Minister outlines education changes

Education Minister Juliana O’Connor-Connolly

During Monday’s session of the Legislative Assembly, Education Minister Juliana O’Connor-Connolly focussed on overhauling school curriculum and re-outlined teacher salary changes that she first announced last August in her requests for supplemental funding.

The first of two incremental pay increases for government school teachers was implemented at the beginning of the current school year. A second is planned in August, which would bring base pay to $5,000 per month.

O’Connor-Connolly said the increase would help the system recruit and retain better teachers. She said it would also encourage more Cayman students to pursue professions in education.

She reiterated earlier changes that would allow the school system to pay newly hired teachers through the summer months. The lack of such pay, she said, often hampered mid-year hiring. In addition, a flexible leave policy is being put in place to allow teachers to take time off for family emergencies or significant family events, such as weddings and graduations.

The minister announced, for the first time, the addition of a system that would allow teachers to advance on the salary scale by taking post-graduate education courses.

She requested $2.5 million to cover the cost of raising the salaries.

Highlighting the changes in school assessment, O’Connor-Connolly said schools were improving as a result of inspections by the Office of Education Standards, which was established as an independent agency two years ago. A series of inspections in 2014-2015 found nearly all the government schools were unsatisfactory in their performance.

“We have managed through careful planning, implementation and monitoring to take all but one of our schools from unsatisfactory to satisfactory or good [under the current framework],” she said.

In truth, three schools – John A. Cumber and Savannah primary schools and Clifton Hunter High School – were rated unsatisfactory or ‘weak’ in their most recent inspections.

The minister also requested $500,000 to cover “educational supplies and resources such as textbooks”. those materials, she said, are necessary in order to introduce a new curriculum in August.

O’Connor-Connolly said the Education Council had appointed a curriculum implementation team, which has been working on assessing England’s 2014 national curriculum and determining how best to put it into practice in Cayman’s schools.

Significant changes in maths, science and foreign languages will be made, she said.

“Children are expected to learn more at an earlier age,” she said, such as mastering their times table by age 9. More emphasis will be placed on spelling, grammar and handwriting. Students will learn to write computer code.

In science, she said, “There will be shift toward hard facts and scientific knowledge.”

A mandatory second language, Spanish, will be introduced in Key Stage 2.

Social studies, she said, will incorporate a strong local component to educate children about Cayman history and culture.

The minister said two junkets to England have allowed education officials and school administrators to observe what goes into a successful school. Teams visited 14 schools that were of a similar size to those in Cayman and served disadvantaged communities.

“The role of the school leadership was a critical component for success,” she said. “The interesting thing I found when I visited the schools in the UK, there were hardly any behavioural problems. They had the necessary resources and the necessary teachers within the classroom.”

O’Connor-Connolly told the legislators she plans to have teaching assistants in every classroom from kindergarten to Year 9 within the next two years.

The trips, she said, also allowed officials to see the difference in the governance structure of British schools as compared to Cayman. She said she plans to introduce similar governance in schools here, allowing principals more autonomy and providing for more community involvement and input.

As minister of youth and sports, she requested $1.2 million for improvements to Truman Bodden Sports Complex in preparation for this month’s CARIFTA Games. No upgrades had been done at the facility since repairs were completed after Hurricane Ivan damaged it in 2004.

In addition, $10 million from the Environmental Protection Fund was requested for the purchase of lands for public use, beach access and environmental conservation.

The minister’s requests were approved unanimously.