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Campaigners vow to ‘press on’ to save historic school

West End Primary School, seen as sacred by many former students in Sandys and across Bermuda (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Campaigners have not given up hope of saving an historic school threatened with closure in an overhaul of public education.

Phil Perinchief, a former PLP Attorney-General who attended the West End Primary School, said there was “talk of forming a group and taking it over as a private school” if it shuts in favour of Somerset Primary.

Three proponents of the school, held dear by the Black community who attended it over generations under segregation, spoke with The Royal Gazette last week after supporters claimed their calls to preserve it had been ignored.

It came as David Burt, the Premier, said he understood residents’ unhappiness – and that objections to its closure had not fallen on deaf ears.

“The history of West End is a proud history, and I understand the concerns of the people who have raised those matters,” Mr Burt said.

He highlighted that his son’s primary school, Northlands in Pembroke, was among others to be shut in primary school consolidations.

He added: “I don’t want Northlands to close; it is an amazing school.

“On this issue, we have to do what is best for the collective system as a whole.”

Mr Burt declined to comment on disciplinary action by the Progressive Labour Party against people who spoke out.

One such move came over the summer against Ellen-Kate Horton, a prominent PLP member and former Permanent Secretary of Education who has roundly opposed the move.

Asked if the PLP was against criticism, Mr Burt said: “I’m not going to say there’s a comeback.

“What I’m going to say is there are strong feelings over everything. And the challenge this country has had is that oftentimes leaders have been afraid to make decisions.

“Decisions are tough – it is not easy. It would be lovely if every decision I made could please everyone. It cannot. We are trying to make sure we’re balanced and do things fairly and objectively.”

Mr Burt said nobody had been “stopped from speaking out”.

“They speak about it in meetings; they come to me directly. I understand it. We are a country of 65,000, not one opinion. That’s what is important and vibrant.

“But at the end of the day, the Government has to examine all options, take all things into consideration, and make the decision that in our opinion is the best for our students.”

The planned closures of primary schools, announced early this year, was confirmed by Diallo Rabain, the education minister, in July.

Ms Horton said last week that the reason she got her knuckles rapped by the PLP was “because I said it appeared to be a decision already made”.

She insisted that a group requesting justification for the move in July, and which wrote again to Mr Burt and Mr Rabain last month, had been rebuffed

“Not until August 24 did we get something from one of the Premier’s staff saying they had received it,” Ms Horton said.

“My feeling is it’s pretty clear the Government listens to no one.

“We will press on. Let’s just say that.”

Cecille Snaith-Simmons, the mother of MP Jamahl Simmons and another outspoken former student of West End, said she had been part of a “cosmetic” Zoom meeting about the school over the summer.

She said the meeting had closed with suggestions for the repurposing the school building.

“That suggested to me the decision was already made,” she said.

“Then there was a request to write a history of the school. I said I don’t write obituaries.”

She added: “Why is the Parliament building still fit for purpose? Why is that old building still used? It’s not the building. It’s our history.”

Mr Perinchief said backers of the school still were not satisfied with evaluations used in the decision to close it.

“I don’t mind tough decisions, but they must be evidence based,” he said.

“If the evidence is not firm, it shouldn’t be tough.”

Mr Perinchief conceded that relenting on West End could put the Government in a bind.

Asked if other schools earmarked for closure might follow suit, he said: “I believe so, but I do not know whether other schools could really make the kind of case West End could make.”

Mr Perinchief said there were hopes West End Primary could be kept open under a peppercorn rent, if the Government were to move ahead and designate Somerset Primary for Sandys.

He added: “The supporters of the school are not going away. The more silence Government gives them just makes them dig in deeper.”

Last week Mr Burt insisted the reforms were in students’ best interests.

He acknowledged there was “a substantial price tag” to the reforms.

“What we have to recognise is that in the course of the school consolidation, there are going to be savings that will come, and we’re going to make this work inside of our fiscal plans,” Mr Burt said.

“But what is important and vital is we have to focus on what is best for our students in the future.

“We do not have the same country that we had 100 years ago – and so we don’t need the same school system.”

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Published September 07, 2021 at 8:02 am (Updated September 07, 2021 at 8:02 am)

Campaigners vow to ‘press on’ to save historic school

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