Education at a crossroads: Which direction will the new government take?

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The direction of the education system in the Cayman Islands could be impacted greatly depending on the makeup of the new government and the identity of the next Minister of Education.

Alliances still have the potential to shift, but at the moment it appears that the Progressives coalition led by Roy McTaggart has the edge on the independent group led by Wayne Panton.

Although at this point anything could happen, we will take a look at candidates’ declared education policies through the framework of 2 scenarios — one where the Progressives coalition follows the plan set out in the party manifesto, and one where Panton’s group forges their own path, guided by positions staked out on the campaign trail.

Progressives coalition

It’s reasonable to expect that a new Progressives-led government would largely continue the education policies that have been put in place over the past 8 years.

That includes completing the $170 million new John Gray High School project, building on the school inspection regime that has entered its second cycle of inspections and further investing in school facilities, including on Cayman Brac.

(See our earlier story for a more in-depth look at education in the Progressives Manifesto.)

The top 3 priorities related to education in the Progressives Manifesto are: Complete the new John Gray, create a “skills strategy” to “match future skills to future jobs”, and have every public school rated ‘Good’ or better.

The Manifesto also calls for improving and/or expanding primary school facilities on Grand Cayman, completing the new high school on the Cayman Brac Bluff, converting the existing Layman E. Scott Sr. High School into a TVET campus, and creating a school on the Brac for students with special education needs.

The Progressives have not advocated for a radical reorganisation of the governance structure of education — for example, by creating an independent statutory authority to oversee education instead of the Ministry, as some independent candidates proposed.

However, the Manifesto does include plans to “Roll out new school governance arrangements (introduce governing bodies with their own delegated responsibilities to all Cayman’s schools).”

Outgoing Premier Alden McLaughlin announced the school boards project in a candidates forum in mid-March, saying the idea first would be trialled at a single public school.

At a candidates forum in April, Progressives leader McTaggart said, “Certainly I think that within the public education system, I don’t believe there is sufficient accountability. I think what we need right now is a new governance model within the public school system that would transfer a lot of the decision-making and accountability back to the schools themselves and the leadership of the schools.”

McTaggart also submitted his education platform for publication on the Cayman Current. In it, he highlights several objectives from the Manifesto.

He placed special emphasis on Early Childhood Care & Education Centres.

“Reforming early years education and the development of a new strategy for children under 5 is of particular interest to me. When kids are given the best possible support in their early years, learning is a positive experience and they develop a positive attitude toward school,” he said.

While the Manifesto is the party’s ‘master plan’ for the next 4 years, particular initiatives and programmes can be influenced by the specific makeup of the coalition government, and also by who the next Minister of Education is.

Accordingly, it also seems reasonable to expect that if Juliana O’Connor-Connolly returns for a second term as Minister of Education, there would be even greater continuity than if another party member assumes the role, or if it is taken up by an allied independent member of government.

Panton’s independents

If stability, continuity and predictability are the key characteristics of a Progressives agenda on education, then the watchword for an independent coalition government is ‘blank slate’.

The top two leaders of the evolving group of independents are Panton and Chris Saunders. Even more so than in the Progressives-led government, a coalition government’s approach to education could be largely determined by who becomes the Minister of Education.

Panton and Saunders both submitted their education platforms to the Current for publication.

In his platform, Panton highlights the gap between how much money government spends on education, and the quality of learning that public schools are providing.

He said teachers should be “performance-managed” to reward educators who achieve good results and motivate others to do the same.

Panton stopped short of advocating for specific changes to education governance, but in a candidates forum he did say that politics leads to conflicts and inconsistencies in the education system, and that the private schools’ model seems to be working better than the public schools’ model

On the subject of special education, Panton said in a debate that he supports inclusion of students with special needs or disabilities.

In his education platform, Saunders focusses on Cayman’s generations of seafarers, and how they proved that “education is not a one-size-fit-all model and that a university degree is not the only path to employment and not the only path to success”.

Arguing for the empowerment of teachers, Saunders said there’s too much government in schools and too much business influence in schools. On the flip side, he said parents should be more involved in their children’s education.

Saunders proposed that UCCI should be free for all Caymanians to attend regardless of their age.

In a candidate forum, Sanders pushed back on a question about the difference in quality between private schools and public schools, saying that the idea that “there’s something wrong with the public schools” is a misconception used by employers as an excuse not to hire Caymanians.

Going over the positions taken by other members of the independent coalition, Andre Ebanks espoused a similar idea to Panton’s about having performance pay for teachers.

Ebanks also said there should be an independent authority to govern the education system, while Jay Ebanks proposed appointing a single education professional to oversee the system.

Kenneth Bryan supported introducing a vocational track into local high schools, and Bernie Bush said government should pay for higher education costs for all Caymanians, even if they attend universities overseas.

Meanwhile, Katherine Ebanks-Wilks proposed delaying a child’s start of school by one year, so instead of starting Grade 1 at age 5, students would begin at age 6.

(For more information on candidates’ positions on key education issues, see our Campaign Report Card.)

(Also, read our story on the biggest education ideas to emerge on the 2021 campaign trail.)

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