By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The 2018 decline in already-troubling education standards "is a national disaster" for Bahamian economic growth and employment prospects, governance reformers warned yesterday.
Robert Myers, the Organisation for Responsible Governance's (ORG) principal, told Tribune Business that The Bahamas can no longer afford to "sugar coat" and "band aid" poor educational achievement that has resulted in 70 percent of high school leavers graduating with poor to non-existent literacy and numeracy skills.
He said 2018 BGCSE results, which revealed a marginally worse performance than the prior year, provided another reminder of how poor workforce productivity continued to prevent the Bahamian economy from fulfilling its true potential.
Mr Myers, in particular, focused on the number of graduates obtaining a "C" grade or better in each of English Language, Mathematics and a science as the best indicator of how strong high school leavers are in the "core skills" - literacy and numeracy.
This number fell from 588 in 2014 to 570 the following year, before registering a slight increase to 574 in 2016. The latter year, however, seems to have proven a blip as the number of graduates obtaining a "C" in each of those three subjects fell further to 521 in 2017 before dropping again to 490 this year.
The ORG principal said this represented a near-17 percent, or almost 100-strong, decline over the five-year period, and suggested that an "already significant problem" with the education system's output was becoming worse.
"It's the wrong way. It's not going in the right direction," he told Tribune Business. "These are core subjects, and on these three we're seeing significant slippage. It's already a significant problem, and we've identified it as a major growth problem for GDP.
"GDP can only be improved by higher productivity and a more productive workforce, increased foreign direct investment (FDI) or mechanisation, automation and technology. A more productive workforce comes from a more educated workforce.
"If 70 percent of graduating students have a 'D-' or lower it makes it harder for the private sector to train that workforce. You're struggling with low literacy and numeracy skills. It's hard to get upward mobility; it's harder for the private sector to grow their business and get upward mobility out of their workforce."
Bahamian GDP growth has averaged less than one percent for the past decade, but is forecast to receive a boost from Baha Mar's completion and opening that will take this year's expansion beyond two percent.
That, though, was before the 12 percent VAT hike and other budget-related tax increases, and Mr Myers urged the Ministry of Education to provide more detail on the BGCSE and BJC exam performance to enable better understanding of whether the Bahamas is making progress in fixing its educational woes.
"This is not time for sugar coating things," he told Tribune Business of the 2018 results. "You have more people taking it, but that's because you have population growth. We've got to take off the band aids and fix this country.
"Sugar coating is not what the country needs. We've had smoke blown up our backsides for 40 years. It's time to roll-up our sleeves and do some work. You can't expect under-educated people to drive business; it's hard enough for them to make a living.
"When you have 70 percent of the workforce under-educated, it's not surprising GDP growth is averaging below 1 percent..... We have a big growth problem, a massive problem. It's a national disaster. Apart from the cost and ease of doing business, the education factor and skills gap is the biggest problem this country has. Businesses can't find quality people to grow."
ORG is itself moving to change this situation through its hosting, in conjunction with the Ministry of Labour, or a National Symposium on Skills Development on September 17 at the Gladstone Road-based National Training Agency (NTA).
The advocacy group, in documents promoting the conference, reiterated: "It is widely recognised among the key sectors that a significant gap exists between the current and future labour needs in The Bahamas and the skills of the local workforce.
"Bahamian employers regularly struggle to find sufficient staff with the necessary technical and soft skills. The long-standing negative impact of this disparity has critically limited growth of the private sector and, subsequently, the economic development of the nation. Understanding and addressing this skills gap must be given immediate priority to avoid the risk of further economic deterioration.
"Additionally, reduction of the skills gap in The Bahamas will provide a critical and necessary step toward improving ease of doing business; the expansion of the private sector; and growth of The Bahamas' Gross Domestic Product."
Mr Myers yesterday said the symposium will focus "on the whole gamut of skills to say: 'Where are these gaps?" Besides the core skills of literacy and numeracy, the event will also analyse so-called "soft skills" such as communications and conflict resolution, plus industry-specific skills.
The findings. he added, would enable the creation of programmes to address these "gaps" and improve employment prospects, competitiveness and employability among the Bahamian workforce.
Mr Myers said ORG's analysis of the 2016 BGCSE results had shown around 42 percent and 38 percent of graduating students, respectively, had "good to fair competencies" in literacy and numeracy. Those with "low" and "no" capacity numbered around 35-36 percent and 15 percent, respectively.
He explained, though, that the percentage leaving with "low to no" literacy and numeracy capacity increased to 70 percent when high school "drop outs" were included in the analysis. Mr Myers said the latter category were not included in the Ministry of Education's figures, but pointed to the 5,000-person difference between the 11,000 who sat BJCs and 6,000 who took BGCSEs.
"What we're worried about is the 70 percent failing literacy and numeracy," he told Tribune Business. "What we're not seeing is the drop outs; the number that flunk out... There's some 5,000 people that don't make it through high school.
"We don't know what skill levels they have. That's where the 70 percent comes from. They're still out there, sitting on the walls and doing God knows what. That's why we have such high 30 percent unemployment among the youth."
Mr Myers said this week's Ministry of Education release on the 2018 exam results was "opaque", and more data was needed to provide a greater insight in student achievement and the quality of education outcomes.
Warning against drawing final conclusions based on the release, he added that ORG was working with the Ministry of Education to obtain more complete data that was "constructive" and "usable".
"The Ministry of Education is working to provide more specific and detailed data," Mr Myers said.