After nearly a year of studying the issues, Cayman Islands Education Council Chairman Dan Scott said it’s time to make a move.
Mr. Scott said he and the other council members, along with Minister of Education Juliana O’Connor-Connolly have looked at such things as increasing teacher compensation, rebalancing the power structure between the ministry and the classroom, revamping the curriculum and elevating expectations for student performance.
Officials have launched a plan of action that will be defined and implemented over the next year, he said, stressing that action is the key term.
“This stuff’s going to change quickly,” Mr. Scott said. “If these things are executed, you’re going to see, in very short order, the government school system will become competitive and very attractive.”
One immediate change will be increasing compensation for teachers, one of the first issues Ms. O’Connor-Connolly talked about after becoming minister last year. A 2011 report, the most recent figure available, said the majority of teachers are paid between $3,500 and $4,800 per month. The minister has argued that the minimum pay should be $5,000 per month.
“She’s right that she has to compensate at a level that’s attractive,” Mr. Scott said.
Cayman has struggled to recruit off-island teachers, not only because it has traditionally started the process late in the game, but also because its salaries are less competitive than in other jurisdictions.
Mr. Scott said increased pay would improve the morale of the existing faculty and help to bring in more high-quality instructors.
He said it will help in “making sure we get the right talent.”
While there are many excellent teachers already in the system, he said, the level of expectation will rise with an increase in pay. Some teachers, he said, may not measure up.
“The reality is to make sure [Minister O’Connor-Connolly] has the right people playing on the team,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it’s going to be the same players.”
Increased expectations also need to be placed on students, Mr. Scott said, by raising standards. A recent report by the Office of Education Standards noted that the current goals for student achievement are too low.
“The standards we have to be targeting are standards that are held in major countries around the world,” Mr. Scott said, adding that Cayman is currently having to import skilled workers from such countries in order to compete on the global market. “Anything short of that, we’re just pretending. We simply can’t set our standards low.”
A long-standing criticism of the Ministry of Education – and of many government agencies – is that control is too centralized. Schools, Mr. Scott said, often feel they have to conform to “cookie cutter” policies. That needs to change, he said.
The Education Council, he said, will recommend rebalancing authority within the system to give schools and classroom teachers greater autonomy.
“When you talk to teachers,” he said, “you hear, ‘Hold us accountable, but give us the flexibility to do what we have to.’ Let’s have some faith that I don’t need to be telling them everything they have to do.
“When you peel everything back, what is education?” he added. “To give to the students the necessary skills and knowledge they need to compete and succeed. The best chance of doing that is where they interact with the teacher in the classroom.”
He said people he has spoken to at the ministry level understand this.
“People at the center get it,” he said. “The teachers get it. And under this minister, it’s, ‘OK, let’s just go do it.’”
The council is also examining ways to incorporate Year 12 into the government schools. Currently, students graduate after Year 11, but must complete an additional year, either by attending a private school, the Cayman Islands Further Education Centre, the University College of the Cayman Islands or by going abroad. Mr. Scott believes a separate facility would be needed to provide the additional schooling. The cost of such a facility could in part be paid for by what the government would save by not having to provide scholarships for Year 12 study.
“I think it’s absolutely warranted,” he said. “And if you’re incorporating Year 12, you’ve got to do Year 13 (for those studying for A-Level exams). You need to do both.”
Mr. Scott said the school curriculum also needs to be revamped – a recently completed report by the Office of Education Standards called for a wholesale overhaul – part of which, he said, needs to be reintroducing textbooks, increasing the use of computers in the classroom and bolstering school libraries.
All of these proposed changes need to take place quickly, he said. He acknowledges that improvements have been made in recent years, but he said they are happening too slowly.
“I think the community has been speaking loud and clear for a long time,” he said. “They’re saying it’s time for action.
“Every year that passes by and we don’t do something, we have to look these kids in the face when they say, ‘Why not?’” he added. “Now is the time to pick up the pace.”