From the mid-1960s to today, it could be said that the Cayman Islands deserves very high marks in “economics” … and very poor marks in “education.”
Certainly by the early ’70s, the direction of Cayman’s future development had become very clear, toward a reliance on the financial services and luxury tourism sectors. Yet, despite a practically infinite amount of resources, our leaders never honed in on, as a paramount issue, the gap between the education being provided in Cayman, and the education required to fill the kinds of jobs materializing in Cayman and to which many Caymanians aspire.
Over the decades, because of inadequate preparation from our public school system, far too many Caymanians were never enabled to take full advantage of the so-called “Cayman miracle” developing in their own country.
Like any commodity, confronted with a shortfall in the local supply of skilled or qualified workers, businesses have been compelled to import from overseas. Currently, in a country with a population of some 60,000 people, approximately 24,000 are here on work permits.
Even as Cayman’s public schools churned out class after class of graduates who were not prepared to compete for jobs in the local economy, government after government doubled-down on the existing education model, keeping many of the same people in leadership positions and building up a sprawling bureaucracy.
A massive amount of financial resources was directed to projects that didn’t directly contribute to academic proficiencies, most notably the $110 million-plus Clifton Hunter High School campus in Frank Sound. Even to this day, the “highlight” of this Progressives government’s education record is the sparkling new John Gray High School gymnasium, which may cost around $8 million. (We hedge our language because officials refuse to say how much they have actually spent on the gym. The May 24 elections are rapidly approaching, after all.)
For the government to spend of millions of dollars on a gym – when just a few yards away new graduates are walking across the commencement stage without being ready for the workplace – is revealing about public education priorities.
Now that it is political campaign season, “education” and “jobs” have resurfaced as top topics on most candidates’ agendas, nominally. Very few candidates have provided much detail on their plans for education and jobs beyond naming them as issues.
However, on Friday night, Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush elaborated somewhat on two education ideas, one we support and one we do not.
Mr. Bush advocated giving principals greater autonomy to run their schools. That’s an excellent proposal. Our government’s strategy should be to hire strong, qualified and experienced principals, hand them the reins to their schools – and then ask them to check back in, in about a year or so.
Fundamentally, principals should be given the power to hire, fire, discipline and promote good or bad teachers, regardless of nationality, with minimal (i.e. nonexistent) red tape from the ministerial bureaucracy or boards of appeal.
Second, Mr. Bush said he supports the concept of public-private partnerships for education – a measure that his two opponents for West Bay West, independent Paul Rivers and Progressives’ Daphne Orrett, also supported in some form or another. They shouldn’t.
The private sector should not contribute significant resources to Cayman’s education system unless the private sector is given a proportional voice in decision-making. Simply writing checks is not a solution. At this point, Cayman’s government schools don’t need more money – what they need to do is to reallocate the money they already have.
Additionally, why should the private sector put more money (on top of tax revenue) into public education, when so many non-Caymanian children of private sector employees are not even allowed to attend public schools? Is the government planning to adjust that segregationist policy?
The private sector should not be looking to “rescue” Cayman’s public schools. If the government streamlines its own bureaucracy, and empowers principals and teachers alike, then Cayman’s public schools will rapidly find themselves in a superior situation from which no such “rescue” will be considered necessary.