Opposition MPs raise questions on direction of education in Bermuda
Shadow Education Minister
Grant Gibbons asked what's happened to Bermuda's Blueprint for Education as he accused Government of making vague promises on reform.
Last April, then Education Minister Elvin James released a five-year plan to improve public schools, with a list of demands including publishing school performances every year.
But Dr Gibbons said Mr James' replacement Dame Jennifer Smith had reverted to Government's previous stance of setting targets which can't be measured.
“I don't have a clear sense of the policy direction we are heading,” said the Shadow Minister during yesterday's Budget debate on the Ministry and Department of Education.
He said the blueprint had been released with much fanfare, and “set out some very clear steps that at last the former Minister was going to undertake”.
He continued: “Where are we heading? The answer, from reading
The Royal Gazette and the Minister's statement, was that we are returning to the basics that we are going to focus on teaching and learning.
“This is all very, very fundamental. We have heard it all before. The public are tired of hearing promise after promise and not having those promises delivered.”
Yesterday morning, Dame Jennifer listed items the Ministry would be directing its $128 million towards, but Dr Gibbons complained she didn't give specifics explaining how reform will happen.
“How are you going to do it? That's what's missing in this huge amount of money that's being spent,” he said.
“I want to know how this money is going to work for our students and this Country.”
Dame Jennifer is the Progressive Labour Party's eighth Education Minister in 13 years, during which time Government has repeatedly been accused of overseeing a failing education system.
Dr Gibbons said: “We are now a year down the road. Another Budget, another year, a new Ministry, a new Permanent Secretary [Warren Jones]. All this spending, yet no real reform as far as we can see in the Education Ministry.”
He also pointed to an apparent $5 million cut in the Ministry's salaries and wages for 2011-12, from $72.9 million to $67.9 million, while staffing levels appeared to have dropped by just three people.
“How have we done this? It's one that's perplexed me. Maybe it's overtime,” said Dr Gibbons.
“We have got four different unions in that Ministry. I'm wondering if they have agreed to a standstill at this point.”
Bermuda Democratic Alliance MP
Shawn Crockwell said Bermuda's Terra Nova exam results, which compare the Island's public schools to those in the US, were concerning.
“We are behind the US in reading and English language, and the US is ranked 17 worldwide,” he said.
“When it comes to math we are nearly ten percent behind the US in senior one and senior two and they are 32 in the world.”
From primary three to senior two Bermuda's average Terra Nova exam result in reading was 44.4 percent; the US norm was 50 percent.
In English language the average result of the nine grades that take part in the exam was 48.9 percent compared to 50 percent in the US.
The average math result in the nine grades was 41.6 percent compared to the US norm of 50 percent.
He noted that the average cost of educating students in Bermuda's public school system was $17,120, down approximately $400 from last year. He said he paid the equivalent for private school on the Island.
Lovitta Foggo said she believed, as a former educator, the schools would be able to do more with less as she had often seen waste, or money spent on goods or services which were not absolutely necessary to meet the Ministry's focus.
Opposition MP Louise Jackson said she was concerned about Budget cuts to counsellors and psychologists given Bermuda's current gun problem and the number of parents without a job.
Mark Pettingill said he believed the new Minister had the passion and dedication to inspire people to turn around the Island's public education system. However, he too questioned the low Terra Nova results and why cuts were being made in support services during a time when the Island was facing increasing social ills.
Donte Hunt raised similar concerns noting the budget for counsellors had fallen 19 percent while the school psychologists had been cut three percent.
Several times during the five-hour debate Opposition members asked questions or stated information that caused
Dame Jennifer Smith to rise on a point of order and state she had already answered the question or correct their statement.
At the end of the debate she rose to say: “What is the point in me reading, line by line, the Budget if the members of the opposition are not listening or are not here.”
She added that she provided copies of her brief to Dr Gibbons and
The Royal Gazette.
Dame Jennifer also said the opposition was incorrect in its statements about counsellors and psychologists.
“We can get clinical psychologists from the Department of Heath, the psychologists hired by the Ministry of Education are school psychologists, but it doesn't do to say ‘with what's going on today why are we cutting educational psychologists'.”
An educational psychologist focuses on helping students who are having problems learning because of an emotional problem or learning difficultly.
She added that she too had been concerned about the Terra Nova results but had been informed that students, and teachers, do not take the exams as seriously as others because they come shortly before the end of year exams, which they focus more on.