Education restructuring runs into series of hurdles
Education in Bermuda is in a state of flux as the curricula of both private and public schools go global.
The International Baccalaureate is growing in popularity, the UK’s GCSE exam system is set to change into an English Baccalaureate in the years ahead, and the adoption of the Cambridge curriculum is transforming Government-funded schooling.
Private schools face a more competitive recession market compounded by the loss of thousands of expatriates, while our public school system is under a tightly-budgeted overhaul aimed at delivering an education commensurate with the Island’s reputation as a jurisdiction.
Public education underwent a transformation in the 1990s, with the advent of “mega schools” exemplified by CedarBridge Academy, and the implementation of the middle school system.
The year 2007 represented a turning point for a system that all sides seemed to acknowledge simply hadn’t worked.
That May, the Hopkins Report, a seminal review of the Island’s public school system, famously described public education in Bermuda as “on the brink of meltdown”.
The report was launched after more than half the senior school students in the system failed to graduate in 2006.
Our schools suffered from a “culture of low expectations and lacklustre teaching”, the report led by UK expert Professor David Hopkins concluded.
Seeking to address the poor results and crisis in confidence, the report called for monitoring and transparency, faulted the Board of Education’s leadership and said principals needed to take better charge of school performance.
Also among its conclusions was that the changes to the public education system, executed in the last years of the United Bermuda Party Government, had been a mistake, leading to a crash in confidence in the system.
Premier of the time Ewart Brown said the report merely underscored “what we as a community know to be true”.
Structural reform went ahead with the separation of the Ministry of Education from the Department of Education. Following the appointment of a new Board of Education in 2009, the Cambridge Curriculum made its debut under Education Minister Elvin James in September 2010.
Reforms proceeded under Dame Jennifer Smith, who took over as Education Minister in November 2010.
She had held the post in 1998 when the Progressive Labour Party took power, but passed the job on to Milton Scott — the first in a quick-changing roster of Ministers.
Asserting that she would “put my money where my mouth is”, Dame Jennifer re-read the Hopkins Report, and set about implementing a shake-up of the Ministry.
In January, 2011, Education Commissioner Wendy McDonell’s responsibilities shifted from day-to-day administration strategic planning to “leading the transformation” — even as that year’s Budget brought in funding cuts of just under $15 million.
Tensions beneath the surface were in evidence with the mass resignation that November of the Bermuda Educators’ Council, whose members charged union and political interference. It was almost a year before a new BEC was put in place.
Meanwhile, restructuring and leadership shuffles in the public school system didn’t come easily: the placement of a temporary executive principal at Prospect Primary School in January was criticised by the Association of School Principals as a surprise move that was forced on the school without notice.
A far more unpopular restructuring move announced in March was the shuffle of school principals.
The transfers of TN Tatem principal Francine McMahon and Victor Scott principal Valerie Williams brought parents, teachers and students onto the streets in protest.
It went to the Supreme Court in August, where Chief Justice Ian Kawaley quashed the decision for the next year, ruling that Government ought to have consulted with Parent Teacher Associations before going ahead with the moves.
In its aftermath, the judgment has seen the Minister meeting with primary schools PTAs and holding two public town hall meetings since the commencement of the current school year.
Nearly 40 years on from the closure of the Bermuda Technical Institute, one outstanding issue simmers on and has been taken up by the Opposition One Bermuda Alliance as part of its education platform.
The party has pledged to put in place an integrated technical curriculum from the middle school level through to the Bermuda College.
Meanwhile, the economic recession has seen Government strengthening technical certification schemes in collaboration with the Bermuda College, with the promised Job Corps scheme touted as a successor to the fondly-remembered Technical Institute.
But although the College has taken much of the baton from the “Tech”, stakeholders across the community continue to call for the implementation of stronger, earlier vocational training in Bermuda’s school system, to cater to the full spectrum of the Island’s students.