No long-term strategy in Cayman education, report finds

The auditor general's report finds numerous Education Ministry problems

In its first-ever audit of Cayman’s education system, the Office of the Auditor General describes a Ministry of Education that lacks a clear direction of where it is going.

The 71-page report, issued Thursday, faults the ministry for implementing programmes and policies without specific long-term goals on what it should achieve. The report also notes the system continues to suffer from chronic student underperformance, ineffective use of its budget and ongoing problems with students with special education needs.

Of the 18 recommendations Auditor General Sue Winspear made in the report, the ministry accepted all but one. In the one exception, the ministry said it was already holding private schools to account for the public money they receive.

In a statement, the ministry said it recognised the need for a clearer vision.

“The ministry acknowledges the importance of a strategic plan for education and will include this in upcoming planning,” the statement read.

Ministry officials did not respond to Cayman Compass requests for direct comment on the report.

One of the weaknesses cited in the report was the agency’s failure to include teachers and parents in decision making.

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“There is no overall strategy for parental engagement,” the report said. “We found that a recent policy was developed and implemented without sufficient parental engagement or consultation with teachers.”

The policy cited was the implementation in 2018 of a new dress code for students. The auditor general said the policy was introduced too close to the beginning of the school year to allow schools and parents to adequately prepare.

Other areas lacking in planning, particularly long term, include:

  • Finances
  • Workforce planning
  • Monitoring or reporting progress in achieving broad outcome and outputs.

The report adds there is “no clear link between the vision and priorities for education and the government’s economic priorities”. In other words, student learning does not necessarily line up with the needs of Cayman society.

Lack of funding is not an issue, the report said.

In the 2018 calendar year, the government spent $85.6 million on public school education. That figure is a 17% increase compared to the 2013-2014 school year.

The proportion government spent on education also rose over the same period.

“Education spending increased from 9.8% of core government spending to 12.7%,” the study said. “In 2018, spending on education accounted for the largest percentage of core government spending.”

The amount puts Cayman ahead of most countries.

“The average cost per student in public schools is 66% higher than the average cost per student in private schools and was the second-highest cost per student in 2015 when compared to 33 countries belonging to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development,” the report stated. Those countries include Australia, Canada, the UK and the US.

Whether the funds were well spent is unclear.

“The absence of outcomes or success measures and of monitoring and reporting what is delivered against what is expected makes it difficult to determine whether the $86 million spent on public school education is providing value for money,” the report said.

One of the areas benefiting most from the increase in funding is services for special needs students. In the five years studied, that funding increased 49% to $4 million.

But Caymanians did not get what they paid for, according to the report. Despite the infusion of additional money, there was little to show for it in terms of student performance.

“There is no national strategy for SEN [Special Education Needs] and it is not clear if this increase in funding is improving outcomes for students with SEN,” the report said. “Over the five years to 2018, the attainment of primary school students with SEN declined significantly in all subjects except writing. However, the attainment of Year 12 students with SEN has improved over the same period.”

One of the few metrics the ministry does track is student/teacher ratio. But it was faulted for this, as well.

The report said such ratios are “not an indicator of better educational outcomes”.

There were a few areas where the report praised the education system. It noted that student performance has improved overall in the past five years. It also said data analysis is better than in the past.

“The increased use of data over the past few years has provided a better understanding of the impact that certain initiatives and programmes such as reading recovery have on student performance,” the report said. “However, there is scope to further develop the use of data.”

Much of that could be applied to student outcomes, according to the auditor general. Cayman’s government school students continue to perform well below international standards. And while overall scores have improved, the achievement gap between expected and actual performance has widened.

In tests given at the end of Year 6, “between 59% and 66% of students achieved Level 4 or higher in each of the four subjects” tested, the report said. The Department of Education, it noted, “does not publish information on how many students pass all four subjects but for the purposes of our audit, we obtained that information for 2018. This shows that 45% of students achieved the expected level in all four subjects.”

Performance predictors indicated that 98% of primary students should score Level 4 in English and 93% should hit Level 4 in maths.

In its statement on the report, the Education Ministry said one of its main focusses “has been to improve student performance (progress and achievement), in our most vulnerable students, as well as maintain the performance of our higher-performing students. The 2018-2019 Office of Education Standards Full Inspection Report highlighted the fact that 72% of schools that receive government funding (private/public schools) performed at a level that was deemed satisfactory or better.”

It should be noted that student performance is only one of many factors considered in those assessments.

The ministry said it expected to address some of the report’s concerns through the new primary curriculum introduced at the start of this school year and the new secondary curriculum due to be implemented at the start of the 2020-2021 school year.

“Included in this new curriculum are UK-based assessments and data tracking systems that will facilitate more accurate benchmarking against our international counterparts,” the statement said.

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