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

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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 final entry in the three-part series.***

Peter Carpenter
Former Chief Inspector of Schools with Cayman Islands Government

Peter Carpenter

The Cayman Islands have a beautiful climate and one can enjoy a bright sunny day and a pleasant light breeze for most of the year. Of course, between June and November, we enter ‘hurricane’ season and this is the time when residents prepare for the possible arrival of much more stormy and unpredictable weather. Preparations are important and good advice from Government steers residents to purchase water in gallons and a good supply of biscuits well in advance. Weather predictions are nowadays very accurate and give everyone good notice of potential storms heading to the Caribbean. Schools are also, in general, very well prepared and the existence of many storm shelters around the islands offers protection to all in the event of an incoming storm.

There are other distinctive features of Cayman which need to be factored into the busy life of a school inspector. The wildlife, for example, is somewhat different to what you may have experienced elsewhere. I was excited, for example, about the potential opportunity to observe lessons taking place outdoors. My previous work in Scotland did not lend itself to much outdoor anything. One would need a complete set of kit, including scarves, gloves, hats, thermal underwear and waterproof jackets. So, joining a PE class outdoors in one of the government secondary schools seemed a welcome unforeseen advantage of employment in such beautiful islands.

“Be careful out there,” recommended one of the school senior leaders, midway through the inspection as I headed to the outdoor sports area. I thought this sensible guidance may have been an oblique reference to temperature control. Wear a hat. Stay in the shade. That sort of thing. It turned out to be wise but not in the way I imagined.

It was indeed hot, but there were thankfully a good number of trees spaced around the perimeter of the sports field. I could watch the lesson from beneath a tree. A chair had been considerately left under one. I would be able to see and hear all that is happening and enjoy, at the same time, a little spot of fresh air and sunshine. So, I sat and watched. There was a slightly strange musky odour.

I sat for thirty minutes and watched a rather good cricket lesson. The students, who were aged between 11 and 12 years, were being taught by a former West Indian professional cricketer. He seemed to know what he was talking about and there was a noticeable improvement in the short time I watched the session, during which the students’ grip of the bat and positioning of their feet seemed to make a significant difference to their ability to hit the ball. I was, though, somewhat distracted by that odour which seemed much more prominent that thirty minutes ago. I checked the soles of my shoes, just in case, but all was clear in that regard. Returning to the school building, I smiled and waved to the cricket teacher. He returned the gesture and waved his cricket bat with confident agility. A group of his class were also kind enough to wave and the students all seemed rather amused by the whole situation.

Arriving back in school and into the inspector base I noted that the school did seem to have some form of sewage problem because both indoors and outdoors the musky odour seemed to be somewhat pervasive. It smelled distinctively of blocked toilets and seemed to be everywhere I went. At this stage, one of my inspector colleagues pointed out that I seemed to have paint on the rear and shoulder area of my jacket. It was white and green ‘paint’ actually, and this did indeed seem to be the source of the distinctive aroma.

Green iguanas are known as ‘chicken of the tree’ because they were (up until recently, at least in Cayman) as prevalent as chickens. On my first arrival in Cayman in 2017, they were everywhere. In the church car park, waiting outside the supermarket, crossing major roads and, of course, all over school fields, hiding in trees. They are large beasts; often over five feet in length and easily weighing 20 pounds. They are not to be messed with and their mess is not to be messed with either.

So, with unprecedented financial investment in public school education, one is often asked, why is the overall performance of government schools still largely ‘acceptable’, how come the graduates are underachieving and how come there is so much general dissatisfaction with the product of government school education?

I believe the answer is complex. What is a more important question is whether things are improving, and to that, I would offer a confident ‘yes’ and ‘thank goodness it is!’. In the baseline inspections of government schools in 2013-14, almost all of the primary and secondary schools were judged to be ‘unsatisfactory’. There was an issue with academic outcomes, with leadership and also with teaching quality.

The most recent inspections conducted between 2018 and 2020 found improvements in the government schools both in leadership and in teaching. It follows that, with improved teaching, we should see improved attainment over time. The pace of improvement has to be maintained. With the quality of school leadership evident in the public schools during the last round of inspections I am hopeful of continued improvement.

The introduction of a more demanding curriculum in 2020 in primary schools and a similar plan for early secondary in 2021 lays the necessary groundwork for ongoing improvement. The pace of change would be better with greater autonomy and accountability at the school level. The recommendations made by the Inspectorate at a national level have been slow in implementation and this has led to a reduced pace of improvement to some degree.

Teachers in Cayman government schools are amongst the highest paid educational professionals in government sector around the world. They deserve every dollar but must, in return for their salary, demonstrate significant improvement in every child’s progress as part of their remit and as a factor in their annual appraisal.

I met a very creative practitioner in Cayman during a different inspection. This class of Year 1 children, aged five to six years, were observed during their drama lesson. A letter had arrived to the class during the afternoon break. Someone had slipped the letter under the classroom door. It certainly wasn’t delivered by the Cayman Postal Service because this letter was in fact almost the size of the classroom door.

The teacher ushered the class to the carpet explaining enthusiastically that the class had received this letter and we had to open it. Now, I had worked out a little while earlier that the letter had in fact been written by the teacher herself and not by anyone else. My detective work in this respect had been assisted by the teacher’s lesson plan which had fortunately been placed on a chair at the back of the class, awaiting my perusal. It was a clever piece of trickery and the teacher, weaving an unprecedented web of deceit, had indeed caught the children’s interest and curiosity. What was the letter about? We all crowded around to hear.

When the letter was opened by Serena, aged six years, and read aloud by the class together, there was a silent hush of anticipation and a feverish consumption of the content. It appeared that a tragedy of catastrophic scale had occurred, and the rest of the world had little realisation of imminent events.

Here we were, in mid-December, only ten days before Christmas and this was, it seems, a letter from Santa Claus and his wife Mrs. Claus, asking for immediate assistance from Class 1B. It explained that Santa had inadvertently slipped on the ice and had broken his leg. He had a large plaster on his right leg and would regrettably be unable to deliver any presents this year. Did Class 1B have any suggestions to help? Would they please write a letter back to Santa and dear Mrs. Claus with their ideas to resolve this national and international crisis?

Class 1B were rocked by this news. Especially Thomas, aged six years. Thomas was bursting with his desire to explain the tragedy of this situation. When the teacher eventually allowed Thomas to speak, he explained that everyone should know that he had been good for the entire year and his Mum had explained that it was a likely probability that Thomas was in line to receive a new bicycle on December 25th.

Now, this tragic set of events would jeopardise the likelihood of the arrival of Thomas’ well-deserved gift. But Thomas had a plan and he believed that everyone should listen and follow his impassioned instructions. Clearly, he explained, it was essential that there was a need for divine intervention and that we should turn to God and request a miraculous healing of Santa’s right leg. If we all just forgot about letter writing and got on our knees right now, the problem could be immediately rectified. Let’s not waste time, he asserted.

Now much of the class were in agreement with this strategy. The teacher was looking slightly worried though. “Why don’t we write down our prayer to God?” proposed the teacher. She was determined, I should give her that, but this suggestion wasn’t ‘cutting the mustard’ with most of the boys, in particular. Thomas was getting anxious with the relative inactivity of his peers.

Another pupil, Heather, only five years of age, suggested a compromise. If we all say a special prayer now, she suggests, we can ask God for a sign. Then we can write a ‘thank you’ letter to God, she assured the teacher. By this time the teacher is looking slightly perplexed and is clearly concerned that the lesson plan currently in the inspector’s hand may not be fully aligned to the actual turn of events. Hesitation wasn’t in Thomas’ mind, however, as every second of delay threatened the reality of the arrival of the precious bike. So, Archbishop Thomas assumed somewhat undemocratically his authority over the class and stood up. “Dear God,” he remonstrated, “fix Santa’s leg and give us a sign so that we know Santa is OK.”

At this exact point, a remarkable set of coincidences. In a nearby street a car alarm went off. At the same time, an ice cream van started its musical jingle, announcing arrival in an adjacent street and recording its journey onwards towards the school gate ready for the end of the school day. Then, indeed miraculously, the school fire alarm bell started with a sudden clamour, declaring an unannounced fire drill practice and the requirement for all children to be ushered into the school playground for a register check.

As the class calmly lined up at the door for evacuation, the class consensus was that these were all good signs and a clear indication of Santa’s imminent recovery. The teacher, who looked by this stage as if she was herself in need of further divine intervention, reassured Thomas that she thought indeed that his prayer had been answered and that he shouldn’t worry any longer about the bike. We will write to Santa after the fire drill, she optimistically announced and, breathing a sigh of relief, led her class to the emergency roster point.

“Man, know thyself,” said Pythagoras. I often left lessons in Cayman thinking I had learnt more than the students in the class. I also often left schools reflecting on the dedication of the leaders and teachers and the almost impossible challenge they faced at times in overcoming the barriers experienced by students in their learning.

After my time inspecting every school and every early years centre on the three islands, after eighty school visits in total and following over a thousand classroom observations over a period of three years, I am confident that many of the government and private schools are in very capable hands. I believe that the government school Principals need greater autonomy to lead and innovate.

With autonomy, of course, comes accountability and I hope there will always be a place for an impartial, objective, fair but rigorous Inspectorate. The role of the Inspectorate should always be as advocates for the students, looking out for the best in provision but demanding better for all students regardless of their home, nationality, or financial circumstances.

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

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

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