Concern has been expressed over recent exam results and general levels of literacy in the Cayman Islands. But can the problem be solved in the classroom alone?While the Ministry of Education points to its strategic plan as a roadmap towards a “world class” education system, others believe social problems are the underlying factor behind student performance.
The Cayman Islands is suffering from a catalogue of social problems that are impacting children’s performance in school, according to Roy Bodden president of the University College of the Cayman Islands.
Poor results have been a well-documented problem for decades but the underlying problem, say some observers, lies with society rather than the school system.
Strides have been made within the education system in recent years, according to officials, and results at GCSE level and equivalent have improved.
But Caymanian school children still lag way behind their peers in the UK. The results for Cayman’s schools in the 2012 external Keystage 2 Tests, taken at the end of primary school, would be in the bottom five percent when compared with British schools.
Bodden suggested the solution to the disparity lay with the family, as much as with the education system.
He praised the new five-year strategic plan for the education system as a “good instrument” but said the problem was much broader than what went on in schools.
“We have been treating the symptom not the problem. We have to begin in the homes because that is where the problem is.
“Children see their mother is getting abused, their sister is getting abused, they come to us troubled. Their value systems are cross-wired.
“When you have children coming from these kind of circumstances you have to address it quickly. You can’t rectify education problems unless you rectify those problems.
“If you come to school hungry, if you come to school lacking emotional acceptance, if you’re worried about your mom getting slapped around, you can’t concentrate on school, you grow up angry.”
He said issues, including abuse, neglect, alcoholism and drug abuse, were more common in Caymanian society than people acknowledged.
“It is a lot more prevalent than we care to admit.
“Even at this level we have children coming to school without breakfast, without money for lunch. I know because I pay for their lunches in the canteen.”
Woody Foster, chairman of new community action group Literacy is For Everyone, said the organization had been set-up in response to a pressing need for a combined community effort to address literacy issues.
One of the group’s first actions was to submit a Freedom of Information request to obtain both the results of the Keystage 2 tests and new tests known as Progress in English and Progress in Maths.
The results, which suggested a large number of students were performing below the expected national curriculum level for their age-group, were published in the Caymanian Compass last month.
The Ministry of Education disputed the way the results were presented and argued that the tests were designed to measure progress over time, not as a ranking system for students or school performance.
They did not, however, dispute the conclusion that there was room for improvement.
Foster said his aim was not to attack a particular Government administration, just to highlight the depth of the problem. He said it would require a combined community effort, with people working together, to solve the issues that lay behind the test scores.
He said the inspiration for starting the group LIFE was to help mobilize support.
“We are looking to be an action group and that can take whatever form it needs to. We can raise money or volunteers. Our mandate in the broadest sense is to effect change within the education system,
“I don’t feel it is fair to our kids to allow this to continue. If you have the opportunity to help somebody, you should.
“Teachers can only do so much. Anybody on their own can only do so much.
“It has to be a collaborative effort with social workers, psychologists, football clubs, churches – wherever there is a change agent with access to at-risk kids and adults who can’t read.”
As a business owner Foster has first-hand experience of some of the difficulties experienced by adults who leave school without having mastered the basics in maths and English. He said many job applicants for entry level positions at the supermarket struggled with spelling and grammar and couldn’t answer basic maths questions, like 32 + 45, included as part of the application process.
But the real motivating factor for Foster was seeing the level of reading in schools when he worked in a paired reading programme with his rotary club at a local middle school.
“It was seeing those middle school kids struggling with very simple books that gave me a real idea of the problem.”
LIFE came out of the rotary’s literacy programmes to provide a more direct and concerted effort to improve standards in education.
Education officials argue that schools are on the right track, and point to improvements in GCSE results and Keystage 2 test results. They say the national literacy strategy, launched in 2009/2010 and the national numeracy strategy launched in 2011/12 should lead to further improvements.
A strategic plan charting a course for the next five years was officially unveiled last month.
In his opening remarks to the document Minister Rolston Anglin writes: “The Cayman Islands Strategic Plan for Education acknowledges that we still have work to do to be amongst the best education systems in the world, but this is where I intend the system will be in the foreseeable future.
“The plan takes a five-year look ahead and sets out very clearly where we must be by 2017 to make progress towards securing the high quality education system we all want for our students.”
Bodden, a former education minister, said the plan would provide a good foundation. But he said the community needed to acknowledge the broader issue.
“The minister just released a strategic plan which I think is a step in the right direction but the underlying problem is not in the education system.”
He recommends early intervention by social workers to support children from dysfunctional families in the early years of their lives.
“Even before a child is born if they come from challenging or dysfunctional circumstances a social worker should be assigned to them that can work with them through their formative years. We have to ensure in those first few years that the child is on the right track.”
He said solutions to social ills were complex and could be expensive but he insisted it was better to pay now rather than later.
“If we don’t pay one way, we pay the other. I’d rather pay at the bottom end than at the top, If we don’t address these things we will be forever sending young men to Northward.
“We are measuring our progress on a faulty report card. We may be one of the richest countries per capita but we also have the highest prison population per capita.
“Education is the bridge, but a bridge needs stanchions and the main stanchion is the family.”