Failure to lead on education

| 29/04/2014

Everyone says it: ‘the children are our future’, ‘education is the “key”’, ‘better to teach a man how to fish than to feed him’, etc. It all boils down to the same widely accepted set of conclusions: that education is arguable the most important aspect of a society’s development, success and progression. That education is the best value-for-money investment a country could make towards reduced poverty and enriched livelihoods of its people; that education is one of the easiest ways to target the issue of unemployment.

But the constant failure of the Cayman Islands to address its deficiencies in the country’s education system is not just ironic and worrying in the above context, it's completely baffling.

Politician after politician has made strong campaign promises to fix the education system in the Cayman Islands only to leave office with that system being perceived as worse off than they found it.


For sure, no one should underestimate the extent of work required to address education in this country. Finance, the role and quality of teachers, parents, curriculum and a range of other factors all impact the extent to which this country will ever experience ‘success’ in our education system.

But we should expect to see an improvement. At a minimum we should expect to see a clear effort to make positive changes towards our ultimate goal. And we absolutely must expect honesty when politicians promise positive changes. (That may be somewhat naïve but we should still expect it.)

Politicians continue to fail to lead on education because they refuse to do the simple things or answer a few key questions:

  • What are the skills being demanded now in the Cayman Islands labour market, and what are the ones projected in the future?
  • How is our current curriculum catering to that current and future need?
  • When was the last time we carried out an assessment of the extent to which our education system was delivering what we need it to deliver?
  • Why is the system so intensely politicized, either by the intrusion of politicians or parents?
  • Why do we have strategy after strategy being 'fine-tuned' by successive administrations to no true end/result?
  • What are our leaders doing to make us all believe (so intensely) that education is not truly a priority of the government?

It may take forever to get answers to such questions. In the meantime the people can conclude from widely accepted anecdotal evidence that:

  • The quality of high school graduates, particularly from the public schools, falls far short of that being demandedby the private sector.
  • The government then 'helps' to take up the slack by employing some of these students.
  • UCCI, the local government owned community college, is barely respected in the private sector, with possibly a few exceptions.
  • There are almost 20,000 work permit holders and while many of these are low skilled workers, there are likely several thousand middle to high wage earning jobs that Caymanians would have access to if they were better prepared by our education system.
  • The substandard education continues to impact our democracy because far too many voters continue to be too easily manipulated by politicians who get through their election campaigns with almost no discussion on policy or what they will do to address the country’s issues.
  • Behavioural issues which have existed in the schools for the best part of two decades have only gotten worse with each new political administration.
  • The government has made a significant investment into the physical facilities in the public sector education system. It now needs to urgently make a similar investment into the quality of the teachers and the actual curriculum (by answering some of the questions listed above), so that the former investment is not a complete waste of public funds.

Our leaders, it seems, spend an inordinate amount of time researching options and having back to back meetings. We would like for them to make the assessment, speak with the stakeholders and make decisions on what actions to take. Then take those actions with urgency.

Are we all just being too naïve in expecting that? Or are they failing us?

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Cayman needs to look to the success of the UK system

  2. Anonymous says:

    What puzzles me are those members of the civil service who are responsible for education and who seem to refuse to admit or accept that the education system in the Cayman Islands is broken.

    What is the basis of Tara Rivers as head of education?  Has she been a teacher?  She will listen to the education civil servants who present themselves as professionals in this area.  I do not blame Tara Rivers as she is like any other politician who has preceded her in this position.  The so called professional civil servants have failed the politicans who has been tasked to head the education ministry.

    Until order is returned to the classroom teaching by any teacher is very difficult.  Blame the foreign teachers as that is the easy excuse if it allows you to feel better but you fool yourself. Out of control youth disrupt the classroom and leave the learning environment in chaos.

    The recent incident where a teacher was punched in the face and kicked while on the floor by a 15 year old student provided a fine example of a broken system.  What do you think the other students in that classroom were thinking while experiencing this chaos?

    Trouble makers need to be identified and dealt with, teachers need to be supported by the administration.  The fact that there is little of no support for teachers tells me the administration within the school system is failing the country.

    I hope Tara Rivers holds these civil servants responsible and accountable for this broken system and does not accept feeble excuses. Clean out the dead wood in the education ministry and clean up this mess.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The fact that the Education portfolio did not go to a credible politician shows how important it is to the Government.  They are more interested in the dump going anywhere but Bodden Town than improving public education.

    • Anonymous says:

      I would say that the minister was not credible. in fact she seemed like the perfect candidate to lead education. Its just that she turned out to not have what it takes to carry out the job once she saw what it really was. on the face of it many of those recently elected especially the new ones seem like good candidates. But now we know that they lack the courage and commitment or pragmatism to get anything change in the way things are done around here. they are controlled by the more experienced politicians and thats a shame.



  4. Anonymous says:

    This says it all. unfortunately no one is listening. we wil get that unfortunate wake up call when things take a turn for the worse socially.

  5. Anonymous says:

    101, your piece neatly provides a riposte to its own conundrum.  

    Please allow me to cite a rare agreement with Ronald Reagan's famous aphorism that "Government is not the solution to our problems, it is the problem".  

    The problem with education is that people look to the government to provide the answer and that government dutifully takes up the challenge.  Not only does it inevitably fail to deliver, but much worse, it fails to learn from each successive failure.

    Everything has a learning curve.  Unsurprisingly, this applies to education policy as much as it applies to riding a bike, with one crucial difference.  Falling off a bike is a form of immediate feedback that tells you if you're doing something wrong.  When learning to ride a bike, you don't so much learn to ride as learn to not fall off.  This is what is known in education terms as "a steep learning curve".  Even at the tender age of 5, one can become proficient at riding a bike in a matter of hours.  What does not help you learn to ride a bike is watching someone else falling off theirs (for any length of time).

    Unfortunately, the education policy equivalent of falling off the bike, is the under-employment of a generation of our children.  This is quite possibly the slowest feedback loop known to man.  In other words, this is the opposite of a steep learning curve, it is the gentlest learning curve imaginable.

    Becausethe learning curve for proficiency in education policy is longer than a term in office, we get not only incompetence, but vacillation – lurching from one failing policy to another.

    This seems doomed to continue, not because the current Education Minister is any less able than the last, but because she is quite likely as determined as her many predecessors to take personal responsibility for fixing the system, rather than taking responsibility for making sure it is fixed.  That is a subtle but critical distinction.

    To break this endless cycle of failure requires bold, courageous and dramatic change.  But the prerequisite for that change is acknowledgement that nobody currently in the government has the answers, least of all the Minister who is at the very start of this gentlest of learning curves.

    Therefore starting point for change should be a house cleaning of anyone in the civil service that has been central to the education policy landscape in the Cayman Islands in the last decade.  We cannot afford to lose a generation of Caymanians to protect a handful of well paid civil servants that have not only repeatedly failed to deliver, but actively worked to conceal their own failure and thus prevent the kind of real reform we desperately need.

    Next, adopt the standard curriculum of any other developed country – the States, the UK, New Zealand, Australia – whichever you like.  There is simply no need for Cayman to develop its own curriculum.  The curriculum is virtually irrelevant to the problems in our education system.  Each of those countries produces more than enough smart people to have a successful economy.  Developing or tweaking a bespoke local curriculum is a waste of time and money and an enormous distraction to the real problems.

    Next, hire people with a) new ideas and b) a proven track record in turning failing school around.  There is no reason for Cayman to reinvent the wheel.  There are many examples from around the world of dramatically successful turnarounds in similar circumstances, from the KIPP schools of the Bronx ( to the ARK Academy schools in some of London's poorest neighbourhoods (  Each of these examples relies on the breaking of long-established educational norms that still hold sway here in Cayman.

    But do not put the reformers in charge of schools, put them in schools.  It is very easy to come up with something that someone else has to implement.  It is equally easy to fail to implement something someone else has come up with.  The reformers must be responsible for both coming up with solutions and implementing them.  To do this they must have total autonomy.  Otherwise politicians will hamstring them and prevent them doing the very things that are needed to change the broken system (i.e. anything that affects the voting parents).  This could easily be achieved by taking the school out of government control.  If charter/academy style schools are a bridge too far then the Ministry/School structure must be reconstituted in a way that gives the reformers room to fail.  The Ministry should have hiring and firing authority and that is all.  Hire the right people, agree on specific deliverables and then fire them if they do not perform (each of these three components is critical).  

    Cayman doesn't need to reinvent the wheel.  Neither does it need engineers that have consistently failed to produce a wheel for the last decade.  And it certainly doesn't need people with no knowledge of engineering micro-managing the engineers that have already built good wheels in the past!

    Simply get the right engineers, and let them get on with their work.

    • Anonymous says:

      Cayman adopted the English curriculum, and it's methodology of "leveling" quite a few years ago. It is the same curriculum that has been dismantled by thecurrent UK government. They slapped it on the teachers piecemeal, with no rhyme or reason. The one part they left out, the most important part, was the professional development and support of teachers.

       The curriculum we implemented is a mess, but simply "borrowing" from another country will not fix it. The US has recently adopted the Common Core standards, and teachers are required to have hours and hours of professional development.

      In Cayman we have a horrible tendency to borrow and implement things from other countries, with little understanding of the support and training needed, which means it is not implemented properly.

      • Anonymous says:

        The current UK government has bravely imposed education reform on teachers without their meddling input.  Teachers seem to think they havesomething to offer when determining issues of national education policy when that is best left to those who specialise in such things.  When the management consultants come into a business they don't give much weight to the amateur views of the workforce.

        • Anonymous says:

          10:28.It is sais that the success of the Japanese manufacturing industry has been due to the fact that they take a ground up approach.In other words they are very keen to seek and implement the views of the workers on the factory floor.This seems to be the opposite of what you say is the strategy of the current UK Govt.Time will tell how successful they will be ,but to proceed without the teachers ,who are on the ground seems to me to be a serious error in judgement.

      • Anonymous says:

        No one is suggesting that anything be improperly implemented!

        But the solution to a poorly implemented curriculum is not developing our own.  That is like someone crashing a car, blaming it on the car and then setting out to build their own car from scratch!  

        In other words, the solution to something that has been poorly implemented is to go back and implement it properly.  Not to find something else to implement poorly.

      • Anonymous says:

        Assuming the typical state school in England is nowhere near as bad as ours in Cayman, this is only more evidence that the real problem is poor leadership!   

  6. Anon says:

    I would prefer for ms rivers to respond to the questions posed in this viewpoint rather than those letters I see from her recently in the newspaper. This viewpoint is well written and while cayman not the only place with educational challenges it's true that the leaders could do better and yes I think they are failing us. Just look at waste management and unemployment for some examples of failure

  7. Anonymous says:

    Why does Cayman need a separate Ministry and Department of Education?

    Why do/have so few of those employed to lead public school education send/sent their own children through the system?

    Whilst only fair that Caymanian teachers should be employed first, why should they keep those posts if failing in the role?  How can the 'rights' of one teacher come before the entitlement of the children in their care to a quality education?  One failing teacher (with ave. class size of 18) x lifetime of secure employment = ?? Damage.  Moving teachers out instead of moving them on needs to be tackled.  Who has the courage to do this?

    An open-plan secondary school with pupils on swivel chairs is a good idea.  Discuss.

    How much are the low attainment expectations for Caymanian children holding them back? 

    What is the level of sick leave by teachers/support staff/Dept. & Minstry personnel?  FOI – how many days have been lost in the last number of years due to this?  Who covers classes when teachers are absent?  Are pupils being taught or babysat?

    • Anonymous says:

      Let's face it many leaders and senior officials send their own kids to private schools because they know first hand what goes on daily at the public schools and trust me it's worse than what has been reported. It's shameful and cayman can do better given it's relatively small size and the  resources.

    • Anonymous says:

      The Department of Education has in the past been needed as a place to dump non performing Caymanian teachers and give them more money at the same time. This policy backfired many years ago and we are still suffering. There was a report done on the Department years ago-the Millett Report-which was so very critical it was quickly ignored and forgotten about. Ah so it go.

  8. Anonymous says:

    the problems start early.  I volunteer as a reading partner for year 2 students at one of the public primary schools and I see at least four children in need of learning support or intensive intervention as they clearly have some language processing or learning disabilities, yet the teacher says there is no specialist to work with these kids, even though she has requested help. There are no teacher's assistants either in these classrooms to help these kids keep up.  In the US where I am from, these kids would be pulled out of class daily for one-on-one instruction in reading which improves outcomes significantly.  Unfortunately, these Caymanian children are already behind and they are only in year two!  Without intervention now they will remain behind, and become illiterate or barely literate adults–and unemployable.  rather than bricks and mortar and admin, money needs to be spent on pre-K education, early intervention and learning support in the early years and on alternative education and vocational training for the unruly or disaffected student who disrupt the classroom environment in the later years.  It's not rocket science.  

  9. Anonymous says:

    It may not be the right time to give tara a grade but i dont expect her to pass. Isnt winston supposed to be helping with education or is he focused on financial industry now?

  10. Anonymous says:

    The uneducated classes in all country are taught, from a very early age, by many (not all) parents that educated people are "highfallootin" snobs and that education is not important.


    This attitude cripples many (not all) children by sending them to school with an adversarial and resentful perspective towards education.


    This attitude exists around the world, it is not a uniquely Caymanian issue. However, the issue is made a bit worse in Cayman because many voters in Cayman (enough to influence elections) hold these crippling attitudes towards education and educated people.


    A possible fix? Maybe start with a free daycare system that gives kids healthy food, fun stuff to do, and a teacher who is happy to teach them the value of reading and how to hold a pencil. This is not a quick fix but it could be effective in the long run.

  11. MEM says:

    Well I am still baffled as to why they combined the two schools! Our island was not equipped or experienced enough to handle 2 schools with 600 students each, much less the classing maturity levels, attitudes and mental development of 1200 students ages 10 years to 16 years! I personally believe that it was a better system when George Hicks held the 10 to 13 year olds and John Gray had the 14 to 17 year olds – these age groups are completely different!! A single High School works well when teachers and staff members are properly trained and equipped for such an ordeal, but on an island like Cayman having such a combination can cause the madness that is happening now! I personally would not want my 10 year old daughter walking around campus with some of the 16 year old teens I have seen gracing those halls! Children at such an age are greatly influenced by their peers, and from what I have seen on that campus the influence of the older groups can contribute nothing to the younger kids at this point. Private school anyone? Sad when I must turn my back on my countries school system, but paying the extra money for a safe environment that houses less socially-challenged youth is well worth my financial sacrifices to maintain.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I agree with most of what the writer says but I DISAGREE strongly with the idea that the investment into physical infrastructure was good. We could not afford it and we still cannot. I heard that we cannot even afford the maintenance cost of operating those new schools. we should have used the money for better pay to get the right teachers.

    If bigger schools was so good why do we til have all these issues in the schools?

    to me it doesn't matter if a child punches a teacher in a air conditioned classroom or a worse one. same result. we must place the focus on where it counts wihich is on the people not buildings.

    • Anon says:

      This thing about the buildings don't matter is just anti progressives propoganda. I am a proud ppm supporter and what we did was prepare the country with decent facilities which was badly needed. The viewpoint is not saying the building was not good all it says is we need to improve the staff and curriculum.

      KT and Alden all the way!

  13. Anonymous says:

    Glad to hear someone actually calling out UCCI. there are many issues there. I beleive Roy Bodden is trying his best but the college cannot work without a bigger budget. they are trying to prepare young caymanians for the real world but they need more help from government. also a lot of companies are owed by foreigners and they still not under any true pressure from politicians to hire Caymanians so the result is they don't do it!

    Wake up cayman. We are second class employees in our own country when UCC students cannot get a job.

    • Anonymous says:

      You are only second class because you want to be. Stop blaming others for your governments failures

    • Anon says:

      Sorry but I don't agree at all that the UCC president is doing his best. The focus over there right now seems to be on everything but what the private sector actually needs and remember they are the employers.

      • Anonymous says:

        Do not be stupid and naive as to what is really happening in this island. Yes you are correct as to who the employers are but what can you do when they constantly raise the glass ceiling. Soon you will  have to earn a engineering degree just to read meters for CUC or flip burgers for BK. You could have a degree from a prestigious University it will not matter, as YOU ARE CAYMANIAN.

        • Castor says:

          Man, I don't believe that for an instant. Many Caymanians have been successful in their own country. I can assure you there are many opportunities for Caymanians.

      • Anonymous says:

        Roy is focussing on corruption not on providing a proper education at UCCI

    • Anonymous says:

      ok I am awake. now what do you suggest I do to become a first class citizen? riot in the streets or study and work hard?

    • Anonymous says:

      Could you tell me why it is that young Caymanians need help from the Government to face the real world when most people from most countries just do it on their own?

    • Anonymous says:

      Roy placed a bunch of mental midgets in control of UCCI to insulate and insure himself from possible accusations of weak leadership, and now what we have is an over-crowded administration and faculty  of religious zealots. Its a cult style of management in a University where free and open thinking is not encouraged. Of course, references to past Presidents, like Hassan, are used to rationalize away all of their present incompetencies.

      They have lowered the quality of the class to that of the rigor of a Sunday school lesson. All the good secular reasoning and objective minded professors were forced to leave or are currently being targeted to leave. Look at how half of the library is being used for offices instead of study rooms for the students. 

      UCCI gets a fixed amountof funding per year, but the propaganda of cost cutting of irrelevant items, like paper, is used to quell any questions of how some faculty are getting salary increases/promotions/offices, while others are just reminded(diverted) that UCCI is in a cost cutting mode.

    • Anonymous says:

      The excuse about access to education can no longer be used.  Distance education is available for a complete high school, university, graduate and technical programs.  That also allows individuals to work and attend school at their leisure.  If the UUCI campus is not good enough then do research and attend one of those schools.

  14. Anon says:

    Education is still the key its just that Tara doesn't know it …yet

    • Anonymous says:

      Thats a ridiculous comment. You have no idea what it takes to run a country. Tara deserves more respect than she gets. Just caymanians bringing down other caymanians. If she was a man i bet you all would give her more time to prove herself

      • Anon says:

        This has nothing to do with being a man or woman. my point is that she is not doing her job thats it. she could be a cat or a tree I would make the same comment. although to be honest I think a tree may have done better based on what I have seen so far. she was elected to do a job period.

  15. Soapbox Sally says:

    I largely agree with the sentiments of this post but I also think it is easy to put all of the responsibility in the hands of the Government.  There are 2 key componants to educating the kids – the provision of good quality facilities and staff but also the supportive family backing the school, re-enforcing the importance of learning and education, Parents need to show an interest in their children's education and encourage them.  This is not so hard to do:

    •  by attending parent teacher consultations,
    • supporting the school when children are reprimanded or punished for poor behaviour,
    • giving them a good environment to focus on, showing interest in and assisting with their homework
    • asking them to talk about their day – both the highlights and lowlights. 
    • praising them for positive behaviour and discussing negative behaviour

    I hear too often of instances where parents actully fail to back up teachers' efforts to dscipline the kids and even threaten the teacher, send their kids to school without their required work completed and never turn up to meetings. How can we expect our kids to show interest in their education if we do not either.  How can we expect them to respect the law if we fail to stress to them the importance of learning and respecting authority? We as parents have a critical role to play in ensuring our kids get the most of the opportunities they are given in life.

  16. Anon says:

    Personally I think we are being too naive. things don't improve overnight folks!

    We always want  a quick fix on everything and just want to blame the government every time. Give Tara Rvers 12 years and then we can jugde to see how our education system is working. I bet it will improve a lot if we have the same person leading it for12 years and not having a change  in minister all thetime. Rome was NOT built  in a day!

    • Anonymous says:

      Why would i give soneone 12 years when they cannot get any sign of progress in 12 months

      • Anonymous says:

                             This is the biggest problem faced by politicians,people  who expect to see unemployment made to disappear with the waving of a wand; or people who want to see problems in education (which have developed over decades) corrected instantly.When these people do not produce miracles then they are seen as failures and voted out.One has to realize that problems seen in today's 16year olds ,probably started twelve years ago when they were in year one.That means we may look back at who was in charge of education in 2002 to lay blame for the 16 year old failures of today.Look,if children do not get the right foundation in their early years ,they will require a lot of help later on to make them productive.Many of our children fail Primary School ,but are somehow expected to be successful  in High School.If a child does not know how to multiply or divide by the time he leaves primary school ,then don't count on him to be good at maths in high school.                                                                                                                  If we are serious about righting the course of education in Cayman,then I believe we should return to a system of early education in our primary schools that emphasizes what our oldtimers referred to as the three Rs;Reading,'Riting, and 'Rithmetic  (Reading, Writing,and Arithmetic).If a child is successful at these then he will be prepared to tackle just about any subject.Afterall how can we expect him/her to be successful at geography if they cannot read and therefore are unable to locate places on a map;or how will they be able to succeed in history if they cannot read.How can he be expected to solve a task as simple as calculating the pay of someone working 40 hours at $8 per hour if he does not know how to multiply by 8.When these kids do not conquer the basics some will tend to lose interest and not want to attend or some will even skip school;others  develop an attitude of toughness to cover their weakness,often these will become the bullies of tomorrow.So please let's give these children the necessary foundation and see what happens.                                                                        Lenard Whittaker.

    • Anon says:

      Sorry but are you for real? Give her 12 years to do what? Travel at our expense, blame everythingon gender duscrimination, make vague statements in response to a crisis and get elected  despite "studying" at a law firm overseas

  17. Anon says:

    good viewpoint but a big part of this is money. we dont have the money to pay the teachers properly so thats a problem from day 1. then there is the issue of how the kids behave in schools which is scaring off the teahcers. remember that you cannot attract someone to a job if they dont feel safe. thats the same for the teachers. we have to stop for a second asnd think about what they have to deal with. pay the teachers more and make it safe and our education will improve.

  18. Anon says:

    I hope something changes but so far I am not very impressed with the Minister. I think she is very smart person so don't get me wrong but she has 12 months now and I don't beleive she has done her job very well.

  19. Anonymous says:

    They are failing us badly 101.  I don't agree with the media blaming ms tara but I feel that the different governments have not done anything to fix education. I go as far to say they don't really care about education in this country.

    We should not have so many caymanian leaving school and not being as prepard as they should be.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Failure to pay teachers decent salaries means we do not attract the best and brightest, both in the public and private schools (there are exceptions of course, but they have to struggle against the system and poor performing counterparts).

    Failure to embrace vocational training means a largeproporation of students exit the system without any marketable employment skills.

    Unless these key issues are addressed continued decline may be expected. It's not rocket science.


    • Anonymous says:

      Caymanian teachers with 10+ years in the service make less than new hires. The previous Minister's solution? Resign and reapply. I strongly suggest they call their bluff and all go ahead and do just that.

      • Anonymous says:

        Not just Caymanian teachers, but current teachers with 10+ years, Caymanians and Non-Caymanians.  It is a disparity which must be addressed to help build morale with the service.  Teachers' salaries need to be reclassified usign years of experience and additional quaiflifications gained.  Afterall, teachers are humans and a little extrinsic motivation can go a far way.  Dont just expect them to always go above and beyond the call of duty.  They say "encouragement sweetens labour".


  21. Anonymous says:

    It is great to address needs of the community and I did find the questions and comments in this article useful and insightful.

    Allow me to add that until students are encouraged, supported and allowed to attain a decent level (at least above minimum) of numeracy and literacy skills the gap between have and have-nots will increase as our system produces more and more frustrated,  uneducated young people, creating the impetus for further behavioural problems for all of us.

  22. Anonymous says:

    The only way a politician can successfully enact positive change in our education system is by cleaning house in the Ministry, Education Department and the Administrations of our schools. The politicians did not hire the incompetents, they are only partially to blame.



    • Anonymous says:

      True the politicians did not hire them but when they want to hire they can, just look at how many C4C/PPM people were hired since May 2013, that means if they hire they can fire….but of course they prefer to watch the consequences of incompetent staff who may or may not sue versus hundreds of uneducated children

    • Anonymous says:

      No can do. If the politicuan messes with civil servants they wont get reelected. Goose cooked!