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Public schools key to easing working-class pressures

Savings jeopardised: Bermudians of middle-income households are struggling enormously to give their children a private education

Globally, a private school education is something that is generally afforded by the wealthy, the elite, expatriates or for religious reasons. The average percentage of the student population attending private schools in Britain is 7 per cent, Japan 7 per cent, the United States 10 per cent, Germany 8 per cent and Finland less than 1 per cent. In Bermuda, an astounding 38 per cent of students attend private schools and the cost for two children from P1 to International Baccalaureate is a whopping $500,000 expense. Bermudians of middle-income households are struggling enormously to give their children a private education, possibly at the expense of home ownership and most likely jeopardising their chances of saving enough for a financially sound retirement. If Bermuda’s public education system produced the same graduation success rate on par with private schools, then the middle class would, in most cases, not enrol their children in private schools. But this is not the case and Bermudian parents are making huge financial sacrifices and working extra hours to pay for private tuition, experiencing a lot of stress if they happen to have a mortgage as well.

Surely, this most important national issue should not be the sole fight of those with children in Bermuda’s public schools. National security and our future prosperity depend on an educated workforce. Do we as one nation not comprehend the outcome of allowing our society to ignore the disenfranchisement of a portion of our young population? Fix public education and it will fix a host of other social and economic issues.

Results from the Programme for International Student Assessment, which is a performance study of 30 developed nations in maths, reading and science literacy, and which is underwritten by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, ranked students from Finland, South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, China, Britain, Germany and the US as top contenders. Interestingly, Finland, whose students ranked number one in the OECD study, not only has the least amount of private schools among the 30 nations, but it was also top in the Quality of Life Survey reported by Newsweek in 2011.

What is positive about our public school system is the introduction of the Cambridge Curriculum in 2010 and that we have dedicated teachers who have graduated with bachelor’s degrees from prestigious and accredited overseas universities. What needs improving is the existing passing bar set at a 2.0 grade point average, which could be raised with the introduction of a comprehensive education streaming system based on student ability, the reintroduction of an entrance exam for the Berkeley Institute and the formation of a business school.

A good benchmark for a successful public education system is Finland. The main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income or location. What spurred Finland’s education reform in the 1970s was the realisation of policymakers that, to be competitive, it had to invest in a knowledge-based economy and rely less on manufacturing and its scant natural resources. There are definitely comparable dynamics between Finland and Bermuda, particularly as we have scant resources and the need for a knowledge-based economy to support our international business.

Countries with successful public education systems in developed countries are a logical benchmark to compare ourselves, to see how they tick and what makes them successful. However, Bermuda’s socioeconomic factors are completely different. Therefore, any successful outcome in educational reform is dependent on the Bermuda Government providing socially responsible programmes to address the deplorable socioeconomic factors. Would it not be a huge financial relief for working-class folk and middle-income Bermudians not to have to place their children in private school? Wouldn’t Bermuda’s youth be better off if the public education system could be as good as in Finland, Japan, Germany, Britain, and China?

For adult Bermudians to not have hope that our public education system can ever be successful would be pessimistic. Do we really look at the future of Bermuda with little hope for our young people in the lower economic strata of this island?

I don’t share this pessimism. I hold hope that when I have grandchildren, Bermuda’s public school system will be successful so that our family have the confidence not only to put our children in government preschool and primary school (which we did), but also in secondary school (which we did not).

Cheryl Pooley is a social commentator and three-times former parliamentary candidate