Education and opportunity in Cayman: 10 things we have learned

Richard Tyson, who was featured in our story of the Class of 2008, believes more assistance for scholarship students when they return to Cayman would be beneficial. - Photo: Alvaro Serey

Over the last month, our Issues section has examined education and opportunity in Cayman from the perspective of those it impacts most – the students themselves. We profiled three generations about their journeys through the education system.

First we looked at the experiences and anxieties of the Class of 2020, those graduating during a pandemic into a changed world and a depleted island economy.

In part two, we investigated the struggles of economically disadvantaged families, and the challenge of ensuring all children are ready for the knowledge-based economy of Cayman when they graduate at the end of the decade.

And in part three, featured last week, we profiled the John Gray High School graduating class of 2008, to take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the system from the perspective of those who have come through it.

We also talked to non-profits, schools inspectors, and community advocates to get their input on what works and what doesn’t.

Today, we review some of the key conclusions and ideas coming out of this series.

Economic disadvantage equals academic disadvantage

Students who graducated during the pandemic had to navigate a unique set of challenges.

Children whose parents could not afford WiFi or laptops suffered as education moved online during the pandemic.

But the digital divide is just one small part of how inequality in society affects children’s chances in school.

We spoke to families who had struggled with safe housing, and with keeping the lights on and the water running. In the midst of such chaotic circumstances, making education a priority is a challenge.

Programmes like ARK’s ‘Mentor Educate Reinforce’ initiative – which provides sponsor-funded intensive tutoring for children in need – are starting to make a difference.
But the charity warns that it is currently only able to support a fraction of the children who need this kind of help.

Reading key to improving children’s chances

Just under half of students graduated public high school in 2020 without meeting the ‘national expected standard’ of passing five subjects including maths and English at grade C equivalent or above.

Cayman 2.0: Education and Opportunity

That has been about the same result for the past five years. While it is usually the high schools that face the greatest criticism when those statistics are highlighted, the problems start much earlier.

The latest Education Data Report shows that four out of 10 students leave primary school without reaching the required level in maths or English. A third cannot read at the required level to access the high school curriculum.

Inroads have been made in this area and there are significant resources dedicated to supporting struggling students in public schools.

However, the 2019 Office of Education Standards report found the quality of these interventions varied significantly across the system and faced organisational challenges, despite ‘generous staffing levels’.

It is clear that students who can’t read or write at age-group level are not going to excel in science or geography, and it appears that more intense focus is needed on the basics of reading, writing and mathematics for younger age groups.

Collaborative approach needed

Many of the issues in education link back to the home lives of students.

Chief schools inspector Peter Carpenter highlights the involvement of parents in supporting their children’s education as central to student success.

But, as we reported, many children lack that support. Issues range from parents addicted to drugs or in prison at the extreme end, to those who are simply too busy or lack the skills themselves to help their children learn to read and write. Michael Myles, a former at-risk youth worker for the Ministry of Education, advocates for a more collaborative approach.

He said non-profits, educators, the Needs Assessment Unit, social workers and police need to work much more closely together to collectively address the multiple needs of the families they support.

Education must meet the needs of the economy

In our Class of 2008 feature, looking at the system through the successes and struggles of one cohort, several of the people we profiled struggled to find work in areas they had studied.

If you weren’t interested in banking or accountancy, a number of former students told us, it was difficult to know what to pursue. Some followed their passions, only to find after graduation that there were limited employment opportunities on the island in their chosen area.

In an earlier Cayman 2.0 feature on workforce development, Chamber of Commerce CEO Wil Pineau recommended an annual labour forecast be produced which predicts job growth and highlights the areas where there are going to be opportunities. That data could be used to develop education programmes, dictate work-permit policy, and direct scholarship funding, he said.

Greater emphasis on trades needed

The need for more training in trades was a common theme in our series.

While the range of vocational training on offer at Cayman’s high schools has grown over the past decade, the extent to which this is leading to meaningful careers in trades for graduates is questioned.

Several of the Class of 2008 highlighted this as a weakness of the system.

Myles points out that the majority of work permits granted in Cayman are for blue-collar jobs that do not require a degree. He says there must be clear career pathways for those who don’t excel academically and argues that students should have the option to study for an accredited entry-level trade certification while they are in school.

He is also pushing for more scholarship funding to be made available for higher-level trade training.

“Not everyone is going to be an accountant, but we should be able to ensure everyone graduates with a qualification that can get them a decent career,” he told the Compass.

In an earlier interview, Glenda McTaggart, of the Dart Group’s Minds Inspired initiative, raised similar concerns.

“Existing [Technical and Vocational Education and Training] is extremely limited and offering of it is not consistent. The content and delivery rarely takes into account the needs of the employer,” she said.

Scholarship support is second-to-none

Government has budgeted $10 million annually for the next two years to help fund higher education for Caymanian students.

That is in addition to the significant sums the private sector puts into scholarships.

It was clear from our interviews with the Class of 2008 that many of those who attended university overseas could not have done so without that financial support.

There are few societies in the world that provide such broad economic aid for post high-school education.

“I don’t think many other countries are providing scholarships at this level, and it is super beneficial,” musician and probation officer James Geary told the Compass.

Cayman 2.0: Education and Opportunity

Opportunity can be limited for graduates

Access to opportunity upon returning to Cayman was one of the key concerns for college graduates.

Many said they were forced to take jobs in fields they hadn’t studied for, and struggled to make meaningful progress in their careers despite gaining high-level qualifications.

Richard Tyson, who features in our Class of 2008 story, said more support for scholarship graduates when they return to Cayman would be beneficial. He said he and many of his peers had struggled to find meaningful work that matched their qualifications. Many had become frustrated and left the island as a result.

He acknowledged that Workforce Opportunities and Residency Cayman was now taking some steps to help today’s graduates, and suggested more-comprehensive career planning for those in the scholarship programme would enable students – and the country – to make the most of the investment in their training.

Employment concerns for pandemic graduates

The generation of students graduating during the era of COVID-19 faces a unique set of challenges.

Data from the US suggests that half of all students surveyed reported a decrease in study hours and academic performance during the pandemic. Around 60% suffered a loss of family income and one in 10 withdrew from school completely.

Cayman’s overseas students have swapped normal university life for a return to the island and online classes in their childhood bedrooms.

Others are still studying abroad, navigating the ever-changing environment of campus life in areas where the virus is rife. Closer to home, multiple high-school graduates had to cancel plans to study in the UK or the US and are taking involuntary gap years.

While many of the students we profiled said the difficulties faced under COVID were inspiring them to work harder and meet the challenges of the changed landscape, the disruption – both to their academic careers and to the world they will graduate into – was a general cause for concern.

Mental health challenges for COVID-era students

Many students have seen their freedom curtailed and their academic plans derailed. Combined with the general anxiety of the pandemic and the surreal atmosphere of school life in 2020, this has been a recipe for mental health concerns.

Student Cristin Jackson, 18, who works with the Youth Ambassadors Programme which aims to raise awareness of mental health issues among young people, highlighted an increase in concerns during the pandemic.

She said many teenagers were dealing with additional pressures because of the pandemic, ranging from the stress of family members losing jobs to additional anxiety about exams and their futures. For some, being confined to their homes exacerbated underlying mental-health problems.

Bill LaMonte, a teacher at the Cayman International School who helps organise the Protect Our Future youth group, said the young people he sees today are more engaged with the world and its existential challenges – from fires, coral bleaching and climate change to the pandemic – than previous generations.

“I am highly concerned about the mental health of my students,” he told the Compass.

“Solution-wise, I believe we need to speak more openly about how we all are feeling and begin to normalise conversations around mental health.”

Cayman’s got talent

Over the course of this series, we spoke to dozens of students and former students from three generations. Despite the challenges they faced and the improvements many felt could be made to the system, it was also clear that Cayman is doing many things right and that there is plenty of talent and success to celebrate.

There was 8-year-old Miska Myles, who advanced two grade levels in the past year after tutoring funded by a non-profit organisation.

There was 17-year-old Lé Bron McLean filming solo dance audition tapes in his house during lockdown and winning a place to study at a prestigious performing arts school in Jamaica.

There was Monica Boothe, a teen mum who saw her partner murdered before she was 20, and has gone on to be a business owner and parent to an honour-roll student.

There were numerous courageous graduates of the Class of 2020, navigating unprecedented challenges, determined to be part of the solution to the world’s problems.

While we highlighted flaws in the system and sought solutions, we also found stories of determination and success that deserve to be saluted.

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