We’ve all heard of, “No more pencils, no more books” — but no more paper?
We’re not referring to the schoolyard chant signaling the beginning of summer vacation, but to concerns raised by Cayman Islands parents about the consistent scarcity of basic supplies in government schools.
In January, representatives from the country’s Parent Teacher Associations met with education officials and discussed, among other things, “a recurring issue of a lack of paper at schools.”
In a country which is one of the world’s wealthiest, which built a single high school at a cost of more than $110 million and which will spend $100 million on public education this year alone — how is that even possible?
In the face of shortages, teachers’ initial solution was to ask parents to please send extra classroom supplies. Education officials didn’t like that strategy — not because schools begging parents for paper is a bad idea (which it is), but because it made the government look bad.
Optics are important, but they shouldn’t enter this equation. Schools lacking paper doesn’t just look bad. It is bad.
(Here we’ll note that it took the Compass five months, and an appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office, to wrest the notes from January’s public meeting from the grasp of education officials, who, true to form, undertook to bury the embarrassing records from public view.)
The members of our ruling Progressives government, meanwhile, are attempting to take political advantage of a shameful situation they helped create. Last Saturday, the Progressives held a “Back to School Bash” at their party headquarters on Crewe Road where elected lawmakers distributed — you guessed it — free school supplies to the children of their supporters.
The pre-event announcement features a photo of Premier Alden McLaughlin handing over a bag of supplies to one such youngster. This is the same Mr. McLaughlin who, as education minister, championed the construction of Clifton Hunter High School — our country’s $110 million-plus monument to hubris.
Officials should have shaved $10 million or $20 million from that shiny edifice on Frank Sound Road, and spent it elsewhere: say, on paper — lots of it.
As for the remarks from current Education Minister Tara Rivers — who said the meeting was a “great way to facilitate dialogue …” — we’ll just observe that if Minister Rivers were a teacher emanating this kind of substanceless blather in front of a classroom, no one could blame the students for drifting off to sleep.
Cayman’s education problems, however, go far beyond Premier McLaughlin, Minister Rivers or this current crop of lawmakers.
Consider Clifton Hunter: On the outside, the school is a modern-looking, even beautiful, structure. But inside the building, the same old problems plaguing Cayman’s school system remain unattended to.
Fifty years ago, our country’s leaders made the serious mistake of not making public education the number one priority of the Cayman Islands.
In 1965 and the years after, when the beginnings of the modern Cayman were taking root, the first thing officials should have done was to examine the school system, realize that the education of the day would not prepare Caymanians for the jobs of Cayman’s future, and refuse to settle for anything less than world-class schools.
They, and subsequent governments, did not do that. Instead, they chose to protect a select number of high-ranking education administrators — at the expense of generations of Caymanian children — and for decades allowed them to preside over a continually underperforming school system.
With each passing day, and each failing student, Cayman needs dramatic education reform more than ever. The fact that there will be no quick, easy or cheap solution only serves to underscore the urgency of the situation.
This brings us to a tale told by the late Linton Tibbetts, who was perhaps the greatest entrepreneur in Cayman’s history.
Linton was a boy on the Brac, and his father was urging him to help him plant some trees. Reluctant to undertake the labor, Linton informed his father that, according to his calculations, the trees would not reach full maturity for 50 to 100 years.
“Well,” Linton’s father replied, “we’d better get started.”