A move to put some government schools under private sector control has been proposed despite concerns that a “business minded” approach to education could see some children pushed to the margins.
The EY report on government cost cutting, titled “Project Future,” recommends a pilot scheme to introduce privately run public schools, known as charter schools in the U.S. and academies in the U.K.
Private sector control
The report says government should take the first step of putting “three or four schools” under private sector control within the next two years.
In a one-page assessment of benefits, risks and issues of “schools concession,” the consultants suggest there is “some evidence” in the U.K. and U.S. of increases in student performance under that model. But they acknowledge the data is disputed because of a practice of “exiting” some lower performing students from such schools to raise the overall average.
The report cautions that the move could lead to a two-tier education system.
“There is a risk that the private sector will have more of a commercial, business minded approach. This approach may lead to lower performing students with higher care needs being pushed into government run schools,” it states.
The consultants add that some research has shown that charter schools, on average, do not have an academic advantage over public schools.
The section of the report titled “Detailed Analysis of Schools Concession” suggests there is a high level of interest from the private sector in Cayman in participating in “educational provision.”
But it warns, “There is a risk that the private sector does not bring sufficient educational capabilities to the running of schools.”
Difficult to evaluate
It also cautions that the success of such schools will be difficult to evaluate and suggests that without robust inspections and monitoring regimes, there could be a lack of clarity on standards.
It is not clear how, if at all, the move would save the government money. The model suggested – similar to that used in the U.K. academy system and mooted by Education Minister Tara Rivers earlier this year – involves shifting existing funding from the Ministry of Education to an accredited private sector entity. The switch would see teaching staff move to work for the private sector organization, which would effectively lease the school buildings for the duration of their contract.
The report acknowledges, “this option does not decrease overall funding,” though it suggests savings could be made in health and pension liabilities by transferring staff to the private sector. However, it points out that there would be “implementation costs” and the Department of Education Services would have to play an oversight role.
It concludes that the model should proceed on a trial basis.
“We consider that a pilot of three or four schools within two years would be prudent to ensure the commercial, financial, operational and governance models were working as intended and the capability of the private sector is proven before proceeding farther down that path,” the report states.
The proposal, part of a seven-page section on potential changes to the education system, acknowledges vast improvement in exam pass rates under the current public school system. It says the results “compare well from a regional perspective and are approaching internationally acceptable levels.”
Despite those improvements, the report points to concerns “at community level” that “a large portion of students are not achieving the literacy and numeracy standard necessary to support the needs of employers.”
It suggests moves toward private sector involvement are driven more by desire to improve results than to cut government costs. The option of charging students to attend is not discussed in the report. The typical charter school and academy model is for such schools to deliver education for free through state grants and corporate sponsorship deals.
It suggests there have already been approaches from private groups to take over the operation of some schools in the Cayman Islands.
“It is our understanding that the proposals would overlay an existing schools staff with a new management structure seeking to obtain better results than what is currently being achieved,” the report states.
Despite endorsing the plan, the consultants warn that government must proceed with caution.
“Any involvement of private sector in delivering core government schooling would need careful consideration due to potential inequities in education services, governance and controls frameworks required and the implications of poor contract management.”