by Larry Smith
Prime Minister Perry Christie recently acknowledged that continued poor results from government schools posed a threat to national development. Former Education Minister Desmond Bannister said our schools suffered from an entrenched bureaucracy that protected "unqualified teachers in critical subjects". Current Education Minister Jerome Fitzgerald admitted that half of all Bahamian students are flunking high school and called for "a frank and open discussion" on reforming the system. Did we hear all this right? The following are condensed versions of two articles on this subject - the first was published in October 2005 and the second in September 2007.
A Primer on Bahamian Education
This past summer scores of experts from around the country sat down in a hotel ballroom at great expense to figure out how to “transform” our failed education system. It was the first major re-evaluation of Bahamian schools since a national task force was set up in January, 1993.
What happened at this four-day meeting has implications for the 50,000-plus students in our public schools as well as our entire future as a modern society. But we have yet to receive any kind of report. So to help put this critical issue into perspective, here is Tough Call's primer on Bahamian education.
The Bahamian public education system traces its roots back to the turn of the 20th century - when the total population of the Bahamas was about equal to the number of students in our schools today.
In America, reformers were pushing for tax-supported schools "good enough for the best and cheap enough for the poorest,” although their goals were complicated by the fact that African-Americans were denied full citizenship.
The situation was much the same in Britain, where an organised national education system was not in place until 1914. Not surprisingly, as a colonial backwater with a tiny population, the Bahamas lagged far behind.
In the early days, Bahamian education was left mostly to the churches. By the late 1800s Catholic nuns and priests ran several schools, and Methodists and Presbyterians had their elite Queen’s College. Government High was the first – and for a long time the only – state-supported secondary school. It opened in 1925 with just a handful of students.
Government High was a selective grammar school in the British tradition, with its own semi-independent board of governors. Admission was based on ability, and the school’s original purpose was to train Bahamians for the growing civil service.
Although open to blacks and whites, it was derided by the late Sir Lynden Pindling as “absurdly elitist”. But the fact is that many of our top leaders were produced by this school – including both Sir Lynden and his old nemesis, Sir Stafford Sands.
Major social changes followed the Second World War, but the number of Bahamians with more than just a primary education remained one of the lowest in the region. Our few secondary schools were under-funded and overcrowded – with a single teacher for every 50 students as late as 1956 (the current ratio is 1:16, according to the Ministry of Education web site).
Annual spending on education in the 1950s represented only 10 per cent of the total government budget, or a little over 400,000 pounds sterling. This compares to 18 per cent of the budget, or $216 million, today .
According to Dr Keva Bethel, retired president of the College of the Bahamas, significant education reforms did not begin until the early 1960s. Following a study by British experts, the old board of education was replaced by a ministry, and we became a contributing member of the University of the West Indies in 1964.
But it was the 1967 general election, won by Sir Lynden’s Progressive Liberal Party, that led to the greatest changes in education. The election was a watershed event that brought the disenfranchised majority into power for the first time, leading to an unprecedented expansion of public education.
“Each year, the PLP government awarded to education the lion’s share (19.1% by 1970) of the national budget,” Dr Bethel reported. “It undertook a massive programme of construction throughout the country, building new schools and extending existing ones, with the aim of providing access to improved levels of education for all Bahamian children.”
The rapid expansion multiplied the demand for teachers, which clashed with the government’s Bahamianisation policy. Ironically - for a government aiming to improve education - this led to a dramatic fall in standards, which was confirmed by historian Michael Craton, himself a former teacher at the Government High School.
As one observer put it: “We needed more teachers than ever before, but at the same time the government was getting rid of all the expatriates and there was a shortage of well-qualified Bahamians. The result was predictable – you can’t have good students without good teachers.”
And many argue that we still favour quantity over quality: “The status of the teaching profession is so low today that the best candidates avoid it,” one former educator told Tough Call. “This is a fundamental problem.”
As the PLP government gradually lost its reforming zeal and became more authoritarian, the bloated education bureaucracy became increasingly disconnected from reality. Public schools were – and still are, many say – run for the benefit of administrators rather than the classroom teachers and their pupils.
At the same time, the whole fabric of Bahamian society was under threat from the massive corruption caused by the illegal drug trade: “This...had a serious impact on student motivation and brought discipline problems and elements of violence into the schools that seriously hampered the achievement of educational goals,” Dr Bethel wrote, in a triumph of understatement.
Quality vs Quantity
Meanwhile, a UNESCO report acknowledging the government’s success in widening access to education, also pointed out that the quality and relevance of that education was not “in sufficient harmony with the needs of a rapidly changing society.”
Former COB lecturer Nicolette Bethel (Dr Bethel's daughter) agreed: “We’re employing an outmoded educational system adapted from colonial times,” she told me recently. “It was never designed to educate everybody, and so we shouldn’t be surprised that it doesn’t.”
As the Bahamas moved into the last decade of the 20th century, it was increasingly clear to many that our society was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The 1993 education task force was convened as a matter or urgency to consider literacy levels, employment skills, administrative decentralization and other issues.
Chaired by Dr Bethel – it found that the output of public schools lagged behind that of private ones. And complaints about functional illiteracy and poor work attitudes were widespread. This is still the case today, despite the hundreds of millions of tax dollars invested in public education since.
A new national exam - the Bahamas General Certificate of Secondary Education - was introduced in 1993. Three years in development, it was based on the British equivalent, and measured the abilities of a much wider range of students than the GCE, which it replaced.
Former education minister, Dion Foulkes, explained that “Only the best students were selected to take GCE’s. Consequently, the average score was higher than the current D average. The BGCSE is an open exam and and all students are required to take a minimum amount, which lowers the average grade. However, the big advantage of doing it this way is that we get a true and accurate picture of how ALL our students are doing.”
But according to one businessman we spoke to, “if private industry standards were applied to the education system, we would have to conclude that it is not just in trouble – it is bankrupt, and the entire management team should be fired.”
And don’t think that more money will necessarily fix the problem. From 1965 to 2001, the United States spent billions to improve poor schools and give extra help to struggling students. But test scores showed no significant improvement for the period 1973 to 2000. In 2001, Education Secretary Roderick Page said: “After spending $125 billion...we have virtually nothing to show for it.”
Diplomatically, Dr Bethel said the Bahamas had achieved “phenomenal progress in the provision of educational opportunity” over the last 50 years, but added: “The challenge (is) to achieve the sustained qualitative improvement that will enable (Bahamians) to function competitively in a demanding global environment.”
There is a growing consensus that our young people lack the skills to benefit from economic growth. This recent comment from the manager of a medium-sized business in Nassau makes the point:
“Many high school graduates can't learn because they can't read and write effectively. After conducting much training without much evidence of learning, we confirmed our suspicions with professional testing. We have also been approached by public school administrators to help provide grades two and three reading texts so they can teach grades 11 and 12 students.”
And clearly, If students can’t read and write effectively by grade six, they will have great difficulty advancing through higher grades. This produces drop outs or school leavers with serious educational handicaps. And everyone is worried about what our unemployable and unproductive youth will turn to if we do not do something soon.
The figures are frightening. Over half of all births are out of wedlock. More than two thirds of young Bahamians are from single parent homes, and in most of these cases the single parent is a teenage woman. More and more boys are growing up without a male role model. According to some reports, about 40 per cent of boys drop out of the public school system.
The Problems of Bahamian Education
Although church-based schools have been around since the 1700s, it was the need to educate large numbers of emancipated slaves that led to the first "Board of Public Instruction" in 1836.
By the beginning of the 20th century there were half a dozen public schools on New Providence and 38 in the out islands (as well as a few private schools) teaching about 8,000 pupils in all. But over the past century, our education bureaucracy has exploded.
This year alone the government will spend $265 million on scores of public schools (and the College of the Bahamas) to educate more than 50,000 students. Yet experts say this massive investment is producing a growing underclass of functional illiterates who are virtually unemployable.
That's the startling verdict that is consistent with the research commissioned by a respected private sector group called the Coalition for Education Reform. This alliance of key labour and business leaders has been calling for dramatic education reforms over the past three years, but public officials don't seem to be listening.
Why that should be the case remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma, since the Coalition includes not only the Chamber of Commerce, but also the National Congress of Trade Unions and the Nassau Tourism Development Board.
Their initiative was triggered by "the crippling shortage of qualified Bahamians to fill jobs". And their first (22-page) report was issued in 2005 - during a national education conference. But Coalition leaders - including Barrie Farrington of Kerzner International and the late hotel union president Pat Bain - were unable to meet with government ministers and officials to discuss their findings.
At the start of the current school year, Education Director Lionel Sands gave a brief overview of the problems we face. He promised that schools would analyse their exam results along with feedback from the community "to identify weaknesses, develop a plan, and submit documented evidence of improvements at the end of June."
Under the heading "Education Officials Fired Up", a Miinistry press statement explained that this initiative is designed "to improve student performance, enhance the learning environment and foster partnerships with all stakeholders in the community."
But the Coalition represents some of the most important stakeholders in the nation. They are the businessmen and unionists who actually run the economy - yet they can't get a hearing from our politicos to discuss information that is vital to our survival as a modern state.
"The overwhelming and critical national problem is functional illiteracy on a large scale," says Coalition chief Barrie Farrington. "What we are looking at is a societal failure of immense consequences. It is a real nightmare; a horror movie."
Partly, this is because the technical to and fro about BGCSE exam results obscures the basic problem. Since this exam is taken by every high schooler regardless of ability, it's only natural - as education officials point out - for the nationwide results to reflect a low average grade on an eight-point scale. That overall grade has fluctuated between a D- and D+ ever since the exam was introduced in 1993.
The second issue addressed by the Coalition is male disengagement from education. Boys and girls enter school in similar numbers, but only 39 per cent of the 23,000-plus BGCSE exams in 2006 were written by boys. And boys earned lower grades on average - meaning that girls got almost twice as many As, Bs and Cs.
"The overwhelming and critical national problems are the extremely high failure rates in high school English and Mathematics and the disengaged male," the Coalition says. "The BGCSE data support this conclusion. Not facing this issue merely causes the problem to grow year after year."
In its 2005 report, the Coalition suggested 14 strategies to reform public education. Their latest report highlights six of them: Restoring classroom discipline; decentralizing school management; compensating good teachers; ending social promotion; dealing with the disengaged male; and radically overhauling the Department of Education.
"Today there is a large education bureaucracy, a strong union and inflexible laws that govern employment," the Coalition says. "The bureaucracy, union and the politicians must be convinced that their long-term self-interest can best be served by their support of education reform; and they must take the necessary steps to make it happen."
We should be embracing the public-spirited efforts of this group of highly credible business and labour leaders, but the political response (from both major parties) has been nothing short of a cold shoulder. Somehow the country must awaken to the need to make hard decisions. If we don't, we can expect lower economic growth and increased social instability.