‘Do you know your numbers to 10?’: Reflections on life as a school inspector in Cayman

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***Editor’s Note: We are pleased to feature a Viewpoint from Peter Carpenter, the former Director of the Office of Education Standards. (Click to expand.)

As the Chief Inspector of schools from October 2017-December 2020, Carpenter and his team visited every one of the more than 50 public and private institutions in the Cayman Islands, from early years to CIFEC. Previously Carpenter was director of school inspections in Dubai, lead inspector for primary education in Scotland, principal of two schools in England, and a teacher for 30 years. Now ensconced with family in Dubai, Carpenter has penned a perspective on his time in Cayman. Informed by his international and local experience, his commentary is light-hearted and humorous, but also deeply informative about fundamental issues in Cayman education. This is the first of a three-part series that we will publish over the next week.***

Peter Carpenter
Former Chief Inspector of Schools with Cayman Islands Government

Peter Carpenter

The schools of the Cayman Islands, particularly the government schools, are most distinctive. Designed to nestle harmoniously among the traditional Caribbean dwellings of the islands, the primary schools, in particular, give an outward impression of being somewhat older than they actually are. Yet far from being old and fragile, in truth these schools were built to withstand the force of hurricanes and to protect all who would learn and teach within them. ‘Simple but also Palladian’ is how an architect might describe them.

The character which seeps from their colourful exteriors is further heightened within, where classroom displays give honour to local heroes, the Cayman Islands flag and very importantly, the islands’ Christian ethos which is so central to the dedicated people who serve the children in each institution.

I first came across the confident self-assurance of the public-school pupil early in my time in Cayman, in November 2017. It was, in fact, during my first inspection of a public primary school. Quite early in the three-day visit, I joined a Reception-age class. It was a busy environment and I realised by glancing for a second through the window into the room, that the purposeful ethos reflected the work of a dedicated, skilled teacher. It was a peaceful environment and diligent children were engaged at their seats drawing pictures. Around them were the familiar tools of the trade: pencils, erasers, shatterproof rulers, and faithful, well-used and distinctly smelling Crayola wax crayons.

Busy with their tongues protruding from the sides of their mouths and watching furtively from the corner of their eyes assessing the achievements of their peers, the mini people were quiet and determined. They shared a task and as such required considerable attention to master all that was required of them.

Enter the school inspector — and, for half a second, all eyes are raised from their desks. Teacher too, sitting at one of the tables, offers a brief smile communicating our common dilemma. One teaching and one evaluating. A mutual agreement of empathy is quickly shared, and business begins.

It is a Religious Education lesson. My years of teaching, professional training and inspector experience give an inclination that this is so. I am helped also though by the class whiteboard which, alongside the red-ink script, ‘What is God like?’, also has a large poster bearing a man with distinctly Charlton Heston-like characteristics.

I sit next to the first table I can. The chairs are, of course, not designed for such as I. But I am an expert at this business. The trick isn’t to actually sit on infant-size furniture. Such would be asking for an incident of reputational damage status. No. Crouch and allow some weight, but not all. Just allow yourself to be balanced and use the table to keep on an even keel.

Now, what we want to check in such a context is not just whether the children are engaged, but do they understand what they are supposed to be learning about, and equally importantly, how good are their spoken language skills? In this group, there are six children. Positioned strategically at the lengthy edges of their different trapezium-shaped tables, they all glance up and proudly lift their drawings for my admiration.
I ask one boy, “What are you drawing?”

“I’m drawing a picture of God,” he replies, hardly stopping and busily adjusting his crayon-grip to maximise leverage.

“Well, that’s interesting,” I pursue the matter. “It must be very difficult to draw a picture of God?”

“No.” Is the curt reply. Without much elucidation or elaboration.

“Oh, I thought it must be difficult to draw God because no-one really knows what He looks like.”

“Well, you’ll know when I’ve finished,” he offers. And my religious ignorance is abruptly and forthrightly admonished.

Everyone, of course, is an expert about Education. Because we have all been through an education of some form or another, naturally we have a view about what works, or did not work for us. There are those who like to remind us of how they were battered around the head by a particularly fierce and aggressive secondary woodwork teacher. Also, those who succumbed to the eagle-eyed accuracy of another teacher, who was able to hurl a blackboard duster from a distance of five metres with pin-point precision. Another made maximum use of those shatterproof rulers to manage wandering, tapping fingers. In all cases, ‘it never did us any harm’.

In Cayman, the general population is no different. In 2017, when we held ‘town hall’ meetings about education, I was reminded of the importance of consultation. Little did I know what that meant in a local context. The first ‘consultation’ meeting was held in a remote, rural part of the largest island, Grand Cayman, in one of the primary schools. Full of enthusiasm, I ordered a fair supply of ‘Subway’ sandwiches and awaited the hordes. By 7.30pm, 30 minutes after the due commencement of this planned consultation, not one person had arrived. I consumed three Subway sandwiches and my colleague managed two. We decided to pack away at around 7.45pm and agreed that consultation about education was not a priority for this particular community. But then, the sound of footsteps in the corridor heralded the arrival of Mrs. Ebanks (not her real name, just in case you wondered).

Now, Mrs. Ebanks was a matriarchal figure to everyone on this side of the island and was a force to be reckoned with in terms of educational knowledge and expertise. Educated herself in the government school system, she knew every teacher and every child in the local secondary school. She would gladly let you know who was a good teacher and who was not. Why were we bothering with a government strategy of educational development, involving extensive school inspections and curriculum reform? We should have just asked Mrs. Ebanks for her views and not bothered with school visits at all. Just think of all of the government funds we could have saved. We could have asked Mrs. Ebanks to share her insightful knowledge and that would save so much time and energy. Anyway, that was Mrs. Ebanks’ suggestion.

Furthermore, Mrs. Ebanks had little time for previous incumbents within the Ministry of Education. All were either corrupt or incompetent. Mrs. Ebanks reminded us that graduates of the public school system were without doubt unemployable. Perhaps, with the exception of her own children and her friend’s son, who was an absolute treasure, they were all ‘vagabonds’. The lot of them. After our two-hour ‘discussion’, involving initially listening, and nodding, but then developing to sighing, openly looking at our watches and finally standing up and walking slowly but with determination towards the exit, we managed to direct Mrs. Ebanks home, accompanied by her bulging handbag of gifted Subway sandwiches.

At the next public meeting, the following evening, we had a better turnout. I was grateful, as was my colleague, because the possibility of consuming a single Subway sandwich had us both retching, turning pale and feeling slightly wobbly at the knees. There were more than twenty folk at this ‘town hall’. Surprisingly, we had another twenty experts, all of whom were also, incidentally, world experts on education and overall, helpfully forthright and lacking in any form of modesty and humility. The first speaker shared a solemn vow which sparked a hush amongst the listening audience. Swearing on her mother’s life and everyone ‘knows what a good mother she had been’. A few nods of agreement and a deep solemnity evident. There was no way that she was going to put up with any more English folk coming to Cayman and telling us what to do with our education system. That was a helpful start.

It continued in a similar vein. Two other particularly vociferous ladies added to the good humour by explaining how education overall was a lost cause and the poor state of things was a direct consequence of our abandonment of what was loosely referred to as ‘traditional methods’. When pressed for elucidation (‘Why, oh why, did you ask?’) this seemed to include ‘capital’ punishment, the extensive use of any kind of textbook and good ‘essential’ resources, such as shatterproof rulers. I think she meant ‘corporal’ punishment, but I didn’t risk correcting her in full flow.

At the end of an hour of what felt like heart-shattering intellectual insight, the temptation of Subway sandwiches and Diet Pepsi helped curtail the extended debate and the audience drifted home. The next day I discovered that most of the audience were indeed education experts. Several were former Headteachers or Deputy Headteachers, of failed or failing schools, either retired or ‘retired early’ which turned out to be a local euphemism for ‘sacked’. So, experts prevail and in the realm of educational reform, empathy towards the efforts of current incumbents seemed a remote or rather anachronistic trait.

However, in the same audience was a Jamaican gentleman, silent throughout but keen to ask at the end of the session about the plans for school improvement being offered by the government. He was a successful local businessman. His company was active in providing free services to government schools both in-kind and in real terms, particularly financial assistance. He spoke by his actions, which were both philanthropic and generous-minded. Another man was seated at the back of the hall throughout and without any spoken contribution, completed the end-of-session survey, with a succinct piece of written advice: ‘Be honest in your judgements but be kind in your feedback’.

The educational inspectorate, in a two-year period, observed every teacher in every school in Cayman. The published reports celebrated the notable improvements in government school leadership and in the quality of teaching in the public schools, since the last round of inspections around three years previously. The truth was that the quality of education in certain private schools was much worse than in public sector provision. Yet, in most media and in the general perception, the government schools and, by implication, the government itself, was ‘failing’ the public it served.

Prior to every inspection of a school in Cayman, either public or private, a survey was sent to parents, staff and older students asking a series of questions about the work of the school. Responses differed from one school to the next, as you might expect. But across all public schools one thing did stand out. The number of parents who responded was relatively low in many of the government schools. Furthermore, when we asked about the degree of parental involvement in the schools, staff and also parents themselves stated that this was a fundamental problem. A significant number of parents were not consistently involved in their children’s education in government schools.

In primary schools they didn’t help as much as they could in school, with school trips, with the PTA. In terms of homework and supporting learning at home, too many were surprisingly inactive. Children did their homework on the bus on the way to school. ‘Reading record’ diaries were full of children’s self-regulatory checks, encouraged by their teacher. ‘I read quite well’, writes Dean, aged seven years, because mum or dad were too busy or perhaps unable to help.

Children were tired and irritable because they hadn’t slept enough the previous night. They were disorganised, with no PE kit, no pencils or pens, sometimes no lunch or breakfast. Local charitable organisations provided free breakfasts and reading books. Volunteers from ‘Life’ (Literacy Is for Everyone) came into the schools every week to listen to individual students read. Charitable groups provided school stationery and frequently, after-school care. In many ways, the government schools seemed to be battling poverty and apathy and a social divide exacerbated by a rule which restricted public school access only to Caymanian children and the children of civil servants.

And the divide is widening. A few of the private schools in Cayman are as good as you would find anywhere in the world. But their fees reflected this. After the first round of school inspections and following an analysis of school fees, it was clear that there was a predictable pattern arising. Good private schools were expensive and there were scarcely any examples of schools whose fees were in the low to middle range and which offered a good overall quality of education.

That is the dilemma faced by government. Quite rightly, the effort is being made to help every school reach a ‘good’ standard as defined by the framework for school self-evaluation, ‘Successful Schools and Achieving Students’. There is some way to go but the direction is right and, increasingly, the strategies are effective.

‘Do you know your numbers to 10?’: Reflections on life as a school inspector in Cayman (2 of 3)

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