Gareth is a blogger and an independent education consultant, currently working directly for the Minister of Education in the Cayman Islands as the Strategic Development Advisor (Education) playing a lead role in the total transformation of the government education service. He calls it, “the best job in education in the world because we really are making a difference!”
A.B. Why is there such a push to innovate schools in the Cayman Islands? Explain how the initiative grew.
The current government of the Cayman Islands was elected in 2005 with the transformation of education as one of main planks of its manifesto. The elected Minister:Hon. Alden McLaughlin is absolutely passionate and totally committed to creating the best education service, not just in the Caribbean region, but also the world. The entire project is being underpinned by new education legislation (new education law) which is currently being drafted.
This transformation process is not just about new school buildings, but a total holistic transformation of the education service. All working educators in many countries have been beaten down by endless and often unrelated initiatives that keep on dropping on them. In Cayman, there was a clear and very brave decision to change every single aspect of education in one go, always ensuring that students really are at the very center of education service. Cayman is the only country in the world currently transforming every aspect of education, simultaneously.
Strategies have included: a) the entire administrative framework for education has been totally reorganized to ensure it is there to provide services to enable students to succeed, b) creation and implementation of an entirely new national curriculum, c) development of Early Years standards and programmes, d) reviewing and updating all personnel procedures, e) new approach to education in careers, needs of the global workforce. scholarships, technical vocational education, f) improving financial procedures, giving school leaders more autonomy, g) far greater use of performance data, to inform planning, reporting, assessment, teaching, policy making, providing all education la statistics. This includes the establishment of countrywide software so all students can be tracked and monitored throughout their school career, h) a whole new proactive approach to monitoring school facilities, i) the establishment of teacher training and a huge increase in the provision of professional development, j) national focus on literacy and, k) a major review on all aspects of ICT.
New facilities: In addition, we are replacing the two high schools with three cutting edge secondary campuses, and one new primary campus based on concept designs by Prakash Nair of Fielding Nair International. These new campuses are designed around the philosophy of providing flexible learning environments to enable all forms of teaching activities to take place, without having to move spaces to teach in a different way. With no corridors, and relatively few internal walls these really creative and unique designs maximize the teaching spaces available. There is massive interest from all round the world as we work to build these new facilities.
A.B. What are your greatest achievements? The challenges? etc.
The greatest challenge initially was to really make people believe that, despite the talk of change they had heard for decades with little happening, this time it really was going to be different and they would see, feel and experience change. It is also the first time that all stakeholders, including teachers have really been involved in many aspects of decision making. Even at the start, the Minister visited schools throughout the country, not a brief formal visit, but for hours so he could really hear what teachers were saying – hard listening at times
I organized a two-day conference for the Minister open to all stakeholders in education to be able to come and really say what was wrong with education and suggestions for improvement – the first time that this had happened. A document “A National Consensus for the Future of Education in the Cayman Islands" reflecting their views and identifying strategies for the future was published and passed unanimously by the Legislative Assembly (our ‘Parliament’) in SIX WEEKS – a total record.
Also, we gave teachers evidence of immediate change. Another task I performed was to lead the charge to split a 1,000 big high school into four ‘schools within a school’ model in a total of fifteen weeks from idea to implementation, with all that that entailed, with major construction and refits, communication and media plans, reorganizing structure, management, staff, students, uniforms and the entire campuses resources, as well as ICT and alterations to catering, transportation et al. All said it couldn’t be done – it was ready on time and on budget for the start of the new school year (with about thirty minutes to spare!).
A.B. What are parents and students saying about the changes?
There is national excitement about all the changes taking place in education – there is a general acceptance that things needed to improve in the organization of education, the standards that students were achieving and the outdated and inadequate physical plant that students are being taught in.
Students are also excited by the increase in technology and focus on improving teaching and learning.. They have contributed to the design of the new campuses and like all of us, want them now! (rather than wait for construction to be completed)
The private sector are deeply engaged and supportive of this whole process and really involved in supporting the move to excellent education and ensuring that their future employees have the skills and aptitudes they need for the global employment opportunities available in Cayman, especially in finance, law, insurance and the tourism sectors.
The international interest in the holistic approach is vast. In January, I accompanied the Minister as he made two presentations to the Worlds Minister Seminar of Technology in Education to up to 64 Ministers of Education from around the world. The Ministry of Education blog, which I a maintain, records the progress and is regularly ‘hit’ by well over a hundred countries.
A.B. We all know technology can be unpredictable, has this affected your plans?
Technology is crucial to our progress. Every school is a wireless environment and every teacher is issued with a laptop on arrival along with an email address. Key work has been done to really upgrade the entire network into a robust and reliable system that does not ‘crash’ or ‘run slow’ as students use it.
Such is our commitment to education that every school is trialing hardware and software to ensure that the service buys the most appropriate resources for our context and the interactive board ratio should run to one for every two classrooms this year. We are also investigating hand held devices as well as developing a VLE.
Technology is useless if the systems cannot support it – that has been our focus along with extensive staff professional development, not just training, but modeling, team teaching and support.
A.B. If you could share exactly what you and Professor Heppell hope to accomplish – I’d be happy to have both of you share the post.
The Cayman Islands can lead the world in developing a coherent, modern and effective education system if we continue on the current path. We were fortunate in securing the services of one of the worlds real visionaries for education of the future; Professor Stephen Heppell.
With the Minister’s commitment, the pairing of Stephen Heppell with his vision and passion and Gareths’ capacity for helping develop the vision and translating it into reality, they make a truly formidable team. The CI really hope to identify all the aspects of education transformation to share with other countries and systems around the world.
A.B. Does size matter?
The Cayman Islands are small so it may be considered easier to effect transformation but there are always issues. However, the process is really like a recipe – the ingredients are the same for everyone – the instructions may vary. In larger countries for example, you would be looking at districts. The REAL determining factor is the determination and commitment to improvement for the students going through the system.
“What they say!” – Here are some notable quotes about Gareth Long:
“The education system makeover to evolve a full Campus Caymanian in the Caribbean is world leading in its ambition, and its execution. With every single element evolving in parallel, within the space of a very few years, this would be chaotic and frankly unachievable without the rock that the whole project is built on. That rock is Gareth Long.” –Professor Stephen Heppell
“Gareth Long is a visionary educator. His quiet leadership and passionate commitment for reform have been important drivers in the amazing educational transformation now happening in the Cayman Islands. Gareth has a rare talent for bringing together diverse interest groups and getting them to work collaboratively towards a common goal. He has extensive, hands-on experience with worldwide educational best practice and possesses a solid understanding about new paradigm school facilities. These skills have served him well as he plays a key role in ably steering the largest school infrastructure program in the Cayman Islands’ history.
I know of very few professionals I’d rather have on my team than Gareth Long while navigating the difficult waters of educational change management. For all his talent and abilities, Gareth is a remarkably centered human being and a genuine pleasure to be around. I’m honored to know him as a professional colleague and as a friend.” –Prakash Nair, President, Fielding Nair International
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