The success of Bermuda’s public-education system is vital if we are to prepare our young people to play a meaningful role in our island’s future.
The Blueprint for Reform in Education is the public system’s strategic plan covering the years 2010 to 2015. Its goal is to deliver a first-class education of global standards to ensure that students reach their full potential. You can download a copy of the report at www.moed.bm.
We asked five people who are close to the island’s public-education system to provide their views on the current state of education in Bermuda. Joining us for a roundtable discussion are Becky Ausenda, Dr. Derek Tully, Dr. Grant Gibbons, Michael A. Charles and Wendy Augustus. We canvassed their views on a wide range of topics, and we think you will find their answers illuminating.
Becky Ausenda is executive director of the Bermuda Education Network, a nonprofit organisation whose mission is to support students in public schools.
Dr. Derek Tully is an author and teacher with expertise in learning styles. He recently retired after a long career in Bermuda’s public-education system and now teaches part time in the island’s private-school system.
Dr. the Hon. E. Grant Gibbons, JP, MP, is the One Bermuda Alliance’s shadow minister of education.
Michael A. Charles, JP, is general secretary of the Bermuda Union of Teachers, which represents teachers in the Bermuda public-school system.
Wendy Augustus is the former president of the Bermuda National Parent-Teachers’ Association; she sits on the Bermuda College Board of Governors.
What do you believe is the primary role of public education, to prepare our young people for higher education, to participate in the local economy or to become good citizens?
Grant: All of these are important roles for our public-education system. Education is key to opportunity regardless of whether you plan to enter the workforce after secondary school, pursue higher education or undertake additional training to enter a trade or profession.
Becky: The primary role of public education is to prepare our young people to become good citizens of the future. Being a good citizen implies that you are able to support yourself and contribute to the community, so it covers the other two.
Michael: The question suggests that one of the three options listed must be given primary importance in our education system. In fact, all three goals, preparation for advanced learning, employment readiness and citizenship must be given equal emphasis. Indeed, failure to develop all three qualities will leave any student in the Bermuda public-school system lacking in their ability to meet the demands of the global, knowledge-based economy. Take the example of a young man who is prepared to enter the workplace after high-school graduation. He must also be prepared to complete employee-required training, and he must certainly meet the basic obligations of a law-abiding citizen if he is to remain employed. Similarly, another young man moving toward higher education will also shortly face the expectations of the workplace, perhaps after graduation, but more likely during summer employment. He, too, will face the requirements of citizenship. The employment skills of accuracy, teamwork, professionalism, creative thinking and problem solving must be integral components of any educational experience. Moreover, any progressive society can continue only with the vision of individuals who consistently exceed the basic expectations for education. This next generation of leaders is now being nurtured in our homes and our schools. The goals of preparation for higher education, employment readiness and citizenship are closely integrated. They serve as the three-legged stool upon which the future health and progress of our society rests. As such, one cannot be cultivated to the exclusion of the other.
Derek: Bermuda is unique. Barbados has sugar, Trinidad has oil and Jamaica has bauxite. We have only ourselves and no natural resources except our beauty. Our tax system determines what kind of economic model we follow, hence the need for us to produce our own accountants and air-conditioning engineers. It can be done given the correct education model. The more we can prepare our own young people for jobs in everything from actuarial science to marine pilotage the less we have to rely upon imported skills; this also decreases pressure on housing, real estate and traffic congestion. That is why it is vital for us to make sure that our educational system is geared to producing the skills for our twenty-first-century economic model as well as turning out well-rounded, balanced youngsters who can adapt to rapidly changing economic circumstances. Researchers noted five years ago that children born at the end of the twentieth century will have to have five times more basic educational skills than their parents born 30 years previously.
Wendy: Generations ago, I would have said that the role of public education was to prepare our young people to participate in the local economy as well as to become good citizens. But now I would state that the broader concept for education is to ensure that there is a strong educational environment that will prepare our young people to become global citizens, and this is not only fostered within the schools but within the community.
Of those three goals, is the public-education system meeting them? Why or why not?
Grant: There are many good and committed teachers, principals and educators working within our system, as well as students who are doing well. But it’s also clear on many levels that our public system could be doing a significantly better job in preparing all of our students. Almost five years ago, the Hopkins Report revealed that the education system was “on the brink of meltdown.” Two years ago, the Bermuda First Report issued “a call to action,” stating “Education is justifiably one of the top priorities of Bermuda’s government.” It connected educational opportunity for individual Bermudians with “economic growth, fewer drains on government resources and improved social outcomes such as lower crime rates.” Due to the high dropout rate, Professor Mincy’s 2009 report on young black males highlighted the fundamental importance of keeping young black Bermudian men in school. The report identified a clear correlation between “education attainment gaps” and lower income levels and unemployment. In addition, the lack of a proper technical/vocational curriculum has meant that we’ve had to bring in large numbers of non-Bermudians to work as chefs, masons, carpenters—good jobs that could easily be filled by capable Bermudians if they had the right skills and training. The message couldn’t be clearer. But with few exceptions, the Hopkins recommendations have not been implemented and education reform has not been carried out. Yet the individual success of our students, the stability of our communities and the secure future of our country all depend on getting this done.
Becky: It’s a tricky challenge to deliver an education that equips young people for the future when we don’t know what the future holds. However, we can safely predict an increasingly competitive global job market with fewer “unskilled” jobs and a continuing need for persons qualified in financial services. The Cambridge Examination results in 2011, the first benchmark year, indicate that Bermuda’s primary- and middle-school students are average performers for English language, math and science. So there’s room for improvement. We need to bring the 20 to 3
0 percent of primary students who did not achieve a satisfactory grade in basic math and literacy to a proficient level, and we need to start thinking outside the box in terms of how we improve the teaching of STEM—science, technology, engineering and math subjects—in order to get the majority of our students well above average.
Derek: Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, recently remarked that “the German education system is operating at about the same level it did in the days of the Kaiser.” She was lamenting the number of young Germans who were walking the streets with little or no skills for the workplace. The Australian government, several years ago, commissioned an 800-page report on fundamental difficulties in the education system as it related to the underachievement of boys compared to girls at all levels of education. In North America, Time magazine called millions of bored teenagers “the dropout generation,” citing the tragedy of 16- and 17-year-olds dropping out of school or being asked to leave because they were tired or bored with a curriculum in which they had little or no interest. In Bermuda, we could do more, but so could many other jurisdictions.
Wendy: The public-education system is struggling to meet those three goals. There are a combination of challenges and frustrations, and the direction is disjointed at many levels. We have some excellent teachers and administrators, but there are others who need to make different career choices. This is on top of too many changes, too many inflated egos and leaders who are not willing to make difficult decisions.
What are your thoughts about the progress being made with respect to the Blueprint for Reform?
Grant: Progress on the reform objectives listed in the March 2010 Blueprint has been very slow, and the Government’s promise to give regular updates and “report transparently on the performance of schools, the board and the system as a whole” has not been fulfilled. Other countries, such as the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Hong Kong, have established independent education-standards boards that are separate and independent from their education ministries, and whose function is to report objectively to parents and the public on performance within the public-education system.
Becky: It’s a decent road map that needs to be more visible. Efforts are underway to tighten up licensing of educators and to introduce cutting-edge remediation strategies. The Blueprint follows on from the Hopkins Report, where a decision was made to reform the public-school system through “reprofessionalising” the staff. The “elephant in the room” is whether a more radical approach of getting rid of middle schools and the large comprehensive high schools is needed. I don’t think that is the answer. I think we’re on the right track with the current strategy, to focus on updating teaching methods, improving leadership and creating a clearer process for holding teachers accountable.
Wendy: With any blueprint, it is designed by a few and must be accepted and delivered by all. As such, the problem of ensuring that the majority of the stakeholders are all on the same page has not materialised for me as yet. We must make some bold decisions to ensure the delivery of this strategic plan, because its progress to date is mediocre at best. The Cambridge curriculum was the first bold step, but its execution is still a wait and see.
What is your view about the implementation of the Cambridge curriculum?
Grant: The adoption of the Cambridge curriculum was an important step in moving our public system to an internationally recognised curriculum. It allows us to benchmark our students’ performance against students in other countries. Teachers and principals should be commended for working very hard to introduce the Cambridge curriculum in the first year, but progress has been affected recently by the lack of specialist education officers in science, math and English.
Becky: It’s generally positive, but a clearer pathway to A levels is needed as stated above and the Bermuda School Certificate needs to be phased out. The other important thing to understand about the Cambridge curriculum is that it only gives a framework for what to teach in the subjects of math, science and English language. These subjects are being assessed under the Cambridge international examinations, and we can expect to see standards rise in these subjects. Naturally, there’s a risk that foreign languages, information technology, social studies, physical education, art and music, which are not assessed under Cambridge, may be neglected. Okay, you can’t do everything, and it’s probably right to give priority to math, English and science, but schools can identify one or two “specialist” areas to focus on. Some very successful schools have decided that they want to have a strategic focus on foreign languages, arts or STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math).
Michael: The Cambridge International Curriculum spans both primary and secondary years. From ages 5 to 14, it focuses on the core subjects of English, mathematics and science. One of the most important aspects is the fact that the curriculum is recognised by universities, educational providers and employers across the world, which will afford Bermudian students the opportunity to compete globally. Additionally, Cambridge offers professional qualifications for teachers, and we had a cohort of 21 teachers complete the Cambridge International Certificate for Teachers and Trainers with some receiving distinctions. We have been delighted that through Cambridge, teachers can refresh their approach to teaching and learning in the best interest of student achievement. It is important to note that the Cambridge International Primary Programme gives schools a framework to develop mathematics, English and science skills and knowledge in young children. It allows teachers to assess learning as students progress, with annual progression tests and analysis tools that allow teachers to identify strengths and weaknesses within subject areas. At the end of the course, an achievement test allows student progress to be recorded and benchmarked. The Cambridge Lower Secondary Programme follows the same pattern. It provides a coherent core around which schools and teachers can construct the programmes that best suit their own students. The Cambridge Checkpoint is a test to help teachers evaluate continued progress, diagnose strengths and weaknesses and assess the readiness of students to embark on international qualifications like Cambridge IGCSE, which is sat by Bermudian students at the end of their S2 year. Finally, the Cambridge International A level courses are also available to students at the senior level. The Cambridge curriculum has allowed the Bermuda public system to now be on one accord as far as scope, sequence and assessment across the island in the core areas. Our teachers have embraced the curriculum and work hard daily to ensure its implementation. You will note that from the first set of published results, Bermuda was on par with the rest of the world. We are confident that results will continue to improve as students continue to be exposed to the rigorous curriculum that Cambridge provides from the age of 5 until they matriculate to top universities across the globe.
Derek: I am answering both the Blueprint and Cambridge curriculum questions at the same time. Having a blueprint is a first step, like building a house—there has to be a basic set of plans for electrical, plumbing, heating, room design, etc. The important step after that is finding the best people to teach our children, just as we try to find the best doctors for our hospitals. Adopting the Cambridge curriculum is an enormous step in placing Bermuda firmly on the path of internationally recognised academic qualifications. The structure of the curriculum lends itself to a variety of learning and teaching styles: it is not just a “sit-down-and-learn-while-the-t
eacher-talks” type of curriculum. There are lots of opportunities within the curriculum that lend themselves to inquiry-based learning, peer and group learning, and tactual and kinesthetic learning-styles exercises, and the assessment tools themselves are designed to stretch a child’s imagination. However, all curricula eventually have to be taught by quality personnel to get quality results, and that is the key to successful teaching, whether in Bermuda, Bahamas or elsewhere.
Wendy: The introduction of the Cambridge curriculum was a good first directional step because it gives us a good educational model, but the implementation is still an unknown at this time.
A successful public-education system is vital for the future of our young people. Who needs to do a better job before it can improve?
Grant: Many elements need to work well together to achieve a first-class education system, but probably the most important is the quality of teaching at the classroom level. We need to hire the best teachers and get the best out of those teachers. We need to make a serious investment in professional development for teachers and principals, to ensure that they continue to refine their skills and learn from each other. A recent landmark study by Harvard researchers who followed more than a million American students from fourth grade until adulthood demonstrated the significant impact that just one year with an excellent teacher could have on students’ future earnings, likelihood of attending college and reduced risk of teenage pregnancy. Parents should demand better performance from our schools and not put up with less-than-effective teachers or principals.
Becky: In Bermuda, we have an excellent opportunity to improve our public-education system at every level, but it will involve challenging the status quo and making schools operate like any other business whereby managers supervise their staff and hold them accountable. A recent post on a Bermuda website forum asked an interesting question: “It’s not the principal’s fault if the teachers are not teaching properly. Do we expect the principals to teach the teachers how to teach?” Up until now, I think it’s been possible for principals to avoid grasping the nettle. Once the Cambridge curriculum results are made public, cases of failing students will come to light and the role of the principal to identify a teacher’s weaknesses and remedy deficiencies will come under scrutiny.
Michael: Public education is vital to producing a well-rounded citizen; therefore, we all need to do a better job. The Ministry needs to move with more urgency on all aspects of the reform. There is a great need to emphasise teaching and learning in our schools, but very little time is allotted in order to accomplish this. Parents play a vital role in the success of their children. Without their complete support, schools are disadvantaged in performing their role. The community must also invest in education. Private-sector sponsorship will assist schools in providing the resources that are sorely needed for the success of our students.
Wendy: We cannot isolate the job for education only to the school. In order for it to improve, there are many stakeholders and many providers; one must always recognise that public education must accept the public, therefore, their challenges are far greater than in the private educational system. We have ingrained in our psyche that it’s everyone else’s responsibility for education, but when our public education fails a community, it affects us all. So what is the solution? I believe that we have dummied down the requirements so much and have not fostered an environment for greatness within our public schools. Our sons and daughters have been impacted, and our community has lost hope for this generation. We need to hire the best teachers who know how to teach and not recruit them just because they have a degree from any university. We need to raise the bar, set high standards. Let’s support, acknowledge, encourage and reward our best teachers and deal with those who are failing our students. Let our young people know that failure is not an option. Let’s stop the constant negative press. Parents need to step up to the plate and must be responsible but also encouraged to play a pivotal role in the school beyond bake sales and fundraisers.
Parents can play a crucial role in their children’s academic lives. What could be done to encourage involved parents to remain involved, and to encourage noninvolved parents to become involved?
Grant: We need to start early, at a preschool level, to establish good parental habits and impress on parents the importance of their continuing involvement in their children’s education. In general, parents are more inclined to be involved with younger children, and this could be reinforced through workshops, strong PTAs and greater parent representation on school boards.
Becky: As a former PTA president, I can tell you without hesitation that the major challenge for the PTA is getting parents to volunteer. We conducted a survey to find out why more people were not volunteering to join the executive committee and to help out at events. The overwhelming response was that they wanted to, but they couldn’t take time out from their job. Employers could make a big contribution if they made it their business to know which of their staff have kids in the public system, which schools they attend and support their employee’s involvement on the PTA of that school.
Derek: Again, I will answer the questions about who needs to do a better job, and the role of parents, together. It is called “the will of the people.” One of Bermuda’s greatest strengths is our size—or the lack of it. It is not like countries or jurisdictions where government ministers are seen as remote or distant figures hundreds of miles away. Our Cabinet ministers live for the most part within a 15-minute drive from our own front doors; they hear directly from their constituents. I have never met one Bermudian parent who was not interested in the education of his or her children. In fact, Bermuda has one of the highest turnout ratios for parent-teacher meetings anywhere in the Western world, averaging 65 to 75 percent even on cold, miserable January evenings. Many school districts in the United States are lucky if they get 100 parents at a PTA meeting out of a school population of 1,500. Just go to any school performance in Bermuda at Christmas or Easter. It is standing room only, and the car parks are filled to overflowing. In the end, Bermudian parents are the same as Russian parents or French parents or Irish parents. They want the best for their children—the best teachers, the best principals and the best facilities. Even in this worldwide recession, our teacher-pupil ratio is still one of the lowest in the world. When I was teaching at a conference in Kentucky two months ago, one of the schools I visited had a teacher-pupil ratio of 1:32, back to where it was 40 years previously because of budget cuts, the recession, staff redundancies, etcetera.
One of the most valuable—and prestigious—additions to our education system in Bermuda has been the introduction of the “living classroom” of Spirit of Bermuda. When I was teaching at a conference in Denver, Colorado, on the topic of how children, especially boys, process new and difficult information, I showed slides of our middle-school boys working and learning on Spirit of Bermuda. The jaws of my audience dropped in astonishment. How could a tiny school district afford such a beautiful floating classroom, they asked me. Spirit of Bermuda has successfully assisted in integrating our Cambridge curriculum into a world-class learning experience: teaching math through navigation, writing via daily memoirs, science by way of the study of marine life and the unforgettable experience of exploring a seventeenth-century wreck near Castle Island. How many school districts anywhere in the world could boast of such an
innovative and original teaching and learning experience? One school principal at the conference told me that only the wealthiest families in his district could afford such an experience for their children. In Bermuda it is all part of the middle-school culture.
Wendy: Parents must keep in mind that they are the ones with the most to lose with an undereducated child, so they must be the first ones to ensure the success of their son or daughter. Beyond primary school, parents tend to slowly drop off, sometimes because the work becomes harder or the child prefers to be a little bit more independent; however, there needs to be constant oversight beyond primary school. I have found that my greatest success within school as a parent has been my connection with another parent. The PTA was a constant for me, and I found that some of my greatest allies and resources were other parents. In addition, I found that those schools that were engaged in a solid parent-school relationship and made schools much more accessible were the ones that had the greatest outcomes with their students. For those parents who were not involved, I believe that now the schools are trying their best to connect with them, but it’s difficult when someone doesn’t want to connect. You have to sometimes try your best to reach them through their child.
If you could change one thing about the public-education system, what would it be?
Grant: Inconsistent and ineffective leadership at the top of the education system.
Becky: Having raised the graduation age to 18, we need to rethink what students do in their final two years in the public-school system. The often-heard statement that school is basically custodial rather than educational harbours more than a grain of truth. My theory is that we have to get back to the academic mission of the high schools. The S3 and S4 years at Berkeley and CedarBridge could be exclusively for students pursuing AS and A-level qualifications, and separate vocational training institutions should provide an alternative, high-quality education. There is already a plan in the works to create a performing-arts school. I’d also like to see an industry-run, government-funded apprenticeships scheme linked to the Bermuda College. There are people who believe that if we focus mainly on academics in the final two years at Berkeley and CedarBridge, that would be elitist and wrong, but the opposite is true. If we provide Cambridge curriculum A levels as a clear target for students, we’re effectively sending a message that we want all our students to aspire to the same standards as students coming out of the private system. I realise that A levels are not the only internationally recognised qualification; international baccalaureate is another option. However, it is misleading to suggest that the Bermuda School Certificate offers an equivalent qualification; that view was clearly rejected by Professor David Hopkins in 2007.
Wendy: To remove the politics to make the public-education system a place without borders.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Grant: I have great faith in our ability to dramatically improve the public-education system in Bermuda. Other countries have managed to significantly raise the level of their public systems through clear plans and committed leadership. We have enough talented and committed educators in Bermuda to do the same thing here.
Becky: I set up Bermuda Education Network because I subscribe to Howard Gardner’s view that schools are increasingly anachronistic. When I looked at what was happening with gang culture in Bermuda, I was struck by Gardner’s observation: “The real world appears elsewhere: in the media, in the marketplace, and all too frequently in the demimonde of drugs, violence and crime.” One of the things that Bermuda Education Network is attempting to do is to help teenage students make a mental shift from learning in the classroom to learning that will equip them with the skills and qualifications for a future career. We need help from professionals in the community in order to accomplish this. Check out our website for opportunities to support our work with students in the public schools. The education of other people’s children is as important to your children’s future as their own education.
Michael: The negative perception by the public, including the media. This negative perception is fuelled by politicians, when they continually state that our system is in crisis. Political gamesmanship denigrates not only the system but also the students in the system. Our schools and our students are doing positive things, but one would only know if they took time to discover what’s being accomplished.
Derek: We have a lot to be thankful for here in Bermuda: low class sizes, small schools and a new internationally recognised curriculum. We also have internationally recognised learning centres right next to many of our schools: BIOS, the Maritime Museum, St. George’s Heritage Center and the National Trust properties to name a few. We should start applauding and celebrating what we have on this beautiful jewel in the Atlantic that we call Bermuda, instead of constantly criticising and complaining about every aspect of what we do. Yes, we have problems here in Bermuda, but not nearly as many as in other parts of the world. Go Bermuda!