Goodbye social promotion in education

Are Caymanian school graduates readily capable of filling key positions in the new and evolving Caymanian society?

Ministrys hand´┐Żpicked team of reform gurus.

Ministrys handpicked team of reform gurus.

How responsive is the education system to the needs of the Caymanian whose world view is no longer limited to Cayman but expanded to incorporate the world?

These were the tough questions top education experts grappled with at a recent Education Conference.

Chaired by the Ministry of Education’s Strategic Development Advisor Gareth Long, the conference featured keynote speakers Stephen Heppell, Prakash Nair and Robert Gregory, the trio forming the Ministry’s hand-picked team of reform gurus.

What the close to 800 delegates heard regarding Cayman’s future prospects was that creating successful Caymanians of tomorrow means completely revamping the way Cayman schools work today.

Government has already committed to reforming the Cayman education infrastructure, which includes reconfiguring existing schools like George Hicks and building three new high schools.

The Ministry has also begun to implement a new administrative model, which puts the welfare of students at the centre.

Engaging parents and the community, aggressively pursuing literacy, increasing teacher accountability and demystifying education are steps already being taken.

But what may have the most profound and long lasting effect on Cayman is a radical rethinking of what is actually taking place in the classroom.

Those in the Ministry say that by developing a refreshed high school curriculum that meets international standards and rethinking the ways it can be taught, Cayman’s schools will be far better equipped to produce fully-engaged members of 21st Century society.

The decision is timely, as the failures of the current system have come to a crescendo, frustrating parents, teachers and potential employers.

At the 2005 conference the problems and their consequences were laid bare by key business stakeholders like Butterfield Bank President Connor O’Dea.

‘Presently, the educational achievement level of most school leavers is inadequate for the needs of business, and without investment, the labour skill force base may be obsolete by 2010,’ he said then.

This contention is backed by statistics that show that in 2006 only 30 per cent of the 241 John Gray year 12 students writing external examinations reached the internationally-recognized standard of five top-level marks and that was an increase of six per cent over 2005.

Education Minister Alden McLaughlin was the first to admit the connection between Cayman’s failed education system and wasted futures.

‘The system that we currently have, while it has considerable strengths, has increasingly failed those who do not succeed in a standard classroom environment,’ he said.

With a school system that has been unable to address Cayman’s tremendous technical and vocational skill shortage, Caymanians are being left out of their own economic successes.

There’s clearly a problem, but there’s also hope.

‘The work we are conducting at this conference and through these educational reforms is going to create empowered, self-sufficient, motivated and capable individuals,’ said Mr. McLaughlin.

During the day’s discussions, a major theme that emerged was the need for a shift away from the traditional schooling model of open access and social promotion.

‘There is a need to change what we are doing to use technical and vocational education to allow more students to achieve success by playing to their strengths and interests while meeting Cayman’s HR needs,’ said Mr. Long.

‘We will only do this by expanding the range of teaching and learning styles.’

Professor Heppell outlined some of the ways students who haven’t managed to fit the traditional schooling model are being empowered to achieve, often at remarkable levels.

As an example of an alternate approach that is working, he cited the programme.

The success of the programme was illustrated when the majority of the 2,500 students enrolled achieved higher exam results than the UK national average.

What makes it so astonishing is that these students were excluded from regular schools because of their perceived or real incompatibility and took their courses via computer from home.

The ability to tap into the student’s academic abilities seems simple: they had an opportunity to develop their self-esteem and be reintroduced to learning through a virtual community and through the support of mentors, buddies, and experts.

Mr. Heppell urged teachers to be innovators, using available and emerging technology tools to tap into the spirit of learning, rather than waiting for academic reports advocating new theories to be published.

‘When it comes to teaching, the big challenge facing us is being brave enough to keep up with the world that’s changing around us, and showing the rest of the world and the region what we can achieve,’ he said.

And he is confident it is going to happen in Cayman.

He reminded attendees that school systems based on the vast learning factories of today are only a product of the past 50 years and should not be seen as set in stone for either historical or cultural reasons.

This thinking has already been taken to heart in Cayman, where George Hicks High School, serving 11 to 14 year olds, was divided into four distinct schools within a school.

The Ministry will take the process even further with the construction of three new high schools serving 11-to-17 year olds, set to open in September 2008.

Mr. Heppell said Cayman’s small size means it will be relatively easy to implement the proposed changes. He found it particularly meaningful that teachers have a voice, which can involve them in the reform process instead of being told what to do in a vacuum.

‘But to be successful, Cayman must also strengthen its social confidence that says, ‘we know who we are and we like who we are’ – that way, school reform is not a social engineering project but rather a way of better expressing identity.’

That theme of using education to reinforce Caymanian identity to take advantage of economic opportunities resonated throughout the day.

Robert Gregory, executive director of HEART, Jamaica’s National Training Agency, spoke about the connection between nation-building and extending education and skills training.

‘The effects and requirements of a globalised society and a globalised economy is that the economic vitality of a nation depends on the vitality and competence of its workers,’ he said.

‘It is critical to maintain a world-class education system that prepares the workforce with the skills needed to add value to a nation’s productivity and performance,’ he said.

This mindset forms the major planks, in fact, of CARICOM’s economic platform.

‘In the Caribbean, attitudes about working in the local low-skill, low-value labour market have historically been very different from those in places like the United States, where people have a reasonable expectation of succeeding through hard work,’ he said.

Social advancement was seen as only possible through emigration.

In the face of low cost high volume production from places like China and low cost high quality services from powerhouses like India, Mr. Gregory said comparative advantage is now irrelevant.

He remarked that it is culture, not labour, that now distinguishes countries from each other in the knowledge-based global economy.

‘What we must now be thinking about is competitive advantage, meaning a deliberately-created Caribbean socio-economic state resulting from the culture, learning, creativity, and innovation of its people,’ he said.

His own vocational training organization’s motto is ‘education makes you trainable, and training makes you employable,’ to which he added a third element: and attitude keeps you employed.

He said making the link between schooling and work skills is a gap that needs filling to avoid losing the best and the brightest to migration.

He also maintained that many skills today have a relatively short shelf life, which means they need to be upgraded every few years anyway.

‘We need to increase access, for all people, whether academically minded or not, to training that can lead to vocational certification as well as academic certification.

‘Today’s economic development is reliant on a global worker pool. Quality of education will determine whether new and existing businesses will consider further investments in the Cayman economy,’ he warned.

He urged a change in mindset that every child can learn and that each child must learn.

That means figuring out the best way to teach each and every child in every class to enable them to reach their fullest potential.

And this thinking extends to those already past school age who may have missed the academic boat but who are eager to learn and join the workforce as productive and engaged citizens.

Citing the GED High-school equivalency certification in the United States, he said similar programmes encourage a culture of lifelong learning – by changing how knowledge is defined.

‘Recognizing that there is a wider variety of ways to gain skills, it matters little about where or how you know something, it’s what you know that gets you ahead,’ he said.

Competency based education and training has already attracted over 100,000 Jamaicans looking for a way to demonstrate their abilities and the Irish economy experienced a dramatic turnaround with the implementation of similar measures.

‘Education must be aligned with development strategies. It must offer relevant preparation for the global workforce, provide a high-skill, high-value skills set, and be accessible to all ages,’ he said.

It’s all a change of mindset: when someone approaches their job as a professional with the knowledge and the skills to do it well and with pride, their attitude changes and it’s reflected in success.

‘We may see it as brainwashing, but when Americans are told they can do anything all the time from their early childhood, it has results. We need to support our kids and everyone in society to show them they can have value,’ he said.

It’s an attitude that may take a little time to sink in, but the changes are already under way and a task force on curriculum reforms will be delivering its report to the Ministry shortly.

But while what was being proposed may seem radical, the air at the conference was one of confidence.

Essential factors are already in place: strong political will from the Minister and his staff accompanied by an enthusiastic civil service team led by Education Chief Officer Angela Martins possessing a commitment to long-term vision and knowledge management.

With his own positive attitude, Mr. McLaughlin did not have difficulty encouraging the teachers present to embrace the changes as the only way forward.

‘If Cayman is going to survive, let alone thrive, we have got to take this step,’ he said. ‘Our curriculum is not designed for people who learn differently; we have to fix it, and fix it we will. The future prosperity and success of this nation rests on the development of our human capital.’

From the nods of approval that were well in evidence, it looks like Cayman is in for some interesting times.