Academies no ‘magic bullet’ for Cayman schools

United Kingdom operator offers support but won’t run local schools

British academy operator ARK says it has no plans to run schools in the Cayman Islands but will offer advice to government if it decides to pursue public-private partnerships in education. 

Education Minister Tara Rivers announced earlier this month that she was investigating new ways of running schools – similar to the U.K. academy model – in an effort to revolutionize Cayman’s education system. 

She revealed few details but said she was planning a review of the system that would include consideration of public schools being managed by private boards of governors with a remit to raise standards. 

Susannah Hares, international director of ARK – which stands for Absolute Return for Kids – said Friday that ARK would provide support and advice to government but is not interested in running schools in the Cayman Islands. 

ARK runs several schools, known as academies, in the poorest districts in the U.K. and is currently expanding into Uganda and India.  

Ms. Rivers and a delegation from the Ministry of Education visited an academy run by ARK in London earlier this year.  

The Coalition for Cayman, which endorsed Ms. Rivers’s candidacy in the last election, has been pushing for government to follow the ARK blueprint in public schools. 

Ms. Hares told the Cayman Compass that ARK has no current plans to be directly involved in any project in Cayman.  

“When the delegation visited, we offered advice and information on academies. We personally don’t have any plans to open or operate schools in Cayman,” she said. “We will do anything we can to help, but operating schools is a long-term commitment and we are looking at other parts of the world right now.” 

She said ARK is happy to offer advice on the academy system as a whole.  

She believes the system of publicly funded, privately operated schools could work in Cayman, but warns it is no “magic bullet” to fix education. 

ARK is one of the more successful nonprofit, private sector organizations running academies in the U.K. It focuses primarily on taking over under-performing schools in disadvantaged areas and improving results.  

“We can advise on the whole system, not just ARK’s model,” said Ms. Hares. “ARK has been able to operate effectively because we have a government that funds academies to the same level as state schools. We have Ofsted (inspections unit) and standardized tests that all academies are required to use.” 

She said academy schools are non-selective, and attendance at ARK’s schools is based on geographic catchment areas. 

“Fixing education is really complex and no country has the perfect system,” she said. “Any idea that academies will be a magic bullet for all Cayman’s problems will result in expectations not being met. 

“There have been successes and failures in England. What it has done is brought new players and new ideas to the system. 

“The schools that ARK takes over are schools that have been failing for a long time, where local authorities have tried and things have not worked. In those circumstances, fresh innovations can make a difference.” 

All academies are required to meet National Curriculum core subject requirements and are subject to inspections, but school management has relative autonomy beyond that.  

There are numerous private sector organizations that run academies with varying degrees of emphasis and success.  

ARK focuses on disadvantaged areas with a remit to raise results, partially through a longer school day and a stronger focus on English and mathematics. 

“That is a really important part of what we do. If children are leaving primary school without a basic grasp of literacy and numeracy, it becomes difficult later in life,” Ms. Hares said. “The longer school day is really because when you are working with children from challenging backgrounds, it takes more time.” 

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