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BC-Certified Offshore School Not Up to Provincial Standards, Former Staff Allege

Grade inflation, visa issues criticized at Qatar school, but principal and owner tell different story.

By Katie Hyslop 14 Jun 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. Find her previous stories here.

British Columbia takes in millions of dollars annually from international private schools paying to use our kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum.

But allegations of grade inflation, harassment of teachers and schools operating without proper certification have dogged the program. (See sidebar for more on the program.)

The BC Teachers’ Federation has said the money the government makes from the offshore schools doesn’t justify the risk teachers face.

“We think there needs to be a review of the entire concept,” BCTF president Glen Hansman said in April following reports that teachers at a B.C.-certified school in South Korea faced deportation for having the wrong visas.

“Why are we pursuing this? We’re proud of our curriculum and the work that we do in British Columbia schools. But this is a very curious form of revenue generation for the province, and if the province of British Columbia’s stamp is going to be on it, we need to make sure that people aren’t being put at risk.”

Now former employees at the B.C.-certified Hayat Universal Bilingual School in Doha, Qatar, are alleging that lax education and employment standards at the school have tarnished B.C.’s reputation and hurt teachers and students.

The Tyee has interviewed four former HUBS employees; two have asked to remain anonymous to protect current employment. All worked at HUBS between 2014 and 2016.

The former teachers allege they felt pressured to inflate students’ grades and worked without contracts or proper visas. Ten employees, including three of the four former employees The Tyee interviewed, either quit or were fired or demoted during those two years, they say. There are currently 107 teachers, teaching assistants and support workers in HUBS’ B.C. program.

When Jonathan Ott accepted a teaching position at the school three years ago, he says staff described it as an “elite school” teaching members of the Qatari royal family.

But when he arrived, Ott found HUBS to be “by far the worst, just in terms of teacher morale,” of the 10 schools he has worked in, including public schools in B.C., overseas English language learning schools, and other offshore schools.

During his first week, Ott says, the door to his classroom broke, forcing him to use a window to enter and exit. Air conditioners — essential in Qatar’s heat — repeatedly broke down, he says. Ott left the school after finishing his two-year contract in 2016.

The teachers say they struggled to manage classes where many students’ skills were below grade level and behaviour problems were rampant. Teacher evaluations rarely happened, says Ott. Two other teachers said they were never properly evaluated.

One of the former staff said “many of the observations were random, seemed like teachers were being picked on and [administration] did not follow through with supports for struggling teachers that would be implemented in B.C.”

“I’ve never been in a school where teachers were this miserable,” Ott said.

Inspection report found no problems

The B.C. government requires offshore schools using provincial curriculum to submit to government inspections at least once every two years. HUBS’ most recent inspection report — completed by former Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows superintendent John Simpson and former headmaster Ray Sutton of Pacific Academy private Christian school in Surrey, B.C. — found no problems at the school.

“The inspection team was very impressed by the efforts being made by HUBS to ensure the teachers have a positive experience,” the report says. “The inspectors talked to all the B.C. certified teachers and without exception they all expressed satisfaction with the manner in which they were being treated.”

But one of the former HUBS employees challenged the claim. Nadine Steele, a 40-year veteran of the B.C. public school system with a masters of education in special education, who was fired from her Literary Specialist position after five months at HUBS in the 2015-16 school year, told The Tyee she followed up last summer with 17 teachers who were at the school during the three-day inspection in November 2015.*

Only two recalled speaking to the inspectors; none recalled being asked about job satisfaction. A former Grade 8 and 9 teacher said she ran into one inspector in the hallway where they spoke briefly, mostly about Coquitlam, B.C., where they’re both from.

“We didn’t talk about the school. He asked me if I was going to be back at the school next year and at the time I was like, ‘Well, I’m on a two-year contract.’ We’re in the middle of the hallway; we’re not speaking privately. So that’s all I said to him,” she said. The teacher quit her job the following spring.

Classes were held in a small former elementary school, which provides a tight squeeze for 55 classes and 1,216 students, mostly Qatari nationals. (Just over 1,000 are in the B.C. program.) The 2015 inspection report noted a new 60-classroom school building was planned and was expected to be ready by the start of 2017 “at the latest.” The building is now scheduled to be finished by the end of June.

The report notes the current building “meets Qatar’s building and safety requirements” and was “suitable and adequate to support the B.C. program.”

The former employees disagree.

“The current campus was woefully inadequate for our needs,” said the former Grade 8 and 9 teacher. “It had no proper [physical education] space, classrooms were extremely cramped, they leaked when it rained, and technology constantly failed.” A physical education space and swimming pool have been added since the teacher left in 2016.

Teachers say student skills lagged

The inspection report said the school’s acceptance process focused mainly on math and English skills. “Only students whose performance in the entrance examination is at or close to grade level expectations of the B.C. program are accepted.”

But the former employees said many students performed several grades below the level expected for their ages and placements. By spring 2016, almost half the students in one of the Grade 8 and 9 teacher’s classes were failing.

Without telling her, the administration had a meeting with parents upset about the grades she was giving, according to the former Grade 8 and 9 teacher. “After that meeting I was told to change my teaching strategies,” the teacher said.

“I felt like I was going to be fired if I did not come up with better grades on my third term report cards.” She says she quit soon after that meeting.

A former primary grade teacher, who didn’t return to HUBS after her first year working there, said it felt like she was teaching basic English language skills, not the B.C. curriculum. Subjects like science and social studies were impossible for her students. “It really came down to math and English, because math is sort of universal, and English is working at their level of vocabulary,” she said.

The inspection report notes students with “marginally acceptable” skills for their grade level are given conditional entry and work with the school’s student support program. The program had three support workers in 2014/15, six during the inspection in 2015/16, and 10 this past school year.

But the Grade 8 and 9 teacher says when she worked at the school in 2015/16 there was just one math and one English support worker for grades 6 to 9. The math support worker was on the job three months before going on maternity leave; she wasn’t replaced that year.

Behaviour issues, such as refusing to sit at the desk, yelling or not listening made teaching a class of Grade 4 boys almost impossible, says Ott. “I was teaching 22 boys for most of the year, and I would say 18 of them had behaviour/learning issues,” he said.

HUBS has an at-risk policy for students struggling to keep up, including reports to parents and administration, HUBS’ principal Fred Thorsell told The Tyee via email. About four to 10 students aren’t allowed to re-enrol each year.

But Ott says there’s a per-class cap on the number of students designated at-risk, meaning only a few get help — an assertion Thorsell disputes.

And the help they received was questionable, Ott says. Normally teachers assess reading comprehension based on a student’s first reading of a text, says Ott, and support workers had students read a text aloud multiple times, judging comprehension levels on their last reading.

“I didn’t find those assessments as accurate,” he said, adding he and another Grade 4 boys’ teacher found support workers assessed students as having higher reading levels than their teachers observed in the classroom.

‘No real danger of failing’

Support isn’t enough to make up for years of grade inflation and automatic promotion, either, Ott alleges. In his first year at HUBS he says he had meetings with parents about their child not being ready for Grade 5. But the following September he was surprised to discover the students enrolled in Grade 5.

“What happens between the [final] report card and the beginning of the next year? Who knows,” Ott said.

“The students and their parents have come to understand that the students are in no real danger of failing as they always get passed on to the next class despite their performance and their teachers’ recommendations.”

This isn’t the first time offshore schools have faced allegations of grade inflation (see sidebar). In 2012 the Vancouver Sun reported complaints from teachers at the Tianjin Maple Leaf school in Tianjin, China, that the administration was pressuring them to inflate failing and floundering students grades.

This followed on the heels of similar allegations about three other offshore schools in 2007.

Simpson, one of the two B.C. inspectors who visited HUBS, has conducted two offshore school inspections and worked as an offshore school agent for the education ministry.

He said offshore school students overall are often from “pretty well-to-do families” and that can affect teachers’ roles.

“If families don’t like what they’re seeing for their children [in one school], then they have options [of other schools], and they’ve got money to get any option they want,” he said.

Qatar has no public school system. This leaves parents who can afford to pay with a variety of for-profit schools to choose from, and a few non-profit schools for parents who cannot.

“Teachers have a challenging job to maintain a classroom with a sound learning environment, at the same time keeping kids always happy to be there.”

The education ministry responded to concerns about inflated marks at overseas schools in 2013 by requiring students in Grade 10, 11 and 12 in offshore schools to take B.C. exams that are graded in the province. If exam marks are more than 25 per cent lower than the schools’ marks, “only the student’s provincial exam result is recorded.”

However, the new B.C. curriculum only requires two B.C. exams for literacy and math in Grade 12, compared to the previous five exams ranging from grades 10 through 12.

The new exam schedule comes into effect in September. HUBS currently only offers courses up to Grade 10, so this will be the last year students write B.C. exams until the school phases in Grade 11 and Grade 12 over the next two years.

Visa issues

Two of the former staff said the school provided visitors’ visas instead of work visas. Support worker Steele said she didn’t learn until she arrived in Doha that she may be working in the country illegally.

Both former employees had to leave and re-enter Qatar every two months as a condition of their visitors’ visas. “I realized that I really have no rights there, and you have to lie when you go through customs,” Steele said.

The education ministry maintains it is up to the school to provide appropriate visas and said government officials in Qatar have not raised “any regulatory or legislative violations” by the school.

Overall, HUBS has a 73 per cent rate of return for teachers. But the rate of return for B.C. teachers was 62 per cent.

Principal, owner paint different picture

Thorsell has a much different view than his former employees.

In an email written by Thorsell and Bassema Al-Jabi, CEO of the school’s Kuwait-based owner EduGlobe Company, Thorsell told The Tyee that HUBS is like most international schools in attracting mainly new young teachers who don’t stay long term.

“Almost all of the teachers are hired internationally and, consistent with the trend in international schools, tend to move between countries and schools quite often,” Thorsell wrote, adding most teachers in the B.C. program are Canadian.

Visa issues are rare, Thorsell wrote, citing three teachers in eight years — two currently at HUBS — who worked with visitors’ visas because they were 60 or older. The two teachers currently at HUBS are waiting for approval from the Qatari government to work, he wrote, and the government has been informed of the situation.

Teachers must share responsibility for classroom behaviour problems, he said.

“Teachers are encouraged and coached to invest in establishing class routines at the start of the year,” he wrote. “Consistent enforcement of such routines keeps behaviour under control.”

Thorsell added his door is always open for teachers’ support, complaints and questions.

Ministry defends inspections

Last summer, Steele made an official complaint about the 2015 inspection to the education ministry’s Offshore School Program manager Jenni McConnell.

In a series of emails provided to The Tyee by Steele, McConnell responded to concerns that B.C. inspectors hadn’t spoken to HUBS teachers. “It is a clear expectation that inspectors will meet with every classroom teacher during the inspection,” McConnell wrote, adding she would also talk to Thorsell about this.

“I will be ensuring that all inspectors are fully aware of this expectation. If an inspection team does not have the time to visit teacher classrooms, I will support adding additional inspection team members or lengthening the time of the inspection.”

But the ministry and Thorsell continue to stand by the 2015 inspection report.

“At the end of the last inspection visit, the inspectors specifically said that they spoke to every teacher and all were satisfied,” Thorsell wrote. “B.C. inspectors are high ranking administrators with experience in B.C. schools and school districts.”

When contacted by The Tyee, HUBS inspector Ray Sutton refused to comment and directed questions to the ministry. Co-inspector John Simpson did grant an interview and said he was surprised by the teachers’ complaints about the inspection process and report.

“We had a list, thought we talked to every single teacher, visited every single one,” Simpson said, adding school administration provided the inspectors with a list of B.C. teaching staff. Simpson said either he or Sutton would visit a class during school hours, or teachers could come to them at a private office established just for the inspectors during their visit.

Simpson said that, based on his recollection, teachers often wanted to talk about whether inspectors knew of jobs available at other offshore schools.

“To my recollection I don’t remember anyone voicing any concern [about HUBS] to us,” he said.

Simpson said he did not notice any problems with the HUBS building or equipment either.

He recalled the three-day HUBS inspection as “intense,” adding the final report was delivered on the fourth day. Nevertheless, he felt this was adequate time to inspect the school: “It’s full-time, it’s heavy. But it can be done.”

HUBS’ principal Thorsell, a former B.C. teacher and principal, said he’s proud of the school, which became B.C.-certified a year after opening in 2009. “The school has consistently succeeded in implementing the B.C. curriculum. This is the core requirement for maintaining its B.C. certification,” he wrote.

Ott wants potential HUBS teachers to know it is a B.C. school in name only. “In terms of what you’re actually going to be teaching, you can’t call it a B.C. school,” he said, describing the job as similar to his previous career as an English language teacher.

“When I’m in Grade 4 teaching kids how to add five plus four, I don’t feel like I’m teaching B.C. curriculum. When I spent hours every day just trying to get kids to sit down and not swear at each other, I don’t see myself as a B.C. teacher now,” he said.

“I’ve developed so many bad habits from teaching here, I forget what it’s like to be a real teacher.”

*Steele’s position corrected June 15 at 12 p.m.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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