July 26, 2005

The abysmal state of our schools

RG Opinion (26 July, 2005)

The smoke over Serpentine Road had barely cleared before the politicians began circling, the Letters to the Editor flowed in and the talk show phones began ringing. Everyone it seemed was uncharacteristically singing from the same hymn sheet calling for a public inquiry into the fire and ensuing catastrophic power outage of July 14th.

Right on cue BELCO’s board announced a committee to investigate the circumstances surrounding the fire; a reasonable and rapid response after a power outage wrought with potentially far reaching implications had gripped the island.

In their defense however, BELCO has an enviable track record of providing reliable – albeit expensive – electricity to Bermuda; non-storm related outages are a rarity, with an uptime of probably over 99%, which isn’t too shabby really.

But if you compare BELCO’s product with that of the Ministry of Education, you get a vastly different story.

That our public schools are in disarray is not news. What was news though, terrible news to be precise, was the recent announcement that our Government schools achieve a 53% graduation rate (or more accurately fail 47% of their students).

To put this into perspective, if BELCO performed at the levels of the Ministry of Education (with a 47% failure rate) we’d be in the dark for 11 hours daily.

So where’s the public inquiry into the chronic intellectual power shortage in our public school system? How can we be up in arms over an unprecedented 48 hour power outage but seem largely ambivalent over this? Why so few Letters to the Editor? Why are the talk shows so quiet? Where’s the Government’s plan to turn this around…immediately?

Almost two weeks ago the Premier did say that it is his Government’s “responsibility to ensure the public interest is always safeguarded and [I] support an investigation." Unfortunately the topic was BELCO, not one of his underperforming Ministries.

Surely education is in the public interest? So by the Premier's own standards we should be investigating the ongoing catastrophe that is the public education system?

One thing’s for sure though. Things are never this quiet when the social impact of the education system hits the headlines. Articles about Bermudianisation, crime, economic empowerment or racial inequities in the workplace inevitably trigger painfully predictable but non-solution oriented hand-wringing and finger-pointing.

If we spent half as much time focusing on the abysmal state of public education – the root of almost every social problem – as we do assigning blame for the issues it manifests, we might make some progress. At some point, hopefully not very far off, we as a community are going to have to stand up and say that enough is enough.

Successive Bermuda governments have spent plenty of time and ink heralding the Bermuda economic miracle, while neglecting to admit that we aren’t equipping the majority of our young people with the skills to participate in it.

“If we build it they will come” is the well known phrase; much like the movie Bermuda could be a Field of Dreams. But right now it isn’t. We built it alright, but without a strong education our children can only dream.

The continuing decline of tourism, coupled with the explosion of the Bermuda (re)insurance market in the 1990’s and again in 2001, has transformed our island into a highly successful and specialized economy reliant on a workforce of the best and the brightest.

We’re taking on the world, and they’re looking to knock us down. We’re not just attracting and competing against the best and the brightest within these 21 square miles, our corporations are competing (and winning) on global scale. Tragically, and despite the political rhetoric, this increasingly excludes Bermudians.

Recently the Deputy Premier displayed an impressively shameless level of political rhetoric, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, on this topic. A practitioner of managing perception but not reality, Dr. Brown predictably heaped praise on primarily himself, but also his colleagues, for their successful implementation of the ultimate vote getter: Bermudianisation.

Only the facts aren’t on his side, as revealed in the Government’s own 2004 Economic Review. This report revealed that jobs held by Bermudians dropped by 1,372 positions from 28,717 in 1999 (the year the PLP was first elected) to 27,235 in 2004, while positions for non-Bermudians increased by 1,500, from 7,480 in 1999 to 8,980 in 2004. That’s a 2,872 job swing against Bermudians in just 5 years.

Notwithstanding Dr. Brown’s well-known penchant for misleading the public, we shouldn’t be surprised. This trend will continue unless and until we demand a stop to the rot in public education. This Government’s obsessive political pandering is completely counterproductive in the face of a failing education system.

Raising expectations, while simultaneously failing half of our people, is an explosive mix. It will take far more than the Government’s vacuous Social Agenda to remedy this situation.

Public education looms large as the potential downfall of Bermuda. Our international companies might be willing to absorb slightly higher taxes and operating costs, or tolerate a growing bureaucracy, but they won’t compromise on the quality of staff they can hire.

Throw our immigration policies into the mix and reality hits. Businesses in need of an educated workforce will look to import more foreign workers for the positions we haven’t prepared ourselves for, or leave. As locals become increasingly excluded from their own economy we’ll see more social unrest, crime and poverty to name just a few problems.

We’ve built it. Let’s make sure our people can come. It’s time for a public inquiry into public education.

Posted by Christian S. Dunleavy