The launch of a strategic plan charting a course for the next five years within the education system was the latest development in a period of significant change for the Cayman Islands’ schools.
The shining new buildings of the Clifton Hunter High School provide the most visually striking evidence.
But it is beyond bricks and mortar, education officials argue, that the really important reform is happening.
Minister Rolston Anglin believes the strategic plan unveiled last month, and its predecessor the Education Stabilization Plan, provide the foundations on which a world class education system can be built.
The key goals of the plan, a blueprint for 2012-2017, include strengthening leadership, building world class early childhood care and education and improving student progress and achievement with particular emphasis on literacy and numeracy.
The ministry also lists safer school communities, enhancing skills for learning, life and work and engaging parents as partners in learning among its main aims.
Minister Anglin believes signs of progress are already being seen. He believes initiatives to improve standards, including new numeracy and literacy strategies, will help ensure a continuing upward curve in exam results.
He cites improved access to professional development for teachers, including literacy intervention courses and a leadership in maths programme, as developments that have already helped improve results.
The number of high-school leavers achieving five or more level 2 passes rose from 36 per cent in 2009 to 49 per cent in 2012. Results have also improved at Keystage 2 tests for primary-school leavers.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing though.
Recent results on the first year of Progress in English and Progress in Maths showed that a large number of students in every year group were behind expected national curriculum levels for their age group. And the Keystage 2 Test results, though better than previous years, would still put Cayman in the bottom 5 per cent when compared with UK schools
The ministry has argued that the PiE and PiM tests are a tool to help children progress rather than a test to provide a snapshot of national standards.
Among the other significant changes in the education system, the new Cayman Islands Further Education Centre has created an extra tier of secondary education allowing students who don’t get all the grades they need for university to retake exams. The centre also offers vocational training, including BTEC and TVet course programmes.
At the other end of the spectrum reception classes have been reintroduced in four primary schools as the ministry refocuses on early year’s education.
Meanwhile a new extended after school programme has been set up to provide students with constructive activities, from SCUBA diving to skateboarding, to do after school.
The minister hopes the principles of the plan and the changes made in the past few years would survive a change in Government. He said the strategic plan had been based on consultation with principals, teachers, students, community groups and employers and was effectively the community’s document.
“Education is everyone’s business therefore it was very important for us to work closely with schools, parents, private sector and other stakeholders in developing a five-year-plan to improve the education system.
“We captured all their feedback, which shaped the plan into what it is now. The plan was developed by our community. It captures a consensus of what stakeholders say is needed to improve the education system and raise standards.”
Ensuring the plan is properly implemented would be Minister Anglin’s main goal if he is re-elected to the post. He also highlights increased resources for in-school intervention for students that are falling behind in literacy and numeracy as a priority.
It is against the backdrop of the strategic plan that various political contenders are setting out their education platforms ahead of the election.
McKeeva Bush, who was premier for much of Minister Anglin’s tenure as minister, said the UDP would be rolling out detailed policies in the near future. But he insisted the party is focused on improving standards for Cayman’s youth.
Harking back to the decision of the previous People’s Progressive Movement government to invest in new school buildings, he said his party would focus on teaching standards over bricks and mortar.
“We have invested over nearly $200 million in buildings, which are attractive and beautiful.
“This is all very well and good but has this improved the delivery of education in a manner which is interesting, challenging and which is equipping our children for the jobs of the future?
“It would have been better to spend $100 million on the delivery of our education and providing each child in Cayman with an iPad or similar device and retraining and paying our teachers better salaries to deliver education through modern methods.
“Our future lies in our youth and the UDP will be focused on meeting these challenges, employing better and more interesting educational delivery methods, retraining and paying our teachers relevant salaries and producing a modern educational system that meets the needs of the Cayman Islands for all our children.”
Alden McLaughlin, leader of the PPM and a former education ministers, said his party would be discussing the way forward for the education system at some length ahead of the election.
He said he was unable to provide an outline of those plans by press-time.
Winston Connolly, an independent candidate endorsed by the Coalition for Cayman group, said he believed it did not make sense to start rewriting another strategic plan. He said the existing plan could work with some amendments.
“Successive governments have invested vast resources into various plans for education and I do not think that once again the plan should be tossed out. Having read the plan, I agree with it in principle that we need to give our children the tools to make them global citizens.
“Two major elements that need to be included in the plan are a focus on children with learning challenges and the adoption of international standards to measure educational performance.”
He said the plan needed measurable goals linked to global standards.
“On a global scale our children are falling behind. The grades that our young people are achieving would place them in the bottom five per cent of the United Kingdom and this does not equip our children for success.”
Mr. Connolly also argues for a greater focus on vocational training.
He added: “I also support the strengthening and promotion of existing trade school programmes such as the UCCI vocational programmes, Superior Auto’s course, and others that will provide students with technical skills in careers such as hospitality, construction, electrical, computer technician, and other jobs and industries which have traditionally had a large number of work permit holders.
“We need our students to graduate with internationally recognised qualifications and skills to allow them to enter the work force and to be self-sufficient.
“We need our children that have learning disorders and disabilities to be diagnosed and treated early. We need a relevant education system that reflects the world we live in; that creates critical thinkers; and that allows each and every child to reach their full potential.”
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