Education Minister Randy Horton yesterday promised a sweeping overhaul of the public education system.

The former principal said graduation rates are unacceptable especially in an economy that requires highly skilled workers.

He announced plans to carry out an independent review of the whole system by May so that changes can be put in place at the start of the new school year in September.

Mr. Horton said a review is necessary to counter all-round poor performance and low high graduation rates, which he revealed were 38 per cent last year.

Graduation numbers for last year, which were released for the first time yesterday, are lower than in past years, but comparisons are meaningless, ministry officials said yesterday, because the rate has been calculated in a different way.

No matter how they are arrived at, Mr. Horton said: "The latest graduation rates for Bermuda's senior school students make for grim reading. I know that Bermudians like to play the blame game- but this is counterproductive. Some may lay the blame for the overall poor results at the feet of the Ministry, or principals, or teachers, or parents, or the students themselves. Others may attribute the unsatisfactory results to inadequate facilities or a lack of learning materials.

"Whatever the causes, it is of paramount importance that we move forward and work together in order to remedy the situation"

Mr. Horton also said the Education Ministry could not say where the students who did not graduate ended up because students who left the system were not being tracked

Some may have transferred to private schools in Bermuda or overseas, or dropped out.

"We now accurately track where a student comes from when they enter the school system," he said. "We also accurately track students when they exit the system."

'Unacceptably low'

The graduation rates for 2006 found that 38 per cent of students who entered senior schools four years earlier graduated on time June 2006. That's an improvement over the previous year when 30 per cent graduated on time. In 2004, the rate was 28 per cent.

The graduation rates were higher for students who are still in school at the start of their fourth and final year. Of students in this category, 48 per cent graduated on time, an increase over 43 per cent graduating in 2005 and 38 per cent graduating in June 2004.

Mr. Horton said: "These rates may be higher, but the numbers are still unacceptably low. The failure of half of the students who commence the S4 years is a totally unacceptable situation. The trend must be reversed."

News of the review, which requires Cabinet approval, was welcomed by the president of the Chamber of Commerce and the Bermuda Union of Teachers, although a spat has broken out between the Ministry and the Association of School Principals, which released a statement calling for a Board of Inquiry.

Chamber president Peter Everson said: "The business community is engaged with various arms of the Government to understand the issues faced by the public school system and the actions needed to bring about the improvements that everyone in Bermuda agrees are essential."

He also said: "If we are asked to contribute time and effort and comment we will."

BUT general secretary Michael Charles said: "This is a good start. There is an admission that something is wrong and we have to do something."