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Real educational reform requires accountability

Scott Pearman is the Shadow Minister for Legal Affairs and Transport, and the MP for Paget East (Constituency 22)

What is the biggest threat facing Bermuda? Last summer I posed this question in an opinion observing that our biggest threat was not in fact Bermuda’s new airport. Today, our island benefits from a new $400 million gateway, built without adding to our $3.35 billion debt.

Yes, you read that correctly: $400 million in added value for Bermudians, no extra debt. Nice work, Bob.

What were the triple whammy of actual threats that I identified in my “summer survey” last August? Our flatlining economy. The Covid-19 health pandemic. Our staggeringly large national debt.

What would you identify as our biggest concerns?

Education and the economy

When canvassing during the 2018 by-election, the two concerns most often mentioned to me were education and the economy. Interestingly, these issues dominated, no matter the gender, race or age of the constituent.

By the time of the 2020 General Election, the issues on the doorstep had shifted. Covid almost always came first, followed swiftly by economic concerns. Education had been pushed to a distant third.

Now, with “corona-vaccines” for 4,750 people landed at our new airport, education will likely clamber back up the ladder of concerns. And education requires our attention. Changes are coming to our school system. And not every change may prove to your liking. If you have yet to focus on the Progressive Labour Party’s intended educational reforms, it’s time to do so now. Because if we don’t pay attention, choices will be made for us ...

First, some positive change. It is refreshing the PLP now agrees we need an independent education authority. The One Bermuda Alliance has long advocated taking the politics out of education, with an independent education authority — just as the OBA did with tourism and the Bermuda Tourism Authority. Why? Because parents and professional educators know far more about how to ensure good schools for our children than politicians do.

More contentious is the announcement that nine primary schools may close, leaving one in each parish, with two in Pembroke. Notice the word “may” in that sentence. Closures are still “to be determined”. Education minister Diallo Rabain has said: “Nothing is ruled out and no decision has been made until this process is done.” The process is his consultation, which runs to March 12, 2021. Speak up now.

Most people appreciate that some contraction is needed at some level in the school system. But the target list of closures includes some of our best primary schools. So if you value that primary school in your community, now is the time to act...

Who should we listen to?

Sticking with school reform, this quote about why “aided” schools succeed is thought-provoking:

“All schools have the potential to perform…there are many factors that go into children’s performance. It is not based on the physical plant; it is a function of the staff.

“What the [government-fee] aided schools have that the other [government] schools have not been afforded the right to is the autonomy of principals to pick their staff. That is the biggest difference. Principals need more autonomy and people need to believe in the public-school system.”

So says Mary Lodge: former principal of St George’s Preparatory School — a fee-aided school with a considerable track record for success.

Shortly thereafter, Becky Ausenda, of the Bermuda Education Network, made a similar observation — in the context of “charter” school success: “They have autonomy over enrolment, hiring and firing of staff, and they have full responsibility for their payroll and premises.”

Both statements — one from a seasoned educator, one from a passionate education advocate — endorse the same powerful notion: greater autonomy will benefit Bermuda’s schools.

An anonymous PLP blogger, responding, e-shouted: “No, to this woman’s proposal!!!” (Did someone mention the need to take the politics out of education?) Rather than shouting down ideas, shouldn’t we listen to those who strive daily to improve our schools?

Education is one of Bermuda’s foremost concerns — and rightly so. What we have now is not working. If reforms are on their way — as we are told they are — then let’s have the conversation we really need. Autonomy empowers action. When parents and principals have a greater say, it builds belief in both the school and the school system.

Autonomy promotes actual accountability. And if things are to improve in education, accountability is the key.

Scott Pearman is the Shadow Minister for Legal Affairs and Transport, and the MP for Paget East (Constituency 22). He can be reached at spearman@oba.bm

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Published January 18, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated January 18, 2021 at 8:40 am)

Real educational reform requires accountability

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