A primer for the national education conference

First Published: 2005-06-29

Next week scores of experts from around the country will sit down in a hotel ballroom on Cable Beach to figure out how to “transform” our failed education system.

From all accounts, it will be the first major re-evaluation of Bahamian education since a national task force set up by the incoming Free National Movement government in January, 1993.

And what happens at this four-day meeting next week will not only affect the more than 50,000 students in our public schools- it will have implications for our entire future as a modern society.

Universal Education

Our 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 aims were complicated by the fact that African-Americans were denied full citizenship.

The situation was much the same in Britain, where secondary schools became widely available only in 1902. It was not until 1914 that an organised national education system was in place. Not surprisingly, as a colonial backwater with a tiny population, the Bahamas lagged behind.

“Well into the twentieth century…Bahamian education was both backward and socially skewed,” according to Michael Craton and Gail Saunders writing in their two-volume history, Islanders in the Stream. “Many black Bahamians remained illiterate and only an exceptional few, whose parents could spare them and afford the fees, aspired to any form of secondary education.”

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 old British style, 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, after a study by British experts. The old board of education was replaced by a ministry in 1964 with responsibility for secondary schools. And we became a contributing member of the University of the West Indies.

Majority Rule

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. And what’s worse, is that the best teachers go into high schools and the College of the Bahamas, as those are the levels that require the highest qualifications. The primary school teachers are usually the ones with the weakest skills.”

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 being threatened by 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 agrees: “We’re employing an outmoded educational system adapted from colonial times,” she told Tough Call recently. “It was never designed to educate everybody, and so we shouldn’t be surprised that it doesn’t. It certainly doesn’t prepare young people for the 21st century. The curriculum in general (because specific elements of the curriculum are actually quite good) is largely irrelevant, and is poorly integrated into students’ lives, with the result that not much of it sticks.”

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.

The output of our school system has hardly changed since then. All those millions of dollars produced an overall ‘D’ grade last year (reflecting public and private results for 26 subjects) and an ‘F+’ for the public high schools on New Providence. Results are graded on an eight-point scale from A to U. And 21 per cent of 22,000 exam takers earned failing grades of F, G and U.

Former education minister, Dion Foulkes, told Tough Call 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 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.”

Dr Bethel says the Bahamas has achieved “phenomenal progress in the provision of educational opportunity” over the last 50 years, but adds: “The challenge (is) to achieve the sustained qualitative improvement that will enable (Bahamians) to function competitively in a demanding global environment.”

Frightening Figures

In the recent budget debate, State Finance Minister James Smith said massive new foreign investments could have a dramatic impact on employment over the next few years. But there is a growing consensus that our young people lack the skills to benefit from economic growth.

This recent comment from the expatriate 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 eleven and twelve 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.

We desperately need technology skills, and this need will only grow as our protected economy is opened up in the years ahead. 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. About 40 per cent of boys drop out of the public school system.

From this brief perspective it should be clear that the conference has a lot of work to do. We would have liked to speak with education officials for this article, but our calls went unanswered – despite the fact that we received letters soliciting tens of thousands of dollars to underwrite the event and urging us to call for more information.

However, we can report that expensively produced newspaper ads say the conference expects to “thoroughly examine” our education system and find “working solutions” to “21st century challenges”.

And waiting in the wings is the Inter-American Development Bank, with a $50 million credit facility on offer to address our vital educational needs.

No doubt the conference will be taking a good hard look at how to spend this money. Hopefully it will also look at the quality of our teachers and the environment in which they must work. It’s the people in the trenches who can most influence the outcome.

The views expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Nassau Institute (which has no corporate view), or its Advisers or Directors.

This article was first published in The Tribune on Wednesday, June 29, 2005.

The column ‘Tough Call’ by Larry Smith is published in The Tribune every Wednesday and is reprinted here as a courtesy. Mr. Smith founded and successfully grew an advertising agency over 20 years. Under his direction Media Enterprises diversified into short-run commercial printing and publishing, and is now the largest non-fiction book wholesaler in the Bahamas. He has 30 years experience as a journalist and publicist and has contributed numerous articles and columns to the Bahamian press. A former reporter at the Nassau Guardian, local correspondent for Reuters and editor at the Bahamas News Bureau, he conceived and edited the Bahama Almanac (published 2000 by Media Enterprises), wrote the commentary for Mike Toogood’s Portrait of an Archipelago (published 2004 by Macmillan Caribbean), and edited the Bahamas Environmental Handbook (published 2002 by the government). In 2003 he took a year’s leave of absence from Media Enterprises to lead a transition management team at the Nassau Guardian after the paper was acquired by local investors. After leaving the Guardian he was contracted by the Tribune as online manager/editor and columnist. He has a degree in political science and journalism from the University of Miami.

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