A major shift in the way schools are governed is in the works.
In his recent strategic policy statement to the Legislative Assembly, Premier Alden McLaughlin outlined a move to decentralise control away from the Ministry of Education and Department of Education Services.
Calling the idea radical, McLaughlin said, “Maybe, just maybe, it is not the good people in the Department of Education, many of whom rarely set foot inside a classroom, who are best placed to make decisions about what happens in those classrooms.”
“Over the next two years,” he added, “we will establish new governing bodies for Cayman public schools and give them the responsibility for raising students’ levels of achievement. Those governing bodies will give parents, teachers and the wider community a direct say in how their schools are run.”
The idea was floated within the Education Council, soon after the current body was convened in 2017. Since then, it’s been in development. Dan Scott, chairman of the council, said there are still many details to be worked out.
Calling the governing councils a “work in progress”, Scott said the wheels are already turning on some aspects of organising the bodies.
“You could see certain things as soon as the fall,” he said. Education Minister Juliana O’Connor-Connolly declined to comment on the change on two occasions, saying she did not want to discuss the issue until the plan was fully in place.
The move to decentralise some control of the schools makes sense, Scott said.
“When you think about where the rubber hits the road, it’s ultimately that experience between the teacher and the student in the classroom,” he said. “If you take the decision-making too far away, what happens is it gets delayed.”
In fact, a common complaint among school administrators, teachers and parents is that even decisions of lesser importance at schools often have to go through the Department of Education, which, they say, typically operates at glacial pace.
Scott said re-apportioning some of the decision-making that has traditionally been done at the Department of Education to school councils will be more efficient. Those decisions would include how to address shortcomings identified by the Office of Education Standards, whose inspectors regularly assess school performance.
“It would be incumbent on the board to put into effect the changes necessary,” he said, adding that the board’s job would be to “advocate and do some of the heavy lifting” on such things as implementing the new curriculum being unveiled for primary schools this fall.
“The concept really brings it back to the community,” he said, “It also gives teachers the opportunity to say, ‘Look this is what we [need].’”
What combination of educators, parents and community members might comprise the governing councils has not yet been determined, Scott said. Whether members will be appointed or elected is unknown, as are the qualifications required to serve.
Some educators say they welcome the change.
“It brings a fresh approach,” said Clifton Hunter High School Principal Pauline Beckford. She thinks such councils would be beneficial in such things as tailoring the curriculum to individual schools and providing a forum for collaborative decision-making.
She also said it could be a better check on school performance.
“I think it will bring a range of expertise of different community stakeholders to hold schools to account,” she said.
Beckford formerly worked as an administrator in the British school system. So did John Gray High School Principal Jonathan Clark. He said that system has local school councils.
“I’m used to working with a governing body for a school,” Clark said. “It’s right and proper to have the community involved in the school. I welcome it and I think it would be very positive.”
He does not believe forming such councils will be a great challenge.
“We already have the people in place to a certain extent, but it’s very informal relationships.”
Kari Seymour, who serves on the PTA at both Clifton Hunter and Savannah Primary, said she knows of people who would be good candidates for governing councils.
“There are many people in our community that have sat or currently sit on PTA executive committees and/or other governing boards like that,” Seymour said in an email. “I believe individuals would be keen to sit on a council like this. ”
Seymour called the proposed shift in governance a “great idea”.
“A lot of the decisions sent to the DES could be made closer to the school level,” said in the email. “This could potentially provide a seamless and more efficient process for handling issues that need immediate attention and or resolution.”
Beckford said there are potential problems with such councils. The members, she said, would need to avoid infighting and conflicts of interest.
“They have to be impartial,” she said.
Scott said the Education Council is examining those issues.
“With anything, you go in with eyes wide open,” he said. “Who are the people that get selected? What’s the process? Make sure there is proper training, there is accountability, there is [a policy] to deal with conflict. If the rules of engagement are clear so those items are highlighted, I think the benefit far outweighs any potential pitfall.”
The new structure, he said, will help to better integrate schools with society.
“It will be a way to tie the community closer to the schools,” Scott said. “It will be a way to tie the business community closer to the schools.”
He said it is too early for interested people to take action, and encouraged people to wait until the plan is finalised.
“I think at this minute, they probably need to just be patient,” he said.
He also realises that with any change, and particularly with one that will substantially change the education landscape, there will be some resistance.
“With anything that you roll out, as with the inspections, folks have concerns,” he said. “There’s always trepidation. But I think we all agree that the endgame is we have delivered the very best education for our students.”