Chamber Forum: West Bay Central candidates discuss public education stigma, primary school reform, segregation policy

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With both identifying education as a major issue facing the country, West Bay Central incumbent Eugene Ebanks said there is a wrongful stigma against public schools, while challenger Katherine Ebanks-Wilks argued for reform at the primary school level, including delaying the starting age for students by one year.

Both candidates participated in the 11th candidate forum hosted by the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce on Monday night.

Ebanks said, “The biggest challenge that I see right now to the education system is this perception of the current system … that the private schools are better than the public schools. However you must remember that the public schools offer more opportunities than the private schools.”

He said, “I think you have to get rid of that stigma or perception that you have to go to a private school to get a good education. We have excellent public schools.”

[Editor’s Note: See our Schools Explorer series to read stories about the performance of all public and private schools on government inspection reports.]

On the other hand, Ebanks-Wilks said many new graduates are not prepared to enter the workforce, and that’s why they can’t find jobs.

“The way to address that would be to first ensure that from the very foundation of primary school levels, that our children have a strong foundation in phonics,” Ebanks-Wilks said.

“My suggestion would be to look at increasing the age for Grade 1; rather than our primary students starting at 5 years old, starting at 6. And then increasing the pre-K or reception age also,” she said.

She also proposed tailoring programmes to children with different learning styles and abilities, and quickly identified students who are falling behind to give them immediate support.

On the issue of segregation, Ebanks said it’s one of the biggest issues children face today, and that it should be eliminated.

Ebanks-Wilks said there is not enough capacity in public schools to accept non-Caymanian students because the population is growing so quickly.

“Whilst we want to remove the segregation, in order to do that we first have to take a long-term look at where we’re going as a country and how rapidly we are growing,” she said.

[Editor’s Note: See our story on school enrolment and capacity to find the number of available seats in each public school. Also note that since 2010, public school enrolment has increased by 5%, with far more growth occurring in private schools.]

Ebanks-Wilks promoted establishing public-private partnerships with trade schools to ensure that Caymanian are secured jobs upon graduation.

Ebanks lauded the Public Works Department’s apprenticeship programme, calling it “one of the biggest pluses we have had as far as education for school leavers is concerned”.

On the subject of student safety, Ebanks said he was very concerned with the issue of drugs in schools.

He said, “I think it takes greater parental and teacher supervision to bring this under control. We have allocated more funds for better security at the schools.”

[Editor’s Note: See our story on the 150% increase in costs for private security at public schools over the past 10 years. Additionally the Current is working on a story on student exclusions at the secondary school level. Our early analysis indicates that exclusions (suspensions) for drugs, alcohol and tobacco have declined very slightly over the past 10 years at John Gray High School. The incidence rates are comparatively higher at Clifton Hunter but the data for that school is not as complete.]

Ebanks-Wilks also highlighted student safety, saying she would try to ensure that anti-bullying legislation is implemented within 100 days of the election.

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