“Every effort must be made to make our educational facilities and teaching staffs second to none. All children deserve and must have a full and complete education.”
Those words, from a November 1965 post-election editorial in the old Tradewinds publication about the need to prepare Cayman’s students for the demands of a growing offshore finance center, could just have easily been written in 2017.
The archives of the Cayman Compass, the Nor’Wester, Tradewinds, the government reports to the Foreign Office and the official Hansard record abound with similar examples.
The education system in the Cayman Islands has seen great change over the past five decades, as the population has grown from around 9,000 in the late 1960s to more than 60,000 today.
But the more things change, it seems, the more things stay the same.
Former Cayman Preparatory School Principal Peter Stokes forecast in a 1976 issue of the Nor’Wester that social issues, including the breakdown of the family, were holding back and would continue to hold back many students from achieving their potential.
“I confess to being very pessimistic,” he said, “for so many of our problem students come from broken homes and in turn I fear they will themselves in the future become problem parents, creating even more broken homes.”
Issues of behavior in schools, the need for greater involvement from parents and the consequences of generations of broken families remain key concerns in the school system.
Educators still cite social issues as one of the greatest barriers to learning in the classroom, and business leaders still lament that the education system is not meeting the demands of the growing economy.
While external examination results show some improvement over the medium term, results have stagnated over the past three years and still more than half of Cayman’s students leave high school without five GCSE passes at Grade C or above – a prerequisite for education beyond secondary school.
Employers frequently cite a lack of eligible local candidates as the reason for a reliance on work permits, and the Chamber of Commerce has cited improvements to the education system as central to the future success of Cayman’s economy.
Woody Foster, managing director of the Foster’s supermarket chain and president of Literacy is for Everyone, believes that after decades of discussing the same issues, the political class of 2017 needs to offer more radical solutions.
“I would like to see a new government that allowed the private sector to play a bigger part in Cayman’s public education system,” he said. “I feel we need a governance model that allows a public-private partnership where both public and private [sectors] are working together to keep the system accountable, transparent, current and not afraid to show their weaknesses, so that those weaknesses can be addressed and strengthened.
“We have to stop making political promises and start making good on those promises by finally putting a system in place that achieves the levels that we are proud of and that allow our children to make their own destiny.”
During the pre-election debates, the perennial talking points of trade and vocational skills training, the need for more parental involvement and better student-teacher ratios have been raised again and again.
To some extent, almost all candidates of every political persuasion have spoken of their support for public-private partnerships in schools.
Tara Rivers, education minister and an independent candidate in the May 24 election, defends her record in this area and suggests her tenure has helped set education on the right path.
The new Education Law, passed in 2016, creates the framework that would make public-private partnership schools possible. She also points to relationships with various charities, including Literacy is for Everyone, as evidence that private partnerships are already having an impact in Cayman’s schools.
Ms. Rivers highlights among her achievements the creation of a new schools inspection unit, reviving a moribund institution and the introduction of literacy interventions, supported by increased staff, for struggling young readers.
Over the past four years, she said, government has “increased accountability in the system and put an emphasis on the special education needs of some of our students.”
Out of a set of critical inspection reports, she says, the shoots of recovery have come in the form of a new education action plan, which was called “outstanding” by an independent analyst.
She said sticking with that plan and ensuring it is followed faithfully would be a key target if she is re-elected and retains the responsibility for education in a new administration.
Ms. Rivers believes that many of the things called for by opposition politicians, such as an increase in technical and vocational offerings in the high schools and at the Cayman Islands Further Education Centre, are already happening on her watch.
Though she sees a role for the private sector in helping to create new “school capacity,” potentially through “partnership schools” similar to U.S. charter schools, she has not endorsed the wholesale transfer of responsibility for education to a private entity.
Many of the candidates have spoken only in vague terms about their plans for private sector involvement in education.
The Progressives manifesto highlights “Revisiting opportunities for a public-private sector partnership in education to determine how best to move forward with initiatives that benefit students and produce quality outcomes.”
It also promises to build a new primary school in West Bay, complete John Gray High School and look at desegregating expats and Caymanians in the schools.
Within four years, the document promises, 75 percent of high school graduates will move on to some form of higher education, either in academic degree programs or vocational trades locally or overseas.
The Cayman Democratic Party manifesto calls for a change in “education governance” that will take the politics out of education policy and its implementation.
CDP leader McKeeva Bush, speaking at a pre-election debate, said his party would seek to give more power over school budgets and hiring and firing to principals.
He also expressed support for greater private sector involvement in running of schools.
“I believe we can have a partnership with the private sector,” he said. “There are scores of good examples of this and we have people locally that can make it happen.”
He said any such plan should not be an “elitist group” but an institution that maintains equal access to education for all. For independent candidate Al Suckoo, a former member of the Progressives, nothing short of an “education revolution” is required.
He cites “public-private partnerships” as a way to generate funding.
He is calling for improved salaries for teachers, desegregation of the schools and a focus on hiring educators who are equipped to handle children with learning and behavioral difficulties.
“We have been successful with our students who are academics and who do not have any impediments to learning, but that is a testament to the student, not the system. For those kids who have special education needs and who have behavioral issues there is a different reality,” he said.
He would like to see much greater investment in technical and vocational programs both in the high schools and at the University College of the Cayman Islands.
Independent candidate Kenneth Bryan is another politician who has spoken of the need to look at moving education under the authority of a private entity – preventing it, in his words, from being a “political football.”
Mark Scotland, a former politician and current chairman of the Parent Teacher Association at Savannah Primary School, agrees that wholesale changes are needed as to how education is structured in Cayman. He would like to see a new administration commit fully to the concept of charter schools – with government taking a regulatory role.
“I would like to see a change in the governance model for education which separates the roles of policymaking, regulation and provision of education – one entity cannot continue to perform all those roles and ensure transparency and accountability.
“The management of public schools should be outsourced through a public-private partnership or establishment of a separate authority. Ministry can retain the roles [of] policymaker and regulator.”