St Helena’s own teachers must be properly trained and rewarded if severe problems in the island’s schools are to be resolved, according to its new director of education.
Colin Moore spoke candidly at a public meeting about a litany of problems with the way the island’s education system had been run, stretching back many years.
But he said a year-long shortage qualified maths teachers was not a crisis – despite a “creative” appeal for members of the community to help teach the subject in their spare time.
That help will have come too late for students sitting GCSE exams in June 2012.
Mr Moore said it would take most of his three-year contract to fix deeply-entrenched failings in the education service.
He revealed that one specialist maths teacher had now been recruited, to start work in September – but only after the salary for the job was significantly raised. He hoped to announce a second appointment shortly.
He paid tribute to “talented” Prince Andrew School staff from other subject areas who had tried to cover maths lessons when the island’s only specialist teacher fell ill.
“I know I have been very reliant on the goodwill, the high levels of professionalism, to keep things on track,” he said at the 13 July meeting. “We would not have got through without the help of those staff.”
He said highly paid teachers from overseas had a duty to serve the full term of their contracts. One maths teacher failed to return from overseas leave at the start of the school year, before Mr Moore came to the island.
A speaker from the floor said: “We have had highly qualified teachers in maths. None of these have stayed their time and given the time to our children that should have been given to them.”
The director said: “That will not happen on my watch. When I was appointed I said those of us who come with high levels of remuneration have a duty to stay.
“We are not going to recruit anybody who is going to let us down.”
Parents complained that students in all year groups at Prince Andrew School had suffered from the shortage of maths teachers.
He said extra help would be given to current Year 10 students, though parents expressed doubts about whether that would make up for a year’s lost teaching in time for next year’s GCSE exams.
He also said pupils whose exam grades were lower than expected would not be penalised when applying for sixth form places.
Adult education also had to be improved to make up for years of inadequacies in the education service that were not the fault of island teachers.
“We just haven’t got the broad spread of local teachers, trained sufficiently to meet the island’s demands. Sadly, it is not a new phenomenon.
“There are already a number of young adults who are very talented, who are very bright, who haven’t got the level of qualification you would expect them to have.
“There are already a range of courses I need to put in place for young adults. I am determined we will do that, not just in maths but in areas the economy of the island needs.
“Marine technology is part of that. You can’t do marine technology without mathematics.
“We will be doing all we can to ensure they get the courses they need as they move into the next stage of training or employment.”
Sixth form courses might also be opened up to people who have already left school. “Rodney [Buckley] and I and other members of the education committee have been working on changed sixth form access so we are more flexible about how people access education on the island.”
The new specialist maths teachers will help colleagues in both primary and secondary school, as well as teaching students.
“We have to look to our own community to solve the issues,” said Mr Moore. “It is about ensuring we have a good supply of staff we are recruiting from within the island. That is the only way of getting over the attrition.
“The two teachers from overseas will have a major job in developing staff we recruit from within the community.
“I don’t think that it’s been helped over the years by the number of teachers that have been trained on the island in specialist subjects. There have only been a small number trained.
“Maths isn’t the only subject that gives me cause for concern.”
He also suggested he was willing to be tough on teachers who did not pull their weight.
“Poor teaching leads to negativity and destroys self esteem. The vast majority of your teachers do a first-class, sterling job. It is contaminated, it is destroyed, by one or two who let the situation down. That is why I acted in one situation to alleviate that.”
A lack of male teachers was also a concern. “Our young people need a balance of genders in the classroom. We have a big job to do making teaching attractive to young men.
“There is a training plan for the island. Somebody mentioned overseas training and the disruption that causes for youngsters. We have teachers who go away for months. I don’t want to see that in future.”
Improvements were needed in several areas – not just individual subjects, said the director.
“I am talking about the art and craft of teaching itself. Teaching as a profession moves on. There is quite a lot of work to do to help our teachers with a range of teaching styles.
“This is a remarkable island. We have children who are very gifted, and children with quite severe difficulties. That requires a massive range of teaching skills. They’re not there at the moment.
“Our levels of achievement need to improve.
“One of the keys is giving youngsters belief and ambition. Some of pour boys don’t have ambitions that are high enough or meet what ought to be their level of aspiration.
“They have the ability but they don’t recognise it. For some boys it is sometimes not cool to be seen as a learner. It is cool to hang around and look as if you’re not doing your homework.
“That has to be turned round. I know it can be turned round because I have done it.”
Father Dale Bowers, who chaired the public meeting, said: “We have major crisis, don’t we?”
Mr Moore disagreed. “We have significant challenges and difficulties,” he said. “A crisis is where you don’t know what to do. We have plans. Crisis is an emotive word and it doesn’t help the community.”
In response to a criticism from the floor, he agreed that St Helena Government (“a very slow beast”) took too long to bring people to the island once they had been recruited.
He said: “It took six months, believe it or not, for me to get here. I have already speeded things up.
“Maths is a shortage area all around the world. We start from a more disadvantaged position than other states looking to recruit.
“If you are trying to recruit in an international market where there are shortages, if you wait, they are going.”
Mr Moore said his contract ran for three years. “People have come in for very short spaces of time to do a job that takes longer. I was very clear this was a three-year job at the very least.
“I have been a deputy director for two places in the UK for about 16 years, one in London and one in the far West of England. I applied for this job because I knew it was a really big challenge but, I am convinced it is do-able.”
“It would be very wrong of me to stand here tonight and say it will all be okay. It is going to be a difficult job.”
“Poor teaching leads to negativitiy and destroys self esteem. That’s why we’re recrui9ting advisers – raising attainment advisers – to work with our teachers.
“The vast majority of your teachers do a first class sterling job. It is contaminated, it is destroyed, by one or two who let the situation down.
“That is why I acted in one situation to alleviate that.”