Reading Michael Craton’s formative history of the Cayman Islands, Founded Upon the Seas, it’s obvious to see that formal education in the country had a slow start. Severely underfunded under the governance of Jamaica on behalf of the Crown, and without a plantocracy to support infrastructural development, the Islands were virtually Robinson Crusoe outposts in the early years, and only a few trained teachers trickled in. One of the first brave souls to champion education in post emancipation Cayman was an Anglican minister and teacher Andrew Malcolm in the mid-1800s. It is said that he, “suffered from social isolation, heat and mosquitoes…” writes Craton, and faced backlash from former slave owners who wanted a school with segregated facilities. Malcolm, like other teachers who followed during that period, arrived to a country with almost no infrastructure.
Fast forward almost an entire century to 1920 when Cayman’s first Education Act was finally passed, making education mandatory for children ages seven to 14 and public education free for all. Yet, only 1,500 pounds sterling per annum was set aside to fund public education. The country then had to wait almost two more decades for the first secondary school to be established, which was privately funded by the Church of God. Cayman’s first public secondary school, the Cayman High School, wasn’t established until 1949 by the Presbyterian Church, with government later taking over.
Many of Cayman’s brightest citizens are products of the public school system: Partner of Ernst & Young, Rohan Small, Chief Officer in the Ministry of Financial Services, Dr. Dax Basdeo; and partner of Walkers, Dorothy Scott are respected professionals who are all graduates of The Cayman Islands High School. Some students such as former Clifton Hunter High School honour student Derricka Neysmith, are flourishing, receiving 13 honour passes before receiving a scholarship to attend Cayman Prep and High School (CPHS) to complete her A Levels. In 2017, this 17 year old received the ‘Top In The World’ award from Cambridge International Examinations.
The calibre of such students in our public schools indicates that the system is not a categorical failure as is often claimed. Unfortunately, based on recent findings, students like Ms. Neysmith are not the norm. In fact, the opposite appears to be the case: students are having difficulty thriving in Cayman’s public schools.
A retired teacher told Cayman Parent that when she arrived to Grand Cayman in the early 70s, she found a culture of ‘underperformance’ among students. Coming from a leading private school in a larger Caribbean country, where competition and expectations were greater, this former teacher said she was shocked to find a laissez-faire approach to learning among students supported by low expectations of public school educators. These attitudes may have indeed existed in Cayman’s public schools, possibly fuelled by the promise of easy employment when Cayman’s economy was less developed. If so, those days of easy employment have certainly passed, with the laissez-faire attitude arguably slow to change.
Then in the 1980s, anti-social behaviour within Cayman’s public schools reared its ugly head. Colin Ross, a former principal at the Cayman Islands Middle School said that when he gave his commencement address in 1986, he spoke about the emergence of gangs on-Island based on first-hand accounts he received from his students and observations he and other senior staff made of gang loyalties on the school compound. Weapons were also trickling into the school and it was an open secret among educators that some young boys, who were members of Cayman’s first wave of gangs, were participating in criminal activity such as the selling of illegal drugs. More troubling was that some of these students were exhibiting acute anti-social behaviours, which hinted at untreated mental health problems. School principals reported what they witnessed to their superiors but support from certain key government officials was not forthcoming, at least initially. Apparently there were concerns that this admission would be damaging to the profile of Cayman’s public schools.
A 2006 report, The Predisposing Factors to Criminality in the Cayman Islands, — referred to simply as the Yolande Forde Report after the criminologist who authored it — found that a significant number of prison inmates at Her Majesty’s Prison Northward that attended public school had poor literacy and numeracy skills. Some were illiterate and a few never graduated at all. It reported that from an early age they displayed a host of developmental challenges and antisocial behaviours, including drug use, that were never effectively addressed at home or in school. Most of the male inmates in Forde’s report were products of highly dysfunctional homes where discipline, positive reinforcement and supervision were nearly non-existent, setting them up for a life of criminality.
Six years later, in 2012, it was revealed that a report with serious implications about behaviour management in Cayman’s public schools may have been altered by government officials. This report, drafted by British consultant David Moore, claimed that a small number of students influenced by criminal intent and drug use were having an overwhelming effect on school life. The report also alleged that John Gray High School was in crisis.
While there may have been some reluctance in the past to acknowledge or even to suppress criminality or gang participation among Cayman’s public school students, the digital era has made the bury-your-head-in-the-sand response seem absurd. Smartphone usage is ubiquitous among public school students, who freely share antisocial behaviours recorded on or off school grounds with friends and family on social media. In 2015, it was reported that two 15-year-old public school students were arrested following a violent brawl that may have involved more than five other students. No serious injuries were reported, but sources in youth development claimed that the recent escalation in violence among young people in Cayman was due to the unmitigated gang problem in Grand Cayman which has been escalating since the 80s.
Another factor that must be considered in assessing the state of public education is that Cayman experienced tremendous economic growth in the past 40 years. If growth isn’t carefully planned for or projected, it can exert enormous stress on small island countries.
Looking at Cayman’s economic progression from the 1970s to the present day, you see the development of the financial services industry as well as an enormous population increase: Cayman’s economic profile literally transformed. Additionally, the money that flowed into the country during this period of economic growth triggered unprecedented infrastructural growth and prosperity. But many believe Cayman’s public education system was not preparing its students to take advantage of post-graduation opportunities in such a developed economy.
One government official told Cayman Parent that there was less inclination to focus on improving standards within public education because from the 70s well into the 90s, employment opportunities were plentiful and corporate culture supported investing in on-the-job training. Today, attitudes have changed: many private sector employers are more inclined to give preference to employees who can hit the ground running, and are less willing to invest in graduates who may require more on-the-job training. Likewise, companies today are less inclined to employ graduates who have few GCSEs passes and who lack basic literacy, numeracy and computer skills.
While the standards in public education may not have kept in step with the Islands’ economic growth, government investments in education did keep apace. Cayman Parent spoke to one teacher who remembers when the Lighthouse School was first established in 1976. The administration of the day saw the widening educational gap for children with moderate to severe special needs and disabilities and made a key investment in establishing a primary and secondary school focused on these needs. Today, there are over 100 students enroled at the Lighthouse School and in 2015 it was recognised as an ASDAN Centre of Excellence for Inclusive Curriculum.
Another important capital development in 1976 which laid the foundation for public education in the Cayman Islands was the establishment of a community college. This institution later grew into the University College of the Cayman Islands and currently offers programmes at an Associates, Bachelors and Masters Level. Another notable investment in public education was made in the mid-80s, when the Cayman Middle School was built. Offering students aged 10 to 13 a mixed curriculum of core academics, art, music, and technical and vocational classes such as technical drawing and cookery, the school was seen as a success story of its day.
Several decades later, public opinion is that the public education system is lacking in resources, specifically when reports abound of teachers having to purchase classroom supplies out of their own pocket, and particularly when compared to neighbouring Caribbean countries whose students perform better in external examinations. But one only has to look at the $110 million expenditure for the planning and construction of Clifton Hunter High School — a sleek, modern educational institution beleaguered by poor public opinion due to its excessive cost. Evidently, the public education system is not lacking in resources.
According to one former education official who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being blacklisted, Cayman’s public school system lacks not funding but often technical expertise in how to effectively apply resources. The management of the construction of Clifton Hunter High School is just one example. Former Auditor General Alistair Swarbrick stated in his report Major Capital Projects – Schools (2015), “the Ministry of Education demonstrated that it does not have the capacity to deliver major capital projects in a manner that ensures that value for money is achieved.” Clifton Hunter is currently operational, but is plagued by ongoing repairs to correct a myriad of issues including electrical, mechanical, plumbing, floors, and other critical structural repairs.
In 2014 the quality of teaching became another negative headline, when the International Schools Inspection Consultancy (ISIC) inspected 15 public schools in Cayman (including those in Cayman Brac) and found that teaching standards were inconsistent, and in some cases unsatisfactory. The system-wide review was commissioned by former Minister of Education Hon. Tara Rivers to establish a baseline of achievement to date and to get a comprehensive overview of what was working and what required improvement in public schools. The report, which can be viewed on the Ministry of Education website, found that core competencies and mathematical understanding were well below average for certain teachers. The inspection team found that Cayman falls below the United Kingdom’s (England’s) national average when it comes to achieving a level 2 pass in English by end of Year 11, and that standards of achievement in English are improving only at a very slow pace, despite reported progress over recent years. It should be noted that England’s data is presented in aggregate across all public and private schools in the country where Cayman reports on public schools data only.
Also during the 2014-2015 school year, as a part of a government-sponsored system-wide review, KPMG conducted an independent review of Cayman Islands’ Public Education System and found that parents and PTA members of public schools interviewed were dissatisfied with the quality of teaching, reporting that: “There appeared to be some anger and frustration at a lack of high quality resources, not just the amount, but the frequency of use. This was particularly aimed at the quality of teaching, where it was stated that there were too many ‘poor’ teachers in the sector …”
In response to these findings, the Ministry of Education directed more resources to support teachers in up-skilling and learning new teaching methodologies. They also partnered with leading education experts, including Dr. Avis Glaze, who has assisted in reforming educational systems worldwide, to create programmes aimed at improving teaching skills. The Ministry also launched professional development events for public school teachers in Cayman. Mandatory annual minimum Professional Development (PD) hours for all teachers have been adopted as part of a new PD policy introduced in 2015. Teachers’ aides were also a part of this reform, and many aides had to up-skill and improve their numeracy and literacy skills before returning to the classroom. In response to the International Schools Inspection findings and the KPMG Report, the 2016-2017 Education Plan of Action was developed collaboratively by the Ministry, the Department of Education Services and all public school Principals. Its aim, among other things, was to improve the quality of teaching in public schools, and was endorsed by Dr. Glaze as “outstanding”. The implementation of this Plan is ongoing.
When it comes to the state of public education, teachers are often the patsies for every government ill. But that sentiment ignores one glaring challenge: the political will of the day and whether education is placed high on Cabinet’s agenda. Largely, this is dependent on who’s in office, who the Chief Officer of Education is, and who has the leadership role in government. Since Truman Bodden’s tenure as Education Minister from 1992 to 2000, Cayman has not had one consecutive two-term Minister of Education. A changing of the guard every four years has led to a lack of continuity, resulting in a system that is constantly in flux.
Government sources told Cayman Parent that every new Minister of Education comes with their own political agenda, which can greatly be at odds with their predecessor’s, leaving civil servants scrambling. It’s important to note that constitutionally, every Minister of Cabinet is responsible for formulation and implementation of policy within their respective Ministries, therefore a Minister of Education is in fact permitted to set differing agendas from their predecessors. Therein lies the challenge.
In 2015, as a first step response to the challenges in public school culture, the Ministry of Education developed and adopted the Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports (PBIS) framework with a four-year implementation plan. During the 2015-16 school year, international PBIS specialist George Sugai conducted training sessions for senior staff and school team leaders at Cayman’s public schools. And beginning in the 2016-2017 school year, all public schools (including those in Cayman Brac), created a School Climate and Achievement Team, which established a set of universal expectations for school behaviour focusing on the core behaviours of respect, responsibility, and safety. But is this just more policies on paper?
The Ministry of Education maintains that the PBIS framework represents the first system-wide behaviour initiative for public schools that is holistic, student-driven and capable of producing quantifiable data. Since the launch of this programme, officials have seen significant improvements in school culture. There has also been a dramatic improvement in the behavioural incidents in the high schools in Grand Cayman. In 2016 it was reported that the serious behavioural incidents requiring exclusion (e.g. suspension or expulsion) from John Gray High School reduced by 57% in just one year.
While the success of PBIS has brought measurable improvements to Cayman’s public schools other factors can impede a student’s success in the classroom, including a high-conflict home life, disengaged family members or poor nutrition. These factors present a daily challenge for public school educators.
While the Department of Children and Family Services is responsible for family support initiatives like providing free lunches and uniforms, and NGOs such as Feed Our Future provide balanced meals to children in need, former Minister of Education Hon. Tara Rivers maintains that solving these complex social issues is not the sole responsibility of the government or NGOs; families must accept more responsibility for their children. She adds, “Parents or guardians who do not play an active role in the education of their children are not only setting them up for failure in the classroom, but also in life.”
While there are exceptional children who come from high-conflict households (with unsupportive family members), possessing innate skills to circumvent the overwhelming odds stacked against them, most young learners require active parental participation in the education process. A study in 2012 by researchers at North Carolina State University, Brigham Young University and the University of California-Irvine, found that parental involvement such as checking homework, attending school meetings and events, and talking-over school activities at home, have the most powerful influence on a student’s academic performance.
The new Education Law, 2016, which used the earlier Education Modernization Law, 2009 as a starting point for development, was passed in October 2016. This new legislation encapsulates the collaborative 2016-2017 Education Plan of Action in turn based on the ISIC findings and KPMG’s report, and therefore has the potential for transformational changes within the system. This new law was slowly being implemented just before the 2017 election in May. During the run-up to the elections, insiders within the Ministry of Education worried that a possible change in leadership could derail all that was accomplished in the last four years, as the previous Education Minister Hon. Rivers did not assume the role of Minister of Education in the new government administration — she’s currently Minister of Financial Services and Home Affairs. However, it is expected that the work that was completed during her four year tenure will continue. The Cabinet is still PPM-led, with a consecutive two-term Premier at the helm, and the current Minister of Education Hon. Julianna O’Connor Connolly is likewise a PPM member. The hope therefore is that there should be no unexpected deviations in policy and legislation adopted by the previous PPM-led government.
While the new Education Law may bring real change to the system, Andrea Bryan, a member of literacy group LIFE and retired Chief Officer in Government, argues that “a law will only work if there is a willingness to make meaningful change and there is effective implementation.” This is where the role of the Chief Officer for Education and other civil servants, including educators, come in play.
Based on progress in recent years, some insiders remain hopeful. Strides made in establishing full-time, non-teaching, Special Education Needs Coordinators at all government schools, for example, ensuring dedicated and attentive support for children with special education needs and disabilities, were considered a critical achievement.
In 2016, the Ministry of Education also spearheaded Child Protection training for 171 public school workers, consistent with international standards on the safety of children. It should also be highlighted that the new Education Law mandates that across the Cayman Islands, corporal punishment and excessive force against children in schools is against the law. For more information about what has been accomplished, visit the Ministry of Education website, www.education.gov.ky/education.
There has also been effective private-public partnerships in recent years, with Cayman Finance’s pilot project being just one of the laudable successes. In 2015, the Cayman Finance Student Education and Work Experience Programme was developed in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Financial Services to educate young Caymanians in Year 12 about the importance of the financial services industry, and creating a channel for students who show an interest in pursuing careers in the industry. Cayman Finance reports that over 68 students completed the programme which includes classroom workshops and one-on-one mentorship, with 64 more students accepting work experience and placements at 29 organisations. Another exceptional partnership — one much needed in Cayman’s public schools — is the partnership between LIFE, a charitable organisation dedicated to addressing literacy issues in the Cayman Islands, and the Government. LIFE offers reading intervention programmes to primary and secondary students and also donates books to public school libraries. “These are some of the effective programmes that LIFE runs as part of our coordinated literacy programme in public schools”, said Chairman for LIFE, Woody Foster. But is there room for even more public sector participation and leadership?
Woody Foster certainly believes so. “While the government has a constitutional mandate to direct education policy, there should be an independent body comprised of experts and stakeholders from both the private and public sector to provide governance to public schools and to also hold the Ministry of Education accountable”, said Mr. Foster. He adds “changing laws and creating plans is one thing, but there needs to be more accountability for our government and school leaders; not only on how they use the country’s resources but also how they are managing the education of such a large number of Cayman’s children — a poorly managed and underperforming public school system affects everyone in this country.”
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