Calls to end ‘segregation’ in schools and allow Caymanian and expat children to sit alongside each other in the islands’ classrooms are ringing out on the election campaign trail.
There appears to be consensus among many candidates and in the community that the decades-long admissions policy that largely excludes non-Caymanians from government schools has been bad for society and bad for education outcomes.
There is less certainty, however, over if and how the situation can be altered.
“We made a fundamental error with that segregation policy,” reflects historian, educator and former politician Roy Bodden.
“We should have worked side by side with the expat parents to fund and build better schools.
“Now we excluded them and they built their own schools, better than ours, less expensive than ours and you have two sets of people graduating from each into two different Caymans.”
While there are signs of improvement in the public school system, data from the Office of Education Standards reinforces the perception that the experiences of Caymanians and non-Caymanians are separate but far from equal.
More than 80% of Caymanian students attend a school that is rated ‘satisfactory’ or ‘weak’ by the inspectorate. Meanwhile more than half of non-Caymanian students attend schools classified as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’.
Bodden worries that the problem is now “irreversible”. The two-tier system is entrenched and he believes it will be difficult, if not impossible, to change direction at this point.
Others are more optimistic.
Woody Foster, president of Literacy Is For Everyone and a member of the Education Council, has been pushing for a new approach for some time.
He believes there are established examples of new approaches to running schools that could help address the social issues that are often cited as the cause of weaker results in government schools.
Foster admits he is disillusioned that efforts to persuade government to partner with the private sector to create new schools that cater to a more diverse population have yet to bear fruit.
But he is encouraged that advocacy from LIFE and others led to legal changes that allow for public and private sector partnership on new schools.
And he believes that as Cayman looks to add new capacity – particularly at the primary school level – the chance to embrace that model still exists.
Raising standards crucial
Dan Scott, the chair of the Education Council, which advises government on policy, believes more is happening behind the scenes than people might realise.
He said establishing an active and independent schools inspectorate had created the accountability structure that would allow for more experimentation and flexibility in how schools are run.
Increasing teacher salaries, as government has done recently, also allows the island to compete globally to bring the best educators in the world to Cayman.
All these things are ‘building blocks’, argues Scott, that can help Cayman create new schools that parents of all backgrounds would want to send their children to attend.
Raising quality alongside capacity, he says, is key to desegregation.
“Parents, as consumers, are going to want to do what is best for their child, which is why it is so important that we raise standards across the board,” he said.
Private sector interest
Over the past decade there has been significant interest from the private sector in partnering with government to create new schools under a new governance model.
Pilar Bush, a graduate of what is now John Gray High School, a community advocate for youth and education, and a founding member of LIFE, was involved along with Foster and others in trying to explore different approaches, which ultimately did not get the needed buy-in to move forward.
The first was a project that would have seen four primary schools moved out of the control of the Ministry of Education.
They would have been run instead by a private sector board under a UK-style academy model – which gives more autonomy to principals.
Pilot project for new mixed school
The second proposal was for the private sector to build a new primary school that would be open to both Caymanian and non-Caymanian children.
Under that formula, the tuition costs would have been paid by parents of expat children or by government in the case of Caymanian children.
To be sustainable, she said, government would need to commit to sending, and paying for, a minimum viable number of students for at least five years.
Bush said LIFE and other concerned citizens had examined some of the most successful school systems in the world and had organised tours and presentations for government officials.
Discussions took place about a partnership to build much-needed new primary schools, especially in West Bay, Savannah and Bodden Town, but it was deemed too challenging to pursue.
Bush said there is still interest from the private sector and civic society in reviving the concept as a pilot project for a new primary school which could serve as a model of how to end segregation in Cayman’s classrooms.
“The model needs government to commit to a minimum of five years of funding the Caymanian students,” she said.
“If we open it up to non-Caymanians it is reasonable to expect that half the students would be Caymanians paid for by government and the other half non-Caymanians paid for by parents.
“Within three years it would be possible to demonstrate improvements in the educational outcomes using the same National Curriculum.”
Bush, who is also an executive vice president at Dart Enterprises, said the company was one of a number of private sector partners who are interested in investing in public education in furtherance of the United Nations Sustainable Development goal of ensuring ‘inclusive and equitable education’ for all.
“If government was willing to support a different governance model and provide a committed revenue stream by paying for the Caymanian children who would otherwise go to public school, organisations like Dart would step up to help build new schools and support the transition to ensure our children can access a quality education.”
Foster believes the academy-model seen in the UK is one good example of public and private sector partnerships that have transformed results for children.
LIFE organised a tour, in 2014, for then Minister of Education Tara Rivers and ministry officials, of various academies in London, run by the charitable trust ARK – Absolute Return for Kids.
Foster said, “Every school they went to see was from a bad neighbourhood, children from a tough background, much tougher in some cases than here, but they were running amazing schools. The behaviour model would make your head spin.”
He said there had been excitement at the time about running some Cayman schools on the same blueprint.
“At the end of the day they decided not to do it,” he added.
He still believes a Cayman version of that system – also similar to the charter school set-up in the US – would be the best way to create new mixed schools on the island. While some schools run under that formula have been less successful, he said Cayman has the opportunity and the access to mirror the most effective.
“In regards to getting expats and Caymanians socialising in an educational environment, I think that should be a priority for this country,” he said.
“The only way to do that is to bring in more seats and allow overseas students to go back into the schools like they did 40 years ago.
“There are capacity issues everywhere. It is being left to the private sector to fix that which obviously does nothing to help public schools.”
A global education
Scott, who graduated from the Cayman Islands High School, now John Gray, in 1978, agrees that desegregating schools is both desirable and achievable.
“When you get young people growing up together and you put kids in an environment where they learn about each other and become friends, you get a global education,” he said.
That is what he experienced in Cayman’s schools as a young man.
But that mixing in the classroom and on the playground fell apart in the ‘90s under an admissions policy crafted to prevent the system from being overwhelmed as the island’s population exploded.
Any attempt to resolve that issue now must involve a solution to the original problem – infrastructure. Scott agrees that the smartest and swiftest way to add new school space is to partner with the private sector.
But while he supports new governance models, he doesn’t believe it is essential to remove the Ministry of Education or the Department of Education Services from the equation to make this happen.
He believes the key to better results is autonomy for schools, particularly over the hiring and performance management of their team.
“There is work under way on that,” he said.
“Personally, I advocate for a decentralised approach. I am sure the principal of John Gray would welcome the ability to select his own team. How do you disagree with that?
“I can’t ask you to deliver the best education possible and hold you accountable for that and then not let you pick your team. I wouldn’t accept those terms.”
He believes the wheels are in motion to grant principals greater freedom, but suggests this could only happen once the inspections structure was in place to hold them accountable.
And while he believes schools should be empowered to recruit the world’s best educators, he cautions this must go alongside the training and mentoring of Caymanian teachers.
No excuses culture
Above all, Scott believes, Cayman needs to create a no-excuses culture.
He said blaming social or family problems for issues in schools was not acceptable.
“There is a subtle discrimination of low expectations.
It is easy to say the parents should do better and I am sure in some cases, yes they could be better, but we control what we can control.”
He said he had visited schools in the UK, which were achieving amazing success in poor communities, where the school population was drawn from first-generation immigrants, many of whom did not speak English as a first language.
“Our problems pale in comparison to some of those communities,” he said.
As Cayman evolves, he believes it is more crucial than ever to develop an education system that compares with the best in the world.
“Cayman is a knowledge-based economy and education is mission critical,” he said.
“We are delivering the raw material that we as employers want to hire.”
He said the demands of the next decade, as the tech sector joins financial services as a key pillar of the island’s economy, would only increase the need for a hyper-educated population.
“There is no reason we can’t do it,” he said.
“People say, ‘not everybody is going to be an accountant’ but a fishing village produces proportionately more fishermen.
“We know what our economy has to offer, we know our people are bright and capable; let’s not dumb it down.”
A divided system: What the inspections reports show
Concern that Cayman is operating in a ‘segregated’ school system is underscored by data from the Office of Education Standards.
The unit’s annual report for 2020, which summarises the outcomes of inspections from 53 public and private schools, found that only a quarter of all schools in Cayman are performing to the expected level.
Only 16% of Caymanian students are attending a school that is rated ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ by the inspectors.
One in four attend a school that is rated ‘weak’.
Further analysis of the reports, by non-profit education website the Cayman Current indicates that 53% of non-Caymanian children attend schools that are rated ‘good’ or ‘excellent’.
The difference reflects better performance in the inspections by private schools, which have a higher proportion of expat children.