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Offshore School Changes Don’t Go Far Enough, Say Teachers

Government tightening some rules after review, but risks remain, say critics.

By Katie Hyslop 10 Jul 2018 |

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter.

The B.C. government has quietly launched changes to the province’s troubled offshore school program.

The program lets schools in other countries pay to use the provincial curriculum and award B.C. diplomas, and helps their graduates get into Canadian schools.

Last year, reports in The Tyee raised questions about the provincial certification process for the schools and potential conflicts of interest. About 60 per cent of offshore school inspectors were linked to B.C. private schools, which along with public schools have also been recruiting international students.

Last month the government quietly released its review of the B.C. Certified Offshore Schools program, which leases the province’s Kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum to 45 private schools overseas.

The review was launched following a scandal in spring 2017 that resulted in the expulsion of all five South Korean schools from the program after the country issued deportation orders for all the B.C.-certified teaching staff from at least three of the schools over improper visas.

The review highlights 15 actions the B.C. government is in the process of implementing to prevent further school closures and ensure school compliance with the program’s policies.

The changes include more frequent inspections and greater ministry oversight of the inspection process.

The eight-page Review of the B.C. Global Education Program was originally to be completed almost a year ago.

Former and current offshore school teachers who spoke with The Tyee said the changes are a good start, but don’t go far enough — particularly in protecting the B.C.-certified teachers, many Canadian, which the government requires offshore schools to hire.

“It all looks good on the surface, however I know what underlies the inspection report,” said Nadine Steele, a 40-year veteran of the public system who worked for five months at an offshore school in Doha, Qatar, in the 2015/16 school year.

Steele complained to the education ministry in 2016 after the inspectors failed to interview all B.C.-certified teachers, including herself, about their working conditions.

“I don’t know how these actions will ameliorate that,” she said.

South Korea crisis sparked review

Last June the B.C. government cancelled its contracts with the South Korean schools after B.C.-certified teachers were given departure orders because their employers had obtained visas intended for language schools instead of the required visas for foreign teachers at an international school. Given just a month to leave, many teachers who had spent years establishing lives and families in the country were suddenly uprooted.

The visa issue was noted in a 2012 inspection report, but the schools still passed two subsequent inspections. A teacher reported Canada Embassy officials said they had warned the provincial government about the licensing and visa problems.

However, like the B.C.-certified teachers facing expulsion, the B.C. ministry of education was blindsided by the South Korean immigration crackdown on their schools in spring 2017.

The South Korea crackdown was not the only scandal to hit the Offshore School program over the last 20 years. Prior to the introduction of ministry guidelines for the schools in 2013, there were complaints of grade inflation at offshore schools in 2007 and 2012.

Last year The Tyee reported on another school in Qatar where former teachers also alleged grade inflation, along with crumbling school infrastructure, a toxic work atmosphere and improper visas.

An education ministry spokesperson said the delay in completing the review was due to the slow transition to the new government last year. In October, a spokesperson told The Tyee the report was awaiting final approval before being released.

The review starts with positives, noting exam marks in the offshore schools — the vast majority of which are in China — are similar to the results from international and English Language Learning students attending schools here in B.C. While all three categories of students struggle with English, communications and social studies exams, offshore students outperformed domestic, international and ELL students in public math and science exams.

However the report goes on to outline 15 steps necessary to ensure the province, schools, teachers and students aren’t caught off-guard again.

They include: mandatory annual inspections by B.C.-certified inspectors, including the possibility of random unannounced inspections; annual renewal of local government authorizations; increasing ministry presence during school inspections; adding a complaint button to the Ministry’s Offshore School program website; and requiring all schools to have emergency plans in case of unplanned school shutdowns.

The Tyee requested an interview with Education Minister Rob Fleming, but he was not available. Instead a ministry spokesperson sent an emailed statement.

“The review showed B.C.’s Offshore Schools’ education outcomes are similar to schools in B.C. — which perform very well internationally — but some administrative areas requiring strengthening were identified,” it said. The government has implemented nine of the 15 recommendations, it said, with the other six expected to be finished by July 2019.*

A start — but not enough

Teachers from offshore schools told The Tyee via email and phone interviews that they are cautiously optimistic about the changes.

“Overall we feel positive about the planned changes but skeptical of their enforcement and timelines,” read an email from Alexander Hebb, a former teacher at the Canada-BC International School (CBIS) in South Korea, speaking on behalf of himself and some former colleagues.

The school’s former teachers, some now working in other offshore schools, said they welcome the introduction of school emergency plans and greater communication between the offshores schools, local governments and the B.C. education ministry.

But they remain skeptical of the changes to the inspection and certification processes, noting CBIS underwent regular inspections and had submitted its South Korean government certification to the province prior to the visa crackdown in the spring of 2017.

“We look forward to seeing how these proposals will be followed up upon,” Hebb wrote. “We applaud the efforts of the ministry for listening to our proposals and attempting to address our concerns. We would like to stress that these are issues which should be implemented with more urgency and a more urgent timeline.”

Steele, who worked at Hayat Universal Bilingual School (HUBS) in Doha, Qatar, wants to see how greater ministry oversight of the school inspections will work, noting the current three or four days allowed for inspections is inadequate.

She’s also concerned there’s not an emphasis on ensuring inspectors interview every B.C.-certified teacher in a school. She said during a 2015 inspection at the school in Doha, only two of the 17 B.C.-certified teachers spoke to inspectors, and even then their conversations were not about the school.

“They don’t say that they’re going to ensure that we interview each teacher and make sure that we understand if their job is satisfactory, if their personal situation is satisfactory,” she said.

“Annual inspections are good, but if they’re just going to do the same old thing and just gloss over and just fill in the blanks or do the checklist without actually doing the work, it means nothing.”

But the ministry spokesperson said there are no plans to extend the time for inspections. When it comes to interviewing the teachers, “there is no quota, but inspectors attempt to meet with as many people as possible within the school.”

The review says ministry staff should take a greater role in inspections. The ministry spokesperson added “the ministry has done so over the past year as ministry staff have been on-site more often than in previous years to conduct inspections themselves.”

The review also said principals can no longer be offshore school representatives, the liaisons between the ministry and the school. All the representatives currently live in and work from British Columbia.

Steele said she would like to see the BC Teachers’ Federation involved in the inspection process to ensure teachers’ experiences are taken into account and their working conditions monitored.

Offshore school teachers are not represented by the BCTF, which represents all teachers in the province’s public school system. The union has long been a critic of the offshore school program for corporatizing education and because of allegations of poor working conditions for teachers and students.

Union president Glen Hansman echoes Steele’s concerns, saying he doesn’t think this level of reform will be enough to prevent more situations like the South Korean closures.

“They didn’t have anyone to talk to there,” he said of the South Korean teachers. “They didn’t have any representation, there was no one to facilitate things with the Korean government, let alone provide translation services.”

While noting the changes should significantly reduce the risk of another South Korea situation, the ministry says teachers know from the offshore school job postings on the province’s teacher job site, Make A Future, that much of their working conditions are outside of the ministry’s responsibility.

“The Ministry of Education is not responsible for the employment relationship, including any employment disputes, between a teacher and an offshore school owner/operator, which is governed by a teacher’s, principal’s or vice principal’s contract of employment.”

The BCTF is also disappointed the review did not include a comprehensive analysis of the program itself, something it pushed Fleming to pursue in a briefing shared with him last August.

“Why are we even in this business at all?” Hansman said. “Is it just a money-making thing? Is it part of well-intentioned internationalism? We’re probably due for a conversation about the why.”

* This story was updated July 11, 2018 at 4:50 p.m. to correct the wrong timeline given to The Tyee by the Ministry of Education.  [Tyee]

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