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Shadow minister: education front line should be priority

Ben Smith, a One Bermuda Alliance senator and the Shadow Minister of Education (File photograph)

A focus on teachers should be at the forefront in a shake-up of public schools, the Shadow Minister of Education has said.

Ben Smith, a One Bermuda Alliance senator, claimed that “for far too long” the people on the front line of education had been deprived of the tools they needed.

He said: “There is a proposal being consulted on for wholesale change to Bermuda public education but the starting focus should be on our teachers.

“Do the teachers have the equipment and supplies needed to get the job done?

“The answer to this basic question has been no for far too long while we spend millions on education.

“We have teachers that store paper like a squirrel storing nuts for the winter, while many hope for donations of supplies, books, laptops et cetera - if not, they pay out of their own pocket.”

Mr Smith was speaking after the Government continued talks on a planned restructure of primary schools.

He said: “When the pandemic hit, and they went to remote learning, they had to scramble for equipment because many did not have operating computers or tablets and their students did not have access.

“Those teachers relocated to their homes where they had to use their home internet, electricity and supplies as they often do.

“Teachers have made a choice to do the important job of educating and moulding our future, but should they be responsible for the supplies to get their job done?”

Mr Smith added he feared that a reluctance by teachers to highlight problems meant that problems were ignored.

He highlighted a series of Zoom meetings held by the Government to discuss the redesign proposals, which include a reduction in the number of primary schools from 18 to ten.

Each of the nine parishes would have one school, except for Pembroke, which would have two. The plans also include a new build in Devonshire.

Mr Smith said: “Teachers are not normally the group to speak out and that is why these issues of needed support have gone under the radar for so long.

“They want to do what is best for their students, so they do not rock the boat and get on with the job.

“During the Zoom calls for consultation, we would expect that the teachers’ voices would be the loudest and most critical to give feedback and input on this major shift in education - the kind of shift that may change their job for ever or may push them out of the field entirely.

But Mr Smith asked:“How many people would be willing to speak out on a Zoom call when their boss is on the screen and others are taking notes?”

He added: “The reality is that we have some very good teachers that have passion, work hard to challenge their students and cover the cost of supplies without complaint.

“These teachers are buying food, clothes and taking time to nurture and guide children.

“These teachers should be supported and compensated properly.

“There are teachers that are not performing well that need to be trained and developed if they have the ability to improve.

“Bermuda is an expensive country in which to live as we all know.

“There should be an analysis done on the compensation of teachers in Bermuda factoring in the cost of living.

“We want to attract the best and brightest teachers to create the best learning environment possible but we will have to make sure those teachers are supported and compensated.”

Mr Smith said: “Bermuda does not have the money now to build new school buildings or spend on lots of bells and whistles, but we need to improve our education now.

“If we focus on the fundamentals of good teachers working with engaged students that should be the start of any plan.

“I hope that more teachers speak up so that they can start to get the support and we elevate teachers as a priority in our community.

“Let’s give them the skills, the supplies, the compensation and accountability for success. Our future depends on it.”

Diallo Rabain, the Minister of Education, stated in response: “If we are to listen to the Opposition, we would continue to have a system that has us tinkering around the edges, with cosmetic changes that crumble away once the newness wears off. We are determined to reform education holistically and that will require us to stop pandering with political statements and make real and equitable change.”

Mr Rabain said last night he had reached out to Mr Smith and MP Susan Jackson, who has also criticised the reforms, and said they “have not found the time to have that conversation, instead opting to publish op-eds that are factually incorrect and that help no one”.

He added: “Contrary to both Mr Smith and MP Jackson’s comments, there is a policy within the Ministry of Education to ensure that our teachers and school leaders are updated prior to talking to the general public. Their dedication to our students is well known and acknowledged consistently.

“Instead of making factually inaccurate statements, I urge both MP Smith and MP Jackson to accept my offer, to sit and discuss education reform. This way, both Opposition legislators can have accurate information to relay in their op-eds in the future and we can live up to the moment of working together to transform our public education system.”

But the Bermuda Union of Teachers tonight backed Mr Smith.

A spokesman said: “We will always applaud moral support for our teachers from all parts of this community.

“Many of Mr. Smith’s points have been in contention for years as there is no secret that teachers provide more of the resources to get their jobs done than most, if not all, professionals.

“The BUT welcomes the kind of ‘Teachers first’ approach that Mr. Smith suggests in his comments, and we echo his suggestion that education reform is well overdue.”

The spokesman added that “we would welcome an analysis of teacher compensation once we have successfully navigated the current Covid19 related emergency plan that we faithfully negotiated with the current Government”.

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Published February 16, 2021 at 8:08 am (Updated February 16, 2021 at 8:08 am)

Shadow minister: education front line should be priority

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