Revelations that one Grand Cayman high school has a high percentage of special education needs children and that another may not finish construction for four years led opposition politicians on Wednesday to question government’s commitment to education.
“The numbers and what they’re proposing to do … does not bear out that education is No. 1,” Opposition Leader, North Side MLA Ezzard Miller said to a crowd of 40 Savannah-Newlands area residents Wednesday night at Savannah Primary School. “If we’re spending more money on the [cruise ship] dock … if we’re spending more money on Cayman Airways … in my part of the country, where I come from, that’s not No. 1.
“We need to make education No. 1,” he said.
The loosely allied group of opposition MLAs, who claim allegiance to no organized party of political group, said they have been left shocked after a recent tour of local primary and high schools.
“These visits have been more than eye-opening,” Deputy Opposition Leader and Newlands MLA Alva Suckoo said.
Special needs education
Mr. Suckoo said during a visit to Clifton Hunter High School earlier Wednesday, opposition members were surprised when informed by teachers about the number of children who attend there that were considered to have special education needs.
“Basically, 25 percent of the student body have special education needs in one way, shape or form,” Mr. Suckoo said. “That’s just a rough estimate, but this is coming from the teachers.”
Special education needs, or SEN, is a legal definition relating to children who have learning problems or disabilities that make it harder for them to learn than other students who are the same age.
Meanwhile, opposition members said they had been informed that the government intended to finish the “new” John Gray High School project by 2021.
“It was started in what, 2007, 2008?” Mr. Miller said, adding that there are now more than 1,035 children registered at John Gray High School.
Mr. Miller said he believed that Grand Cayman would need to begin planning another high school “within this financial budget” and that at least one, possibly two new primary schools would be required to cope with the student population, particularly in a rapidly growing Bodden Town district.
Mr. Miller said the primary schools were probably needed within the next three years.
Savannah MLA Anthony Eden said Savannah Primary School has an estimated 500 student capacity and is now at 483, but that the previous Progressives-led government did not heed calls for additional primary school capacity in Bodden Town made by himself and Mr. Suckoo.
“What did they focus on? A gymnasium,” Mr. Eden said, referring to the John Gray High School project.
Meanwhile, Mr. Eden said at Clifton Hunter High School “you’ve got 300 children in an area piling up at lunchtime” and at George Town Primary students are required to eat lunch outside on the school bleachers because they don’t have a dining hall.
“We’ve been to 11 schools,” Mr. Eden said of the opposition tour. “When you hear direct from the teachers, administration, principals … education needs a lot of help.
“If we don’t start to provide the proper support for them, dog eat our supper,” he said.
During the political campaign in the run up to the May 2017 general election, Mr. Miller, the North Side incumbent, said he viewed the most important issue in the country as Caymanian ownership, not education.
“Everybody talks about education because it is a convenient whipping horse, but the educated Caymanians are not getting opportunities in their own country,” Mr. Miller said, during a candidates debate held at Clifton Hunter High School.
Mr. Miller said it was far more difficult in modern-day Cayman to start a business than it was in the days when he returned to the islands from college. Also, he said, there are few Caymanian “heroes” running businesses for the younger generation to look up to.
“[Younger Caymanians] have no hope, they see no opportunity,” Mr. Miller said. “Their education is not recognized. All we hear in the media and other places is the education system is so bad. Our education system is not that bad. We have some very, very good students coming out of that education system.
“We need to get back to where Caymanians feel they have first choice in employment in their country.”