Minister ‘El’ James is a big man with an even bigger job that he has to do while lugging a gigantic anchor. I have often written about the shortcomings of Bermuda’s public education system. I have been consistently critical and have generally argued that there is only one real solution.

I suspect that ‘Big El’ has arrived at the same conclusion. And that’s where the big man’s anchor starts digging in and yukking him back.

Public flight from public education seems to have settled down. In 2010, there might even be marginal growth in public school numbers. But this marginal growth may well be driven more by generally reducing household incomes and a slowing economy than by any discernible rise in educational standards in the public school system.

Consistently, I have said, shown, and demonstrated that the public education system, compared to the existing private school system, is overstaffed and far more expensive. The public system operates with an overall administrative staff/teacher ratio of ONE teacher or staff person to every FIVE students. (I wrote a four-part series on this.)

That ratio applies to the public system and covers four-year-old pre-schoolers up to on-the-verge of adulthood 18-year-old S4’s. This public system, in 2010, is costing about $21,000 PER STUDENT. At last report it was only catering to about 5,800 students.

In the expensive private school system, in 2010, the most expensive private school now costs just under $19,000 a year. But the private system averages $16,000 a year. The private school system caters, at last report, to about 3,700 students from P1 to S4 equivalent. Only Somersfield Academy takes in pre-schoolers. The overall private system operates with an overall administrative staff/teacher ratio of ONE teacher or staff person to every EIGHT students.

So if each system only had 800 students, the private system would use 100 teachers and staff. For the same 800 students, the public system uses 160 teachers and staff. With this difference in ratio, the private system, using fewer teachers and staff, routinely gets far better results at GCSE and IB and AP and CIE and other end-of-high school examinations or equivalents.

This creates the Minister’s anchor. He has an overly expensive system (costs an extra $5,000 per student); accompanied by an overstaffed system (for every 100 students there are eight extra people in the form of staff/teachers); and a system that still does not yet achieve the scholastic standards of the private system.

The Minister wants to tackle the problem. He says he will close schools and consolidate students into fewer school buildings. That makes sense. But, for Bermuda, it is radical change and it will cost jobs.

School closures

The fact that in the Department of Education, some jobs are likely to be lost, adds a one ton weight to the Minister’s anchor. The fact that he wants to shut down some schools — clearly an obvious and unavoidable choice —creates a second one ton weight to that anchor.

So the Big Man is now dragging a two-ton anchor.

Educational standards must be raised. That means that some less effective teachers must be let go. That’s the third ton added.

Finally, the state of Bermuda’s national finances dictates that — sooner or later, with sooner being far better — there must be a reduction in government spending. This means that the Big Man must really cut expenditure on Public Education while improving the quality of delivery of that education. That creates the fourth ton.

So now the Big Man stands, almost alone, chained to a four-ton anchor, facing a public that wants improvements in the public education system; an Education Ministry that wants to preserve jobs; a public that will selfishly object to the school that is nearest being closed — which means that every school closure will meet vigorous local opposition; and a government financial state that will arbitrarily reduce his spending power thus forcing spending cuts on him anyhow.

I pity the Big Man. But I also support the Big Man. ‘Big El’ — dig in and pull!