Enrolment in private schools is increasing as more local parents opt out of placing their children in Cayman’s government-run public schools, the Public Accounts Committee heard last week.

PAC member Chris Saunders flagged the issue when he pointed to enrolment numbers in private schools, which have risen in recent years, while those at public schools have dropped.

Saunders, referencing numbers from the 2010 census and 2018 statistics, said the Caymanian student-age population (0-14) rose by 928 over that time, but enrolment within public schools by the end of 2018 had dropped by 7%.

Overall enrolment in private-sector schools, he said, went from 2,787 in 2012 to 3,618 in 2018 – an increase of about 30%.

He questioned if this trend was being analysed.

Education Council chairman Dan Scott said the Education Ministry is working to address the issue, but said if any of the ministry’s efforts are to work, there has to be buy-in from parents.

Scott, speaking at the PAC meeting, which had convened to hear matters arising from the Auditor General’s November 2019 report into education, welcomed the Bodden Town MLA’s point, saying the ministry is working on initiatives to increase the attractiveness of public schools.

He said Cayman had to create an environment that enabled public schools to be of high quality and able to compete with other schools, not just in Cayman, but regionally and internationally. “So, that’s the goal I think that we have as Education Council and it’s been embarked upon. … We’ve looked to ensure now that you have an independent inspection of schools, both public and private, so that it is out there and it is transparent.”

This, he said, ensures “parents as the buyers get to see what’s good”.

He said there had also been changes to the curriculum and efforts to provide the resources that teachers need to be able to teach students.

Scott pointed out that Education Minister Juliana O’Connor-Connolly has talked about increases in pay for public school teachers.

“There’s been debate around that, but now one can’t question whether you can indeed attract the best talent globally because you certainly can pay for it,” he said.

All these elements, he pointed out, can come together to ensure that “public schools have to be able to be good at what they do, be extremely competitive, and deliver an outstanding product”.

Scott also addressed the issue of segregation in schools, whereby expatriate students are not allowed to attend public schools.

He said it was not borne out of deliberately trying to segregate expat students from local children, “but more out of we only have a certain amount of physical space and budget … so you prioritise Caymanians, which I think is absolutely right, and, you know, other folks [have] to go to a private school”.

However, he said, this creates barriers as young people in different schools are not getting to work together and learn about each other.

He said there are projects that the ministry is looking at to reduce the disconnect.

Those, he said, could be the private sector building schools and government giving “coupons for kids to go to these schools, or guarantee a certain amount, or indeed that you can do so the other way with the government school,” Scott said.

He said he believes the starting point was to focus on making sure government schools are delivering high-quality education.

“As we are going to continue to grow [and] our population is growing quite rapidly, it is important that you put kids together, that they learn about each other,” he added.

Prospect MLA Austin Harris raised the issue of technical and vocational training and what emphasis was being placed on translating that into employment for Caymanians.

Scott said technical and vocational training is part of the over-arching strategic plan for education and a subcommittee is looking at that area.

He said support from the private sector and legislators has been “outstanding” and the Education Council is focussing on areas of employment where there is a real demand and training Caymanians to fill that demand.

“This is our endgame. It’s not just a student has gone through and done a course; that course needs to lead to employment and real-life opportunity,” he said.

At the meeting, PAC chairman Ezzard Miller took issue with the requirement that certified plumbers and electricians have to complete City and Guilds training and then still have to undergo two years of working with an experienced tradesman.

“They should be able to go and get a job,” Miller argued.

He said he sees that as one of the impediments for Caymanians.

“Even after they get the qualifications, they are then expected to work for somebody else for two years, which is ridiculous. So, I think it needs to see if we can influence the ministries who are doing the licence to change that,” he said.

Scott said he will take the concerns on board.