Education ministry releases special needs report

A recently released audit of the special needs population in Cayman’s government schools paints a somewhat different picture than previously released data.

School survey data from previous years has shown more than 20% of students in government schools have been identified as having special educational needs. In its 2018 annual report, the Office of Education Standards said, “The number of students on the special needs register varies from school to school but, in most cases, the percentage is high and increasing year on year. … In all cases, the percentage is, on average, higher than that found in other jurisdictions, such as the UK.”

But this new release states that just 11% of students have been identified as having special educational needs. Officials with the Education Ministry said that figure represents Phase 3 special needs students only and does not count Phases 1 and 2. Students who are Phase 3 are those that require intervention using resources beyond the school and have an identified plan to address their issues. Those students are required to be listed on a registry maintained by the Department of Education Services.

The audit does not supply figures for Phases 1 and 2, which are students whose needs are being served by resources provided by the schools they attend.

The Phase 3 numbers are still substantially higher than UK figures. A January 2018 report by the UK Department of Education said the percentage of all special needs students is 14.6% of the population. Those with specific intervention plans represent 2.9% of the population. A 2014 report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities puts the corresponding rate in the United States of those needing intervention at 5.4%.

The audit release follows a Freedom of Information request the Cayman Compass made with the Ministry of Education in June, asking for an audit report on special needs education that was ordered three years ago as part of the ministry’s action report in advance of the 2016‑2017 school year.

On 1 Aug., the ministry responded with an eight-page document titled ‘Special Educational Needs Audit in the Cayman Islands: 29 July 2019’.

The 2016‑2017 Plan of Action, which called for the audit, said it was needed “in order to establish what support services are currently offered in each school”. It called for information on student services to be matched with the “actual provision” of those services, and for the special education needs register of each school to be reviewed.

“This information will be matched to [the] needs of each school and will also be used to determine if principals/schools are aware/utilising resources,” the plan said.

Such an analysis would likely help in addressing one of the shortfalls mentioned in the Office of Education Standards annual report.

“The level of need evident in certain classes offers a significant challenge to staff to ensure appropriate support for all learners, including the most able,” the report said.

But the data provided in the release does not seem to allow the kinds of assessment that would address such issues.

While the release says there are 249 special education needs students at the secondary level, a chart laying out the numbers of students benefitting from different programmes only shows 83 receiving assistance.

Ministry officials said some schools provided information for the audit only on programmes offered for special education needs students, and did not include the number of students being served by each programme. The release does not address whether principals and schools are aware of or utilising these available resources.

Beyond that, the chart showing a breakdown of services for students also indicates that 24 primary and 14 secondary students received assistance under an English as a Second Language programme.

In its 2018 annual report, the Office of Education Standards specifically states, “Students for whom English is an additional language or who are gifted or talented are not to be treated as having special educational needs.”

In response to a question on this, the ministry said the data “includes all the provisions that we provide. ESL is not a SEN category”.

Some parents have complained their children who have special needs do not receive the support they need from government schools, and independent inspectors have faulted some schools for that problem.

Those working in special education say it is difficult to formulate effective measures to support students with learning deficits without accurate data.

The Office of Education Standards annual report said, “Students with additional support needs are identified quickly by teachers, and the process for referral and communication with parents is also timely. Individual education plans have been developed by special educational needs coordinators for students requiring support in their learning. These documents are largely satisfactory in content, range and detail, but are not always used effectively by different teachers, including specialists that work with the children.”

Individual school inspections have found varying degrees of competence in meeting the needs of such students.

In March 2018, Red Bay School was given an overall rating of good by the OES inspectors, yet was found to have weaknesses in meeting special education needs.

“In their written comments teachers expressed concern regarding the level of staffing, particularly in helping address the needs of students with special educational needs,” the report said. “They felt that students with challenging behaviour required more support than was currently in place.”

John Gray High School was rated satisfactory by inspectors last year, but they also said, “Progress for students with special educational needs was weak in mathematics but satisfactory in English. … This was because teachers did not modify their lesson plans in order to suit the needs of these students.”

A survey of staff at Prospect Elementary School in January 2018 found, “A significant minority of staff [38%] did not feel that the school provided good support to students with special educational needs.”

The release of the audit figures contains no analysis of the data.

The release does say, “This statistical publication does not provide data for SEN students in private schools. However, the Ministry of Education is seeking to address this as a matter of urgency.”