Rajai Denbrook Column: Parish Primary Schools

April 5, 2022 | 2 Comments

Rajai Denbrook Bermuda April 2022[Opinion column written by Rajai Denbrook]

Subsequent to the announcement that the island’s birthrate continues to show a downward trend, the Minister of Education took the opportunity to remind the public that declining enrolment was one factor cited in the decision to introduce Parish Primary Schools, and that the vision was “still happening” with a phased roll-out beginning 2023. This was followed by updates on the History and Legacy Working Group and the project management office that will oversee the Parish Primary School transition. Since then, Francis Patton and Purvis Primary have been identified as the first schools to transition to the new model.

The rationale for Parish Primary Schools is sound. A declining birthrate, an inequitable distribution of resources across schools, and ageing infrastructure are cited as contributing factors. Many schools are remnants of a racially segregated Bermuda.

One school per parish could mean more resources for each school. 21st-Century instructional spaces and pedagogy have the potential to fundamentally evolve the primary school experience. The introduction of restorative practices could not just be transformative for schools, but for their communities too. Closed schools present the opportunity for alternate uses.

Anyone with a vested interest in education would agree with the above in theory, however, the execution of the Parish Primary vision thus far has undermined relationships with those who’ll be most affected, and it must be questioned whether the Ministry has been able to cultivate the buy-in and cohesion that is essential to the success of this reform. Failing to do so runs the risk of forcing people into a change they do not want which cannot be allowed for reform of this scale and nuance.

To many, consultation has seemed more of a formality than a sincere exercise in engagement and consensus-building. No comprehensive plan has been shared for an intensely ambitious vision that will affect every facet of education delivery. Notably, the Parish Primary vision, and school closures therein, was not included in the Government’s 2020 election platform as an education reform strategy, thus it is a change the electorate did not vote for and was not expecting.

The consultation process did not give stakeholders sufficient opportunity to be a part of designing a holistic primary school vision that required school closures. The Ministry had already identified which schools would be closed based on study factors they had pre-determined. A position had been taken, and the public was given the opportunity to shift that position, and if unsuccessful, the vision would proceed as proposed. This does not, and did not, generate the kind of shared ownership true consultation strives for. Moreover, consultation was advanced during the height of the pandemic when sufficient focus could not be reasonably expected from parents and the wider community.

In correspondence to parents, it’s said that “Francis Patton Primary and Purvis Primary will embrace the models and features of Parish Primary Schools, as determined through an extensive consultation process which concluded in July 2021”. This is a misrepresentation as no specifics on “models and features” have been determined outside of which schools will close. Additionally, Parish Primary “consultation” concluded 12th March 2021.

Though the Ministry can rightfully claim that work was done to share and solicit feedback on the Parish Primary vision, evidenced by the dense policy documents accessible on the Ministry’s website, it must be considered whether this was true consultation that has resulted in the level of support and awareness reform of this scale requires, and if not, whether the Ministry is content to advance primary school reform without that support, which it shouldn’t be.

To advance this level of profound change without the necessary buy-in will further entrench the paternalistic dynamic that already exists between the Ministry and stakeholders, where it would once again be acting “on” them as opposed to “with” them. This is an inherently condescending relationship that falls into antiquated approaches to governance that are not conducive to reform that’s meant to be progressive in nature.

It must be noted that recruitment has begun for a new school transformation team cohort for Parish Primary Schools where stakeholders will have a say, however, this is being done after the fact when schools have already been identified for closure through what many feel was an insincere process. As a result, who will be inspired to actively participate in a change they do not support?

Education reform is a profound opportunity for the Ministry of Education to reset its relationship with its service-users, staff and the electorate generally. Unanimous buy-in is obviously not possible, however, diminishing resistance to the Parish Primary vision as not much more than “strong feelings” or a lack of vision is disingenuous and dismissive. Hierarchical dynamics of “we’re doing this for you whether you like it or not” need to be proactively superseded, which, at present, they are not. And though this can be confused for strong leadership, it shouldn’t be.

To be transparent, I have children who attend a school that’s slated for closure. At this school, academically, they’re both performing above grade level in multiple areas. Socially/emotionally, they could not be more supported or affirmed. All staff are trained in restorative practices, and were trained before the Parish Primary School vision was released. My children are experiencing an ideal blend of home, school, and community that’s allowing them to thrive holistically. At present they’re going to lose this, and nothing is available to note what they’re experience will become. The goal is that it will be equal or better, and that all students will have this experience, however, insufficient information is available to demonstrate this in practical terms.

We all have a shared goal: a public education system that allows students to thrive during and after their schooling. This can only occur if all concerned are moving towards this goal together. A top-down approach to primary school reform will undermine its success. Dissenting opinions cannot be framed dismissively.

Though it may be satisfied with what it considers a reasonable level of engagement and the process taken thus far, the Ministry of Education must endeavor to ensure this is translating into the sense of ownership and buy-in that is essential to this level of change, if not, they run the risk of further alienating stakeholders and falling into old institutional habits that will only serve to breed familiar outcomes and render reform cosmetic.

- Rajai Denbrook.

Note:

An earlier version of this writing stated that Harrington Sound Primary was due to close. This has since been corrected as Harrington Sound Primary has been designated the primary school for Smith’s Parish. Mr Denbrook offers his apologies. 

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Comments (2)

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  1. Joe Bloggs says:

    “Failing to do so runs the risk of forcing people into a change they do not want which cannot be allowed for reform of this scale and nuance.”

    But that is exactly what happened with Cedarbridge Academy and the new Berkley Institute, they were foisted upon us even though the majority of Bermudian did not want them.

  2. Newton Adcock says:

    Rajai,

    you have certainly stated the case why there should be further consultation. However, it seems as if the ministry did not want ‘too much consultation’, because there would be too much descension for them to deal with.
    As for leadership, it’s most unfortunate that many ministers are following the lead of our premier, dictatorship.
    This might sound very harsh, however, it seems that it is becoming ‘commonplace’.
    I wish it were not true, and I hope I can be more positive, and quite wrong, very shortly, though this tend is yet to be seen to even change slightly, or even slowly.
    Thanks very much for your time and efforts, and wishing you, and our educational system ‘all the best.
    A friend of yours through W.A.

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