By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas was yesterday said to be “limiting our economic capacity” and placing the nation’s future at risk through poor educational achievement, with just 30 per cent of high school graduates equipped to be productive citizens.
The Organisation for Responsible Governance (ORG), in a paper that identifies strategies to improve the Bahamas’ educational outcomes, warns that failure to improve the quality of workforce entrants will “jeopardise the long-term economic viability of the country”.
ORG, which has identified education reform as a priority for improving Bahamian society’s well-being, together with improved GDP growth and better governance, urges this nation to break with past policies that are no longer relevant to the modern economy.
“Citizens and stakeholders within the Bahamas broadly acknowledge that improving education outcomes is a critical ingredient to the country’s continued development and progress. Failure to do so jeopardises the long-term economic viability of the country,” ORG said in a letter accompanying the release of its study.
With a 2016 World Bank study identifying the difficulty in finding an “employable workforce” as the main obstacle to Bahamian businesses, ORG added: “There is an urgent need to accurately assess, and substantially improve, education outcomes and performance.
“Recent results on the Bahamas General Certificate of Secondary Education reveal a disturbing profile of the under-education of the Bahamian youth. This has a direct impact on the economic potential of the country. As the larger percentage of the available workforce is only semi-literate and numerate, Bahamian employers are faced with the problem of only being able to provide minimal upward mobility to their employees.
“This phenomenon seriously hinders the normal socioeconomic growth and development of the nation, limits business growth and results in limited national gross domestic product (GDP) outputs. This significant educational imbalance has created an educational gap that has led to a wealth gap that is unhealthy in any society.”
The ORG study, produced by Scott W. Hamilton of Circumventure, an “internationally-recognised expert” on education, noted that 65 per cent of the candidates that sat the 2015 BGCSE language exam in 2015 gained a grade of ‘D’ or below.
As for mathematics, some 75 per cent of the 5,200 candidates who sat the exam earned a grade of ‘D’ or below.
Mr Hamilton’s report pointed out that low academic achievement was exacerbated by the fact that the Bahamian education system was “not yet effectively preparing students” for vocational jobs, with “a majority of youth challenged to compete in the workforce”.
“Although increased literacy and academic performance has been a target of many recent efforts and some gains have been made, this has not proven sufficient to generate the results needed to increase the productivity of the majority of Bahamian students,” Mr Hamilton wrote.
Acknowledging that reform of the entire Bahamian public education system would be too mammoth and costly a task, especially given the entrenched Education and teacher trade union bureaucracies, Mr Hamilton’s study instead recommended that this nation focus on shirt and medium-term strategies to create better opportunities.
He called for the Bahamas to create “a small cadre” of charter or partnership schools to show how success could be achieved outside the standard system, along with ‘low-cost private schools’ that targeted the children of low income families.
Mr Hamilton also suggested that rather than wait until students graduate from high school, it initiate vocational training in the high schools, so Bahamians can plot career paths and gain the necessary skills at an earlier age.
Matt Aubry, ORG’s executive director, told Tribune Business that because the problems with the Bahamian educational system have been so well identified in previous studies, the organisation wanted to instead focus on options and strategies for solutions.
“Changing the whole system becomes so expensive and so unwieldy that you have very mixed results,” he told Tribune Business.
“Having to work in these areas concurrently, if you are shooting for good governance, shooting for economic growth, you need to have an education system that provides you with the workforce that is going to be available and necessary to move forward.”
Mr Aubry said the Bahamian education system was falling short in providing two-thirds of high school graduates with the basic literacy foundation they needed to become productive, upwardly mobile members of the workforce.
With just 30 per cent graduating with grades of ‘C’ and above, Mr Aubry said that barely one-third were properly equipped to get and hold a job, and many of them were likely to remain outside the Bahamas upon completing college or university education.
As a result of this ‘brain drain’, he added, the Bahamas was losing much of the group that would provide the next generation of leaders, managers and entrepreneurs.
“When you look at the rest of the kids, there’s not a lot out there to complete their productivity, so it caps our economic development,
Mr Aubry told Tribune Business of the remaining 70 percent.
“If we follow the path of developing a Bahamian workforce, we have to look at short and medium-term gains, because if we don’t, we’re leaving cards on the table..... We’ve got to figure out how to take the bulk of the youth and give them skills to be more productive. Otherwise you stack the deck against yourself.”
Mr Aubry said that while bodies such as the National Training Agency, Bahamas Technical and Vocational Institute (BTVI) and the recent apprenticeship programme, backed by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and private sector, were all doing good work, they were all attempting to tackle the problem to late - “after you get through the education system”.
Mr Hamilton’s report concluded: “Based on new advances and trends drawn from around the world, the future of the Bahamas can be improved by substantially expanding education options for Bahamian students.....
“The above reforms will undoubtedly require significant effort on the part of both private and public sectors. However, the investment of time, effort and resources toward innovation and expansion in the education system will inevitably prove one of the most reliable and valuable investments in the future of the Bahamas and its people.”