New round of school inspections

Cayman schools are going under the microscope again.

Three years after a comprehensive set of inspections found only two of Cayman’s 15 public schools performing at a “good” level – 10 were deemed “unsatisfactory” – a new round of inspections is under way. This time there are some key differences.

The inspections are being conducted by the recently formed Office of Education Standards, which is not part of the Ministry of Education, but is within the Portfolio of the Civil Service. Peter Carpenter is the director of the office. The new structure, he said, gives inspectors the ability to have more impact on schools that fail to adequately perform.

But he does not necessarily want to wield a heavy hand. The approach to assessing the schools this time – the office will be looking at both public and private schools – will be a more collaborative process, he said.

“Inspections can be a process of something being done to you,” Mr. Carpenter said, referring to the previous evaluations. “We want it to be more of a partnership, so when we go in to do an inspection, the school will have already started the process.”

The model is similar to accreditation processes practiced in the United States and in international settings. Before the arrival of inspectors, school administrators do a self-assessment. Inspectors critique that assessment, as well as doing their own evaluation of the school. The final report is meant to show administrators in what areas their understanding of their school’s performance is accurate as well as calling attention to problems they may not recognize.

Mr. Carpenter, who arrived in Cayman in October, said he began visiting schools in November to assess the progress that has been made since the last round of inspections. He expects the new inspections to begin in mid to late February. Before that time, he said, the framework for the inspections has to be approved. Part of the process is soliciting input from the public.

Office of Education Standards Director Peter Carpenter

The first version of the inspection framework is now in the hands of officials of the civil service and the education ministry. Following their input, a revised version will be issued to school administrators. As early as mid-January, it will be made public so that the community can weigh in on the document.

“The goal is that we’ll be able to get a framework that everyone agrees is aspirational,” Mr. Carpenter said. “We want students to be leaving school with the very best qualifications. To do that we’ve got a ways to go.”

Getting there, he said, will require “a strong inspection program and getting schools to raise their game.”

Mr. Carpenter, 57, has a background as a teacher, administrator and inspector in the United Kingdom. He spent the last 10 years in Dubai as an inspector, tackling some of the same issues he believes need to be addressed in Cayman. He said an effective inspection program in Dubai was able to produce rapid results and he thinks similar progress can be made here.

“I believe an inspection is a very powerful and formative tool for school improvement,” he said.

The education bill passed in 2016, shifting the inspection office from the Ministry of Education to the civil service department and giving it more power.

“It gives us the authority to visit schools whenever we like,” Mr. Carpenter said of the law. “It requires schools to act upon any decision made by the inspectors. In the long run, there can be punitive measures. In extreme circumstances, [such as with health and safety violations], we can recommend immediate action.”

Inspectors do not have direct authority to force changes and cannot fire personnel. But, Mr. Carpenter said, his office can apply pressure. If a school is underperforming, standards officials will continue to visit the site and do follow-up inspections at least every six months. Persistent problems, he said, will not be allowed to go on indefinitely.

“We will hold the ministry and the school accountable,” he said.

At the same time, he added, he wants to avoid an adversarial relationship.

“I know there’s a lot of good work being undertaken,” he said. “There’s been a lot of hard work that I think, in collaboration with the inspectors, will lead to a lot of improvements.”

John Gray High School Principal Jon Clark said he thinks the new approach is a positive shift.

“I’d welcome any focus that is more about collaboration and cooperation,” Mr. Clark said. “I’m optimistic that’s going to happen here.”

Cetonya Cacho, deputy chief officer of education policy and planning for the Ministry of Education, said there has been a “high level of collaboration” between administrators and educators in recent years and she thinks the inspection process fits in as part of that.

“When the inspections were finished in 2014-2015, we started working with the departments and schools to address those recommendations,” Ms. Cacho said. “We’ve seen a lot of improvement in the last few years.”

The new inspections, she said, will be part of the ongoing efforts to achieve better student outcomes.

Mr. Carpenter said that will only happen if educators feel they are part of the process.

“We want to see school leaders be more evaluative about their schools,” he said. “We don’t want to see schools stagnating. We want to empower leaders to make decisions about their schools. That’s what allows schools to be more forward looking and make changes.”