A “recurring issue” of a lack of paper at schools in the Cayman Islands is one of the grievances highlighted by parents at a forum with education officials.
Representatives of Parent Teacher Associations from 12 schools also highlighted numerous concerns around lack of basic resources in some schools, behavior issues and perceptions that good teachers are leaving the system.
Concern was also raised around the need for “social interventions” for students who suffer violence in the home, the number of youngsters arriving at school without breakfast or lunch and relaxation of the uniform policy, which some believe is leading to “thug” fashions.
The meeting – dubbed the National Parent Forum – was held in January, though specific details of the issues raised were not made public at the time. The Ministry of Education, in a press release in February, quoted Minister of Education Tara Rivers highlighting the forum as a “great way to facilitate dialogue with and among parent representatives from each school and key decision makers in the education system.”
The press release, which indicated that the forum had been established by Minister Rivers in 2013, contained a two-sentence summary of some of the issues raised by PTA representatives, along with some commentary from education officials on measures being taken to improve the school system.
The Cayman Compass filed a Freedom of Information request in February for the minutes of that meeting and any other parent forums held in 2015 and 2016. After a five-month process and following an appeal to the Information Commissioner, 13 pages of meeting notes containing some details of the issues raised and ministry responses were released last month. The response indicated that the January meeting was the only such forum held in the 18 months covered by the request.
The notes give a snapshot of some of the key issues raised by representatives of Parent Teacher Associations at Cayman Islands schools.
One note indicates, “A concern was raised about a policy that seems to be in place that restricts teachers from asking parents for resources, specifically to solve a recurring issue of a lack of paper at schools.”
The ministry’s response suggests that paper shortages are often linked to school staff not following “proper procedure for requesting paper and other resources ahead of time.”
It indicates that there is no policy against teachers asking parents for help, but the practice is discouraged in the hopes that staff will instead follow the proper process in a timely manner.
Several teachers have previously told the Compass that lack of paper is an ongoing issue, which they attributed to budget issues, saying they often brought their own paper to school to fill the gap.
Another representative suggested reinstating “book fees” for parents who could afford to pay to help alleviate some of the costs associated with acquiring resources for schools, which the ministry said it would consider.
Other issues were raised around a perceived lack of resources for children who speak English as a second language, though officials said new funding had been allocated for this.
PTA representatives also suggested schools need to be involved in a multi-agency approach to identify and assist children who are being abused at home. The ministry responded that all teachers are trained and equipped to identify such issues, and that there are counselors in all schools as well as behavioral support teams, though it acknowledged “interventions for families are still an area for development.”
The link between home life and bad behavior was a recurring theme, with some parents raising fresh concerns about the number of students coming to school without breakfast or lunch. According to the summary document, the issue is handled by schools individually, with support from charities and from the Department of Children and Family Services.
Ministry officials said they would continue to work with partners to address the need, but stated in its meeting notes, “While parents continue to send their children to school without sufficient meals, this will continue to be an issue.”
Some parents felt relaxation in the uniform policy was also fueling bad behavior.
“With the recent allowances in the uniform policy that boys are allowed to wear their hair long and also wear earrings, the feeling is that thug behavior is being condoned,” the document noted.
The ministry indicated it has agreed to review this decision, which it said was taken by school principals because of the amount of resources being diverted to dealing with uniform policy. It also noted that “equal rights for all is consistent with Human Rights initiatives.”
Ms. Rivers raised similar concerns on uniforms in a recent Finance Committee discussion, saying it would be discriminatory to allow girls to wear earrings and not boys.
Issues around student behavior in schools, long identified as a problem, were also highlighted. One parent questioned what was being done to address high school students with drug abuse problems, which were said to be impacting the learning environment for other students.
The ministry said it was working with the National Drug Council on education, using behavioral specialists to combat drug use among students and using sniffer dogs to deter students from bringing drugs to campus.
Other PTA representatives said they were concerned that behavioral issues were prompting some teachers to leave the system. “Concern was raised about teacher retention,” the notes state.
“The overall feeling is that the good teachers in the system are leaving because of the environment they teach in, specifically behavioral problems, parents not taking responsibility for the education and behavior of the children and good teachers are not being paid enough.”
In its initial press release about the forum, the Ministry of Education indicated it was already aware of many of the issues highlighted and was working to address them. It said the Education Plan of Action, drawn up in response to issues raised in a series of critical school inspections, focused on improving leadership and management and student progress and achievement.
Minister Rivers also indicated that non-teaching Special Education Needs Coordinators have been employed to provide support for all government schools.
Chief Officer Christen Suckoo said the coordinators, known as SENCOs, previously had to balance that role with responsibilities in the mainstream classrooms.
“Taking them out of the classroom and having them focus on these students will allow them to give students with special needs and disabilities the full attention that they require, and we are excited about the progress we expect to see in this area,” he said.
The February press release indicates that the parent forums are expected to become a regular occurrence, though none has been held since the meeting in January, which was the first since at least 2014.