Dan Scott: Optimistic on Cayman schools

Dan Scott thinks he can help make Cayman’s public schools attractive.

He also believes it can be done fairly quickly.

Two months after being named chairman of the Education Council, Mr. Scott said he is optimistic about turning around a largely disparaged education system.

“I want parents to say, ‘I want my kids to go to public school,’” said Mr. Scott, a managing partner at Ernst & Young.

A product of the Cayman public schools himself, education is in his DNA. Cayman Brac’s Layman E. Scott High School is named after his father.

Mr. Scott is the first civilian to head the Education Council. In the past, it has been headed by the education minister, but amendments to Cayman’s Education Law in 2016 changed that. The council has met twice since Mr. Scott’s appointment and he said it has identified several things it plans to focus on, including scholarships, school uniform enforcement, the effectiveness of the current Years 12 and 13 structure and giving teachers and school administrators the tools and freedom they need to do their jobs. That includes, he added, a potential reassessment of how special needs students are mainstreamed into regular classrooms.

Overall, Mr. Scott said he and the council are concerned about accountability and access. And with access, money is key.

A scholarship allowed Mr. Scott to pursue his education when he graduated from high school here. Had it not been for that assistance, he said, he would not have been able to attend college. Scholarship monies, he said, are not necessarily going where they need to right now.

“Currently, it’s just based on grades,” Mr. Scott said of the criteria used to award scholarships. “We are looking to recommend a means test. You do not want to end up granting scholarships to people who, financially, can afford to send their students to school and depriving other students who may not.”

Grades would still be a factor, he said, but taking into account a student’s financial need would allow the “limited resources” of scholarship monies to be more effectively utilized.

“I want to make sure that the next Dan Scott that would not be able to go to college without that scholarship, gets that scholarship,” he said.

Students can only get to that point by being accountable and toeing the line, he said. He thinks a big part of that is the issue of enforcing school uniforms, which was raised during recent budget discussions in the Legislative Assembly. Even though problems such as student performance and adequate staffing loom, this item was second on Mr. Scott’s list.

He likened its importance to the “broken windows” philosophy of improving neighborhoods that gained popularity in the United States in the past 20 years. The idea is that enforcing small infractions in community standards keeps blight and crime at bay. Mr. Scott pointed to the use of such an approach by former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in reinvigorating Times Square.

Teaching students proper attire, he said, also prepares them for the real world.

“If you go to court, you’re not going to be allowed in unless you tuck your shirt in,” he said. “All the public schools have uniforms. The question is whether you comply with it. Whatever it is, let’s comply with it.”

On the question of whether changes should be made to the way Years 12 and 13 are structured in the system – after Year 11 students move on to their final year or years of study at private schools or the Cayman Islands Further Education Centre – Mr. Scott said he thinks greater support for students might be needed.

“Kids are graduating quite young,” he said, referring to the public system. “The question is whether that is working as effectively as it could?”

The transition can be particularly hard on students from Cayman Brac who have to come to Grand Cayman and may find themselves largely on their own at 17.

He said he also wants to look into the issue of special education and whether the mainstreaming of all students is appropriate. Working with a child who needs additional academic attention, he said, using the example of a student with dyslexia, may be something best handled in a regular classroom. But children with certain emotional or behavioral problems may need the kind of assistance best handled in another environment.

“If you have 26 kids in a class and two are taking so much of the teacher’s time,” he said, “you’re putting 24 kids at risk.”

The issue of children with special education and/or behavioral need has escalated in recent years. Inspection reports from 2014 indicated that more than 20 percent of students in the public system were assessed as falling into that category. Teachers and administrators have complained there are not adequate resources to deal with so many students who need additional help. There are hints that the additional stress on classroom teachers impacts learning for all students.

While there have been some improvements in recent years, Cayman public school test scores are well below the standards set by British students. Cayman students take the same exams as those used by British schools.

Mr. Scott said it is important for Caymanians to look at the bigger picture when it comes to education. Performance needs to be measured against that of students in major countries around the world. Having leaders in place who both encourage innovation and hold teachers accountable is the key, he said, adding that the dynamic already exists at some schools and can be remedied relatively quickly at those where it does not.

“We end up in fairly short order with an education system that is delivering for us,” Mr. Scott said, “a system that is empowering people and one where the public school becomes a place where people are keen to attend.”