The jury is still very much out on the success of the English academy system, which officials are looking to replicate in Cayman.
In a speech to the Legislative Assembly last month, Education Minister Tara Rivers announced plans for an independent review of the territory’s education system with a view to increasing private sector involvement in government schools.
The recent Ernst & Young report on government cost-cutting has also recommended a pilot scheme to introduce privately run public schools, known as charter schools in the U.S. and academies in England.
The report says government should take the first step of putting “three or four schools” under private sector control within the next two years.
In England academies receive their funding directly from central government and are generally run by nonprofit private sector organizations with the Department of Education maintaining an oversight role.
First introduced in 2000 under the Labour government, academies have been greatly expanded under the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition.
They are required to teach certain core subjects mandated in the National Curriculum, but have more flexibility to set their own timetables and areas of specialism.
The success of academies is still a matter of debate in England. While some say they have helped increase innovation in schools, others warn they lead to the marginalization of lower-performing students and require strict oversight.
One of the key elements that has made the system successful in some jurisdictions is competition, says Laura McInerney, deputy editor of “Academies Week” and a columnist for the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper.
“It is interesting to think through how this might work in the Caymanian context,” said McInerney, cautioning that the relatively small size of the island would likely reduce the number of potential private sector partners.
“One of the reasons why the academies system works in England, and parts of the U.S., is that local governments previously had a monopoly over running a school and they could not be removed or replaced, even if they were doing a bad job.
“By having different providers in the market, you are able to remove a poor school from a group who are not helping manage it so well, and you can give it to a different one. If you only have one provider, then you lose this benefit.
“How likely are you to have a plethora of providers [in Cayman] if you only have a very small schools market? That’s a question I can’t answer, but instinct would be that you will have very few unless you can encourage people from other markets, for example Europe or the U.S., to try and ‘bid’ or be considered.”
Academies are fundamentally different from private schools. In England, at least, they are bound by the same admissions criteria as state schools and they are not allowed to charge students to attend.
The purported advantage of private sector involvement is increased dynamism in school administration as well as flexibility in pay and areas of focus, enabling some to attract good teachers and specialize in certain areas.
ARK, the nonprofit academy chain which hosted Minister Rivers and a delegation from Cayman on a visit to one of its London schools earlier this year, puts an additional focus on math and English.
Susannah Hares, international director of ARK, which stands for Absolute Return for Kids, said the organization has shown that new leadership and ideas could make a difference, particularly in areas where schools had been struggling.
“The schools that ARK takes over are schools that have been failing for a long time, where local authorities have tried and things have not worked. In those circumstances, fresh innovations can make a difference,” she said.
ARK has used its flexibility from local authority control to offer its teachers higher wages, introduce a longer school day and a “depth before breadth” curriculum, dedicating more time to “core subjects” like math and English. It has been credited with raising academic standards in the schools it has taken over.
In other cases, handing over the reins to private organizations has proved controversial. In Birmingham, England, concerns have emerged about Muslim-led academy chains pushing an extreme form of Islam in their schools.
Birmingham City Council is currently investigating 21 schools following a report from government inspection unit Ofsted warning that some governors were using fear and intimidation to push a “narrow faith-based ideology” in non-faith schools.
The U.K. government is now looking to impose new regulations in an effort to ensure “British values” are maintained.
“The freedoms that academies have, and which draw in the business crowd, can also mean people are more easily able to defraud the system or become ideologically driven in a bad way,” warns McInerney.
“Clamping down on this is tough once your rhetoric is ‘you are free to do what you like.’”
Teachers union opposed
The National Union of Teachers in England and Wales is also strongly opposed to academies, citing concern over teaching standards and a lack of accountability to local communities as key issues.
“Academies have not been bound by the same standards for the teaching profession, so they can hire unqualified teachers and never need to get them qualified. This also means that there is no minimum qualification for a teacher,” added McInerney.
For Cayman, consultants EY, while endorsing a pilot scheme, warn that authorities must proceed with caution and ensure that the correct legal framework exists to mitigate some of these issues.
“Any involvement of private sector in delivering core government schooling would need careful consideration due to potential inequities in education services, governance and controls frameworks required and the implications of poor contract management,” the consultants wrote in their report.