The Cayman Islands are something of an international crossroads, due to their status as a British overseas territory and the close proximity and cultural ties to America.
The population of around 60,000 is made up of over 100 different nationalities, around half of which are expats. Ten government primary schools, three high schools, and a special needs school sit alongside various private education institutions and serve this diverse community.
The past decade has seen a lot of education reform and restructuring in order to improve education in the area. Lyneth Monteith, acting chief education officer, explains: “Our ultimate aim is to provide an internationally recognised standard of education that develops our young people academically, emotionally and socially.”
To achieve this means understanding where you are in relation to other countries, explains Clive Baker, senior policy advisor on the islands: “To compete on a global level, we need to know how we are performing against the rest of the world. We have to gauge success accurately and PISA is not an option as our population size is too small to register.”
Finding an answer
The Cayman Islands are addressing this issue by using the Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT4), an assessment of reasoning ability, in conjunction with Progress in English (PiE), which tests reading and writing ability, and Progress in Maths (PiM), which tests mathematical skills and concepts.
Clive continues: “We follow a British – Caribbean style curriculum until the end of Key Stage 4, after which our children take either A level or Associate Degrees programmes. By using the GL Education benchmarks we can look at progress of our students and see how it compares to progress in the UK. “But we also need to look at our results independently. Around 40% of children are privately educated here, compared to maybe 5% in the UK.
That gives our results a very different skew, so simply comparing them to the UK would not give us everything we need. This is why we rely so heavily on CAT4.”
CAT4 isn’t directly linked to the curriculum. Instead it evaluates individual student potential. “In my opinion, CAT4 is the jewel in GL Education’s crown. We’re able to regularly monitor with PiE and PiM against CAT4 results and the KS2 outcomes, so we can measure how students are performing against their potential. It also helps quantify the progress and effectiveness of our education system.”
Clive’s enthusiasm for CAT4 is shared by Roger Morris, one of the Cayman Islands’ senior school improvement officers. “It’s the most valuable assessment I use. CAT4 informs teachers of what children are capable of. It’s simple to use, and the reports you get are detailed, but not dense.
“We’ve had incidents of teachers who didn’t believe certain students were capable of certain things. However, to their credit, once they were presented with hard evidence from CAT4, they lifted their expectations. In a small system like ours, the right interventions can very quickly effect change and CAT4 works to make this happen.”
Targeted professional development for teachers is a key focus on the Cayman Islands, so any assessments chosen need to be useful in the classroom as well as for the central education team.
“To achieve our aims, we must equip teachers with the tools they need. PiE and PiM allow us to see where the issues are in reading, writing and maths, and teachers are able to use this information day to day in their lessons,” says acting chief education officer, Lyneth Monteith. “On a more tactical level, we can put in place any tailored professional development required, focused on improving year-on-year results, and then evaluate our success at each stage.
“The assessments act as a backbone, giving concrete evidence of our successes, as well as pinpointing any areas for improvement. In a short time, we have become quite data rich, which has had a tremendous effect on pushing standards up.”
Philip Palmer, the senior manager who uses data to support schools and effect change, adds: “We don’t have league tables, so we don’t compare one school to another, but we do try to compare schools to themselves year on year.
“One of the main challenges we currently face is making sure teachers know how to use the data to inform progress. A huge benefit has been the fact that results from PiE and PiM tend to closely match the levels observed by teachers, and that gives an extra layer of professional confidence that they are moving in the right direction. We’re now seeing an encouraging upward trend in literacy and numeracy.
“It has also helped us understand our student population in more detail and where more training is needed. For example, CAT4 has confirmed we have many spatially aware children, so we need to employ a variety of teaching styles. As a result, teachers are adapting their lessons to use more props and more visualisation in order to engage the children.”
Focus on Numbers
“You can’t underestimate the importance of good numeracy - it’s a way of understanding the way the world works,” says Frank Eade, the numeracy specialist in the Cayman Islands. “Being able to make sense of situations and apply knowledge also helps with employability, which is one of our ultimate goals.
“We investigated a number of different assessments to help us push up standards. Eventually we chose GL Assessment’s PiM because we liked the mix of practical and conceptual questions, the option to carry out the assessment digitally, and its impressive pedigree.
“Essentially, we are trying to have a framework which encourages teachers to think about how best to differentiate between children’s needs. PiM has been well received by teachers as they recognise it is an objective test and it yields so much information that they can use in class.
“We’ve had positive feedback that it’s not only helpful in spotting strengths and weaknesses, but also recording them. For example, the question-by-question analysis from PiM provides details about the success rates the class has with each question. We can also look at year-on-year analysis to check that low attaining students are progressing as quickly as higher achieving ones.
“Recently, we’ve noticed that the added value has increased significantly, as has the achievement of lower ability students. There has also been a significant improvement in answering harder questions such as measurement, which bodes well for the future. Teachers are moving away from telling pupils things, to working with them and getting the children to understand how to solve problems more.
“We assess online so we get immediate feedback and the style of reporting is very helpful. As soon as I get the reports, I go into schools and talk to the teachers. We find it very revealing.
“Overall, PiM is an important part of the many things we do to boost numeracy, and informs teaching enormously. We are very content to be using it.”
The right attitude
Last year, the Cayman Islands added to their portfolio of assessments by using Pupil Attitudes to Self and School (PASS) for the first time. This is an attitudinal survey that looks at nine factors linked to educational goals, such as attitude to attendance and preparedness for learning.
Philip continues: “We’ve only just started to use this survey but you can already tell there is much more we could learn from it as we continue to develop.
“So far, we’ve discovered some interesting points regarding student perception. For example, they like their teachers and like going to school but they don’t always think their school is ‘good’, perhaps because some students feel that many of the brightest and most affluent switch to private education. Knowing this allows us to consider whether these opinions will have an impact on how far students feel they will be able to progress in school.
“Ensuring our students have real confidence in their learning is of paramount importance as it means they will remain motivated to achieve.”
A world-class education
The key objective now is to continue an upward trajectory and achieve ever greater outcomes. Acting chief education officer Lyneth says: “Our progress has been extremely good and we’ve seen KS2 and KS4 results increasing yearly. Our progress means that people within the Caribbean and worldwide are looking at us and taking notice of what we are doing.
“Having a comparative component in standardised assessments means we can confidently appraise our schools against international schools. We can make a judgement of the standards of our students, and the standard of education in the country.
“It gives us credence and credibility, and if children do move to another system elsewhere in the world, that school will be able to recognise the outstanding level they have already achieved.