In 2005, a coalition of private-sector organizations warned that The Bahamas’ existing education crisis would have a serious detrimental impact on the national economy by the year 2020 if immediate steps were not taken to put in place reforms.
Sadly, 2020 did not meet us in a position where we could celebrate the results of key reforms, or even point to such changes. It met us in a position where school closures for in-person learning triggered by a once-in-a-century pandemic meant that the education crisis became even more pronounced with previously unforeseen challenges and unimaginable consequences.
Though corporate Bahamas stepped up and donated devices for online learning in an effort to put a device in the hand of every student, the lack of internet services and even electricity supply for some, meant that those students are being left behind.
Last month, Director of Education Marcellus Taylor reported that 30 percent of public school students were not logging on for online classes.
The full implication of that has not yet unfolded.
On Monday, Minister of Education Glenys Hanna-Martin announced that face-to-face instruction in public schools will resume in the second week in January.
While public schools had implemented a hybrid learning model earlier this year, the raging Delta variant at the start of the Fall term meant that schools reopened to virtual learning only.
Some private schools, meanwhile, have spent the entire semester in-person or using the hybrid structure, where students attend school in-person some days of the week and do so online on other days thereby eliminating the need for the entire school population to be in-person at the same time.
It could take some time for us to see the consequences of thousands of the nation’s students missing out on in-person instruction, with many not receiving any learning at all.
The problem is not unique to The Bahamas.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says pre-primary school closures in 2020 may cost today’s young children US$1.6 trillion in lost earnings over their lifetimes.
Children in middle-income countries will be most greatly affected. However, most low and middle-income countries are leaving pre-primary education out of their responses to COVID-19, according to UNICEF.
In a recent oped, published in The Nassau Guardian, Lilia Burunciuc, the World Bank country director for the Caribbean, noted that limited access to the internet, books, proper spaces to work, and guidance from parents and teachers are likely to lead to children and youth not attaining their full human development potential.
Even before the pandemic, many Caribbean countries faced significant human capital deficits, Burunciuc observed.
On average, a child born in the Caribbean can expect to attain only 55 percent of their full productive potential, according to the World Bank’s 2020 Human Capital Index.
Added to long existing realities for nations like The Bahamas, the dilemma posed by the COVID-19 pandemic has serious implications for the nation’s future productivity.
In its 2005 report titled “Bahamian Youth: The Untapped Resource”, the coalition of private sector groups said, “A general low level of academic achievement has individual, national and international consequences.”
The coalition included the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce; the Bahamas Employers Confederation; the National Congress of Trade Unions; the Bahamas Hotel Association; the Bahamas Hotel Catering and Allied Workers Union; the Bahamas Hotel Employers Association; and the Nassau Tourism and Development Board.
Together, they engaged in an almost two-year-long analysis.
Frank Comito, who at the time was executive vice president of the Bahamas Hotel Association, said the consequences of not addressing the existing crisis would be dire.
“Twenty years down the line, we could find ourselves in a very uncompetitive situation where our cost of living would be incredibly high and our productivity would be incredibly low and the amount of dollars circulating through the economy because of that would be minimized and it could have severe consequences not only on every individual in The Bahamas, but certainly on government revenues and support services and everything else,” Comito warned.
The report stated that while the education department had a good testing system, the test scores suggested significant deficiencies.
The Ministry of Education reported a national average of D in 2005 among students who took the Bahamas General Certificate of Secondary Education (BGCSE) exams.
In 2004, 5,741 students wrote the exams, but only 718, or 12.5 percent, earned a minimum C grade average in five subjects.
Fast forward to 2019 – 6,453 students sat the national exam; 760 students or 11.7 percent got a C or above in five subjects.
In 2021, only 10.66 percent or 550 of the 5,159 candidates who sat the BGCSEs received a C or better in at least five subjects.
The 2005 report stated that there was a “serious” lack of graduates prepared to enter college.
The coalition also said in that report that its analysis suggested that the education crisis in The Bahamas has deep roots.
Addressing a press conference in 2005, the late J. Barrie Farrington, at the time president of the Bahamas Hotel Employers Association, said local businesspeople were becoming increasingly concerned about the education level of job candidates, many of whom were barely literate.
One Bahamian executive reportedly found that job candidates could not write a simple paragraph with clear sentences. Another reported that applicants were doing poorly on aptitude tests.
Sadly, not much seems to have changed.
The skills gap in The Bahamas has grown worse in recent years, Bahamas Technical and Vocational Institute (BTVI) President Dr. Robert W. Robertson said during the “Skills Gap Town Hall 2020”.
Robertson made the comments following the release of results of a workforce survey carried out by the institution.
The survey showed that a lack of skills among potential employees remained a “significant challenge in hiring” for a large number of businesses on New Providence, as 65.48 percent of 113 businesses surveyed at the time cited “literacy and numeracy skills of candidates” as the major challenge.
Applicants being “under-qualified”, in addition to lacking soft skills, technical skills and relevant experience, were further identified as the top factors contributing to hiring challenges.
Referring to a 2012 Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) survey titled “In Pursuit of Employable Skills”, which outlined “the most frequently-cited difficulty in hiring new staff was” under-qualification at 34 percent, followed by lack of experience at 29 percent and lack of soft skills at 28 percent, Robertson said BTVI’s survey showed there had been little progress in the last near decade.
“So, the skills gap basically shows that there is a series of problems. One of them is around literacy and numeracy, and so in excess of 60 percent of respondents suggest this is a serious issue,” Robertson said.
In a 2020 interview with National Review, Comito, CEO and director general for the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, said, “When last in The Bahamas, when last I was living there four and half years ago, we were continuing to have challenges.
“We had not fully advanced initiatives that would change and shift things. The world is changing rapidly and the premise when we worked on the report still remains, that we’ve got to change and adapt rapidly, as well.”
He noted that because The Bahamas is such a high cost destination, “it means you have to be more productive; you have to apply a greater sense of skills and ingenuity to succeed”.
“And those are challenges that remain for the destination,” Comito observed at the time.
“There’s no getting around that and the fundamental importance of people having critical thinking skills, being more analytical in their thinking, able to problem solve, able to deal with crisis management situations, with anger management, those kinds of things; all of those remain. I don’t think we’ve made enough progress that way based on what I can see.”
Much of what the coalition observed in 2005 about addressing our education crisis is still true today, but with the added consideration of the pandemic and the impact it has had, and is still having, on an already bad situation.
“Education reform will be successful only with a sustained commitment of every element of society, every stakeholder and every political party,” the 2005 report read. “Education reform must stand high on the national list of priorities over the long haul.”
Farrington, at the time, called the comprehensive document a “good news, bad news” report, noting that it pointed to certain strategies that can help to address the education crisis.
“The responsibilities of teachers, parents and students must be clear; and non-compliance must have real consequences,” the report read. “Penalties for parents similar to those associated with the compulsory school attendance would be an appropriate place to start.”
Before his recent passing, Farrington had continued to lament our lack of meaningful progress on effecting urgently needed reforms.
With COVID-19 still a critical threat to our way of life, the new administration is understandably seeking to bring the pandemic under control – numbers in recent weeks have been heading in the right direction both in terms of cases and the vaccination rate.
Attention is also being placed on attempting to stabilize finances and grow the national economy, officials say.
Without a recognition and assessment of the impact the pandemic is having on our already urgent education crisis, and sustained focused attention on minimizing the fallout, the threat to our way of life and our collective future would be even more grave than the authors of the nearly two-decades old coalition report on the state of education could ever have fathomed.