Chamber forum: Newlands candidates debate education governance, say they would not shut down a failing school

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The four candidates for the Newlands district expressed different views on potential changes to the governance structure of the Cayman Islands education system, but all agreed they would not support shutting down a school, even if it consistently fails to meet national standards.

Incumbent Alva Suckoo and challengers Roydell Carter, Raul Gonzalez and Wayne Panton participated in the fifth candidate forum hosted by the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce on Friday night.

Suckoo said he would support the creation of an authority to manage education and “to take the politics out of education”.

He said, “There obviously has to be political direction involved, and individuals on that level, where you have a minister who’s responsible for education, but the ongoing development of education I fully support taking the politics out of it.”

Suckoo said having consistency across administrations would assist in areas like seeing the results of curriculum changes, attempting to unify the public UCCI and the private ICCI, and streamlining the bureaucracy in regard to getting assistance for students with special learning needs.

Panton said education is too important to have politics involved in it, but he stopped short of advocating specifically for an independent authority or school board.

“The problem is we have a system with education which … is probably one of the few ministries where you have a department and then you have the school and the heads of the schools and the teachers. There seems to be a lot of conflict at times,” said Panton, who served as a Bodden Town MLA and Minister of Financial Services, Commerce and Environment from 2013-2017.

He said that young Caymanian educators get trained abroad, return to teach in Cayman schools, then get frustrated and leave within 3 or 4 years.

“These types of things have to be pointing toward problems with the way the system is structured,” Panton said, agreeing there is too much inconsistency between elected governments and ministers who may drop education from their portfolio after 1 term.

“I think we need to bring together all the key stakeholders and really try to examine exactly what needs to be done to address this problem [and to] stop spending so much of government’s money on our children and attaining so little compared to the private sector,” he said. “The private sector schools have models that actually work and they’re able to deliver. We need to figure out why government’s model isn’t working as well as the private sector model is.”

Carter said, “In regard to the governance of education, I do agree that it should be a separate entity governed by a board, so that there can be consistency.”

He said that the many curriculum changes over the years “have confused everyone” and said as a British Overseas Territory, Cayman should follow the UK’s lead, with localisation of certain subjects such as history and social studies.

“We’ve come a long way, I agree with that, but we need to stop twisting and struggling with the curriculum,” Carter said.

Gonzalez dissented, saying, “The government needs to lead.”

“Our kids are failing, and we’re doing an injustice to them. Sixty to 70% of our kids graduating can’t read anything. What we need to do as a government is to start to take action. Give the schools and the teachers the resources that they need in order to help the children,” he said.

He argued against ‘social promotion’, saying, “They’re not passing their exams; we’re just passing them through the system. When they graduate out into the real world, they’re not ready. For me, I won’t want to pass the buck on.”

Posed with the question of whether or not they would support closing a public or private school that consistently displays poor performance, all four candidates said they would not, with one reason being the overcrowding issues in existing schools.

Gonzalez said, “I don’t think we should be closing schools. I think what we need to do is focus on giving them the resources they need in order to educate and uplift our children.”

He said, “If we have to hold back on 2 roads, or 3 roads, to give it to education, let’s give it to education.”

Suckoo said he would not advocate for closing a school, especially considering the systemic problems that are not the school’s fault.

“I think we need to really focus on eliminating a lot of the … bureaucracy that is involved in our education system. We need to ensure that teachers have the resources that they need,” he said.

“But we also need to manage our budgets properly. We spend a lot of money on education in this country. I don’t think that taking the approach to a school that is not performing is to shut it down or punish the school is the answer. The answer has to be, let’s look at where the bottlenecks are, where the issues are and fix them,” Suckoo said.

Specifically to the broader district of Bodden Town, Suckoo called for the creation of a third primary school in the district, in addition to Theoline L. McCoy Primary School and Joanna Clarke Primary School, to relieve overcrowding in what is a fast-growing area of the island.

He referred to social and cultural issues connected to education, such as single-parent households or where both parents are working multiple jobs to make ends meet.

“I brought a motion asking for a study to be done on the economic and social and cultural reasons why our people are not advancing. It was a social mobility study. That study would have provided us with the underlying reasons why … our Caymanians are not advancing as they progres in age,” he said.

Panton said, “Given that a lot of the schools are full, I don’t think it’s really an option to close … any particular school for poor performance. I agree that we have to work with the schools and try to assess what the problem is.”

He said, “I don’t think we have an option in terms of closing down [a school]. I don’t know where else [students] are going to go.”

Panton called for an exploration into the root causes for consistently poor-performing schools — “why, even though there are consistent reviews, and the same weaknesses are identified over and over, why those weaknesses are not being addressed. Until we can do that, we’re going to be failing our schools. We’re failing our students. We’re failing the people of the country. We’re failing our future.”

Carter said, “Definitely I would not close a school given the circumstances.”

However, he did say it would be fair to put a school on ‘probation’ if it consistently fails inspections.

“If that particular institution continues to fail — this probation is not closing, but it is an early indication to the parents and to the rest of the education community that we really need to focus on upgrading that school, improving that school because children need to have first-class education in this country,” he said.

The sixth candidates forum hosted by the Chamber takes place Monday, 15 March, and features candidates from Red Bay. The debates are posted on various media, including the Chamber’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.

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