Chamber forum: Major differences on education emerge among Prospect candidates

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Prospect candidates offered diverging views on the education system, as incumbent Austin Harris and challenger Sabrina Turner focussed on parental involvement and vocational training, while challenger Michael Myles addressed a number of issues, including governance structure, the cost of school capital projects, early childhood education and the practice of social promotion.

On Wednesday night, Harris, Turner and Myles participated in the third candidate forum hosted by the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce.

Myles brought with him a tall stack of documents that he said comprised nearly 20 public reports that have been produced since 2000 on Cayman Islands youth.

“If we can implement these things, everything in terms of healthcare and unemployment goes away. All we have to do is implement it with integrity. The long and short of it is … that it saves us money and heartbreak down the line,” Myles said. “What we have done is we’ve kicked it down the line. I believe that if we can get really serious with building a better education system — and not just buildings — protecting our people so they’re not falling into poverty, we are going to have a phenomenal country.”

Harris cited Prospect Primary School as a positive example of engaged parents, and he highlighted the Ministry of Education’s teacher pay increase to $5,000 per month and rollout of the new national curriculum.

“I believe these 2 approaches will reflect positively on our school inspection results in years to come. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and these issues didn’t happen overnight,” Harris said. “Certainly we have a vibrant education system, but there needs to be broader parental involvement, and stop blaming it on government or other things.”

Turner also said that parents of public school students should be more involved in their children’s education.

Turner proposed what she called her “A.C.E” programme — Adult Continuing Education — where public schools would be open at night for free technical/vocational courses taught by retired teachers or other skilled workers. She also argued for bringing Sixth Form and A Levels back into the public school system (whereas now that is only offered in private schools).

Harris agreed that technical education needs to be improved, though he noted a number of existing programmes in the public and private sectors. “We have brand new schools that are empty at night, with classroom space that could be used for training to get those who perhaps have graduated without a skill, upskilled,” he said.

Saying that if elected the most appropriate role for himself would be in education and youth, Myles pointed to his experience working in the Ministry of Education and later at Hope Academy, and establishing the Inspire Cayman Training vocational school.

“I’ve been in education for 10 years. Six of that was in the Ministry of Education. These folks don’t listen,” he said. “Everything that my esteemed colleagues have provided tonight about education, we could have been doing over the last 25-30 years. We are just talking about it.”

Myles proposed placing the Department of Children and Family Services and Department of Education Services under the same ministry “because we’re dealing with the same clients; we’re duplicating services”. He said bridging those entities would save costs.

Myles said, “We have to start looking at employing the best teachers in the world. We cannot continue to build big buildings. It’s not working. Clifton Hunter costs us $110 million. John Gray before it’s all said is done, it’s going to cost us $160 million. And yet both of these 2 schools have not been successful in passing an inspection.”

He said the government had done a good job in regulating and inspecting early childhood care and education centres, but now the government should assist by funding those programmes.

Myles noted that only 1 public school (Lighthouse School) was rated ‘Good’ by school inspectors, despite the government spending nearly $100 million on education per year. He lamented what he said was a decline in standards, accompanied by ‘social promotion’, in the public education system.

“Here’s what we have also done to our education system here. [Turner] talked about getting Sixth Form back in, but yet we have lowered the standard of education so that a child can get 5 courses in ‘Fs’, ‘Es’ or ‘Gs’; 90% attendance; and less than 15 days’ suspension; and they can get a cap and gown,” he said. “We see a lot of folks on stages shaking these kids’ hands and pushing them out the door.”

Myles said, “There’s a lot more that I can say about education because it’s a very large topic, but unless you’re funding it from the time the child is 3 or 4, we are not going to be successful when they’re on a stage receiving a diploma that’s not worth the paper it’s written on.”

The fourth candidates forum hosted by the Chamber takes place Thursday, 11 March, and features candidates from Savannah. The debates are posted on various media, including the Chamber’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.

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