sense. That won’t happen if the public simply accept government decisions.
It is true that the education ministry has consulted fairly widely in implementing these reforms. But the truth is that the consultations were not on the major decisions of signature schools and parish primary schools. They were already made and the relative feebleness of opposition meant the Government could stick with them, regardless of their merits or lack thereof.
Instead, the people who will suffer will be the students of the future.