OES: Budget concerns, digital access impact private schools’ remote learning

The Office of Education Standards has released its second report evaluating remote learning in the Cayman Islands. - Image: OES

The Office of Education Standards commended Cayman’s private schools this week for their resourcefulness in handling remote learning, but noted inconsistencies across schools in quality of education.

The OES evaluation report, ‘No place like home? 2’, comes six weeks after the publication of its public-school performance review. The public-school report identified insufficient internet and technology access as factors in creating inequalities in public education.

Across the 18 private schools assessed in the latest report, access to online learning and digital devices was variable.

The report is based on evaluation of 800 documents submitted by schools, including pre-recorded video lessons, 2,000 surveys submitted by teachers, parents and students, and live observation by inspectors of online lessons in English, mathematics, science, music and other subjects.

The report notes, however, that virtual classroom observations were held late in the semester, from 9-26 June when year-end closing activities had already begun.

Private schools generally reported universal or near-universal access to online learning, with the exception of Calvary Baptist Christian Academy, which reported that only 10% of students were able to access online lessons. All 65 students there were provided paper-based learning instead.

Most schools reported that all their students had access to the internet, with the exceptions of Calvary Baptist where a 100% need was reported, Truth for Youth School with 20%, and St. Ignatius with 5.9%.

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Of approximately 3,800 private school students evaluated, around 150 were found to lack access to a digital device for learning.

“These students had been without access from the start of the pandemic. A few private schools had not been successful in ensuring equality of access to home learning for all students,” the report stated.

“Although almost all students in the private schools did have access to the equipment they needed for home learning, the unreliability of their wireless connections and bandwidth issues did adversely affect the quality of students’ learning.”

Budget concerns

Financial uncertainty was highlighted as a major stressor for private schools, affected by a drop in student numbers and a reduction in fees for many institutions. Budgetary stress was also exacerbated by a recent change in the grant funding mechanism used by the Cayman Islands government for private schools.

“The COVID-19 pandemic led to significant challenges for many of the private schools in terms of funding and financial management. Several schools reported reduced numbers on roll as family members lost employment or left the islands,” the report stated.

“This led to reductions in staffing and, for a number of professionals in the private school sector, either reduction in salary, furloughed deployment or even unemployment.”

A previous agreement to provide government funding to the Cayman Islands Private Schools Association is set to end this month, and criteria for future grant awards has not been confirmed or published.

“This led to some uncertainty about staffing levels for the new academic session. This combination of factors led to the closure of at least one well–established early years setting on Grand Cayman as a consequence of financial instability. As a result, provision for working parents whose child-care arrangements depend upon accessible, early years provision may be adversely affected,” the report stated.

Private school finances also weighed on families, with parents expressing concern that a few schools had not offered regular or sufficient face-to-face learning, given the cost of tuition. The report noted, however, that most private schools were determined to have offered good value for the money charged.

Quality of education

Inspectors determined private schools had generally achieved a good quality of education in online learning. Most learning sessions were found to be carefully planned and balanced between teacher-led instruction and independent student work.

These lessons were complemented by smaller group sessions to address individual student needs.

Not all students experienced the same level of support, however, and the report noted inconsistency in the quality of home learning.

“A few schools offered limited, insufficient or no synchronous sessions for students. There was some variation therefore in the quality of provision across private schools and, where face-to-face teaching sessions were insufficient, students’ progress was highly dependent upon the regularity and consistency of the support given by parents,” the report said.

Higher-performing schools had implemented a flexible ‘hybrid approach’ that included face-to-face online lessons with teachers, pre-recorded sessions, and paper-based learning.

Some schools, however, were found to be too inflexible in their remote learning policies.

“One school, for example, which offered a PACE (Packet of Accelerated Christian Education) curriculum, provided no on-line sessions at all. Students from the primary years to Grade 12 in this school worked through their task booklets independently with occasional ‘What’sApp’ messages from teachers. Feedback to those students was irregular and insufficient to help ensure good progress,” the report continued.

Recommendations

Many of the recommendations made by the OES revolved around establishing common goals and constituency across the private-school system.

While private schools received directives from the Ministry of Education regarding school closures, many indicated they lacked clarity on best practices, which resulted in variability of approaches across schools.

“Although there were some examples of collaboration between private schools, many school leaders reported that they would have welcomed further guidance from the relevant education authorities and the Private Schools Association regarding potentially successful models for Cayman, particularly in terms of effective remote teaching strategies for different ages of students,” the report stated.

School leadership teams were encouraged to collaborate with external agencies to ensure continuity of specialist and special education services during closures. Education recovery plans should also be reviewed, the OES wrote, before students return to classes, to be prepared to address educational gaps and respond to health and safety needs.

Before the next school session begins in August, the OES recommended schools implement further health and safety measures, including hand-sanitising stations, social distancing protocol and heightened student supervision to avoid congregation.

In addition, the OES said all students should be provided access to a digital device to facilitate home learning.

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