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Public schools ‘like those in third world’

Mike Charles, general secretary of the Bermuda Union of Teachers (Photo by Akil Simmons)

Public schools in Bermuda are akin to those in third-world countries, according to the general secretary of the Bermuda Union of Teachers, Mike Charles.

An inadequate education budget, lack of continuity due to regularly changing Education Ministers, and the delayed appointment of a Commissioner of Education have all contributed to the situation, he said.

Mr Charles said the issue of education was so important that it deserved to have a dedicated ministry, rather than being part of a split portfolio with Economic Development.

There have been 11 different Education Ministers in the past 15 years and no Commissioner of Education has been in office since Edmond Heatley resigned in April last year.

Mr Charles spoke out as Government prepares to announce a new Minister of Education. The outgoing Minister, Dr Grant Gibbons, is to focus on preparations for the America’s Cup.

Mr Charles told The Royal Gazette: “Education should have a dedicated minister but the minister is only as good as his Cabinet. He can have the best ideas and intentions but if he goes to Cabinet on a Tuesday and his colleagues are not with him, it is shut down.

“The budget is cut to the bare bones right now. I know a science teacher whose supplies in September of this school year amounted to one black marker.

“The schools are like third-world country schools right now in Bermuda. They are giving exercise books where the staples in the books are rusted, so when the students open the books, they fall apart. Many schools don’t have copying paper.

“The budget is being cut. It was cut by seven per cent last year and five per cent this year and programmes are being cut. Fortunately for us we have adopted the Cambridge Curriculum and that has given us some stability.”

Mr Charles said he commended Dr Gibbons for securing the America’s Cup but he believed that education had been neglected as a result.

“It really didn’t surprise us [that the Ministry was changing hands] simply because we were quite aware that Minister Gibbons wasn’t giving any attention to education – he was hooked up on America’s Cup and we can’t fault him for that — they did a fantastic job in getting it here.

“However this is the kind of commitment we need from the Government for education.

“If they would invest half as much energy and gusto as they are with the America’s Cup, the returns on that would be 100 per cent better than any America’s Cup could bring to Bermuda.”

The Education Ministry lost its dedicated Permanent Secretary when Warren Jones resigned in October 2013 after the merger of portfolios.

Mr Jones had been appointed in November 2010, replacing Kevin Monkman, who served in the role for two years.

The Permanent Secretary post was vacant for 18 months before Mr Monkman’s appointment, after Rosemary Tyrrell moved elsewhere in the civil service.

Ms Tyrrell served as Education Permanent Secretary for just a year and a half.

Mr Charles said: “In a lot of cases there is no continuity.

“Any minister will have to be there for at least three or four years just to get a grip on what is going on.

“Even though they don’t have to deal with the day-to-day running of the schools, but that is the person who takes information back to the Cabinet to inform legislation and encourage the colleagues that the portfolio is of the utmost importance for the future of the country and you should invest some money in it.

“Most ministers know very little about education — they are advised by the technical staff.

“The minister doesn’t really matter — to me the minister is just the figure head.

“The most important person in the ministry is the commissioner.

“But you do need a minister who is involved and who is interested. The Government gives lip service to education but you don’t see it.

“How do you demonstrate it is important? By taking away the funds? Or by not having any minister or commissioner to represent us?”

The Ministry of Education was asked by The Royal Gazette whether it wished to respond to Mr Charles’s comments but no response had been received by press time last night.