Chief Education Officer Shirley Wahler plans to leave the post after more than seven years to take a new role in the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena.
Ms. Wahler, who announced her decision in an email to colleagues on Tuesday, said she was leaving on good terms and was proud of the strides that had been made in the Cayman Islands school system during her time at the top. She told the Cayman Compass on Thursday she would leave for St. Helena, an island of 4,000 people and four schools currently only reachable by boat, before the end of this school term. No decision has been made on her replacement.
Ms. Wahler, 54, said the opportunity had come up unexpectedly in the British territory, more than 1200 miles from the nearest land mass – southern Angola. It is famous as the place where French emperor Napoleon was exiled and died.
“It is quite a shocking change of direction for us, but the opportunity came up and we decided to take it,” said Ms. Wahler.
She said she is taking on a senior government post in the territory at a time of transition for St. Helena, which is in the process of building its first airport.
The news follows the departure in September 2014 of Mary Rodrigues as chief officer in the Ministry of Education, leaving vacant the two senior civil service posts in the education system. Christen Suckoo is acting chief officer in the education ministry.
Ms. Wahler said she would attempt to apply some of the policies and practices used in Cayman in her new role.
“There has been tremendous improvement in achievement at all levels in the school system. It is hard for me to leave and not be part of the next steps,” she said. “I think at this point we have accomplished a lot, and I am going on to something new, where I will definitely look to apply a lot of what I have learned here. I have every confidence the successes here will continue.”
Ms. Wahler presided over a period of marked improvement in exam results for secondary school leavers.
The “benchmark figure” of five good passes – that is, five GCSE or CXC exam passes of at least Grade C or equivalent – improved from 25 percent to 69.5 percent since 2007.
“Be proud of your work and how far we have come,” Ms Wahler told teaching staff at the educators’ conference in September. “It is very easy when we hear negative comments to forget that the proven reality on the ground tells a different story.”
The Cayman Islands exam results include retakes and additional courses taken during Year 12 – a mandatory extra year of education in the Cayman Islands. The “good pass” rate at the end of Year 11 is just over 40 percent.
Though results have improved and are better than many regional competitors, critics have questioned whether the education system is doing enough to prepare Cayman Islands’ students for the competitive world of work in the island’s knowledge based economy.
The school system is currently in the midst of a review by KPMG to determine the effectiveness of the current structure. Teachers have been asked for feedback on the effectiveness of the Department of Education Services among other issues.
Education Minister Tara Rivers has previously suggested public-private partnerships could be used to revolutionize the school system – potentially leading to the establishment of some U.K.-style academies run by boards of private governors rather than government.
Concerns have also been raised over behavior management in the schools and a high rate of teacher turnover, with many expat teachers leaving the profession, frustrated with the experience of teaching in Cayman’s schools, according to transcripts from their exit interviews.
“The achievements we have made are real and they are recognized overseas, even if they are not always recognized within the Cayman Islands,” Ms. Wahler said.