‘Ottawa’ ‘Credit Integrity’ Symptom of Deeper Problems at Ontario’s Offshore Schools
Allegations of corruption and grade-fixing at an Ontario-accredited private school in Shanghai are symptoms of a deeper issue with the province’s oversight of its offshore schools, according to parents at another troubled private school in Hong Kong.
A day after Premier Kathleen Wynne visited Shanghai on a November trade mission and posed for pictures with executives from the embattled Canadian International Academy, she was in Hong Kong where a photo-op of another sort materialized.
While visiting the Ontario-accredited Canadian International School in Hong Kong (CDNIS), Wynne was cornered by two of the school’s former pupils, who handed her a stack of petitions pleading for the premier to intervene in a nasty dispute over the school’s governance that has dragged on for months.
The Canadian International Academy (CIA) in Shanghai and CDNIS in Hong Kong are two of 21 offshore schools authorized to teach an Ontario curriculum, offering Ontario credits and a high school diploma, while catering primarily to wealthy, elite families with the goal of sending graduates to top universities in Canada.
While offshore private schools grant Ontario high school credits, they receive no taxpayer money and maintain their authority to grant the Ontario high school diploma (OSSD) based on the results of ministry inspections that typically happen once every two years.
A group of Canadian teachers at Shanghai’s CIA contacted Ontario’s education ministry during the 2015-16 academic year to blow the whistle on the school’s allegedly fraudulent practices, claiming, among other things, that some students were paying money to have their grades inflated, thereby easing admission into university.
But while the CIA is facing accusations over “credit integrity” – whether a student actually earns the credits they are granted – that have long-plagued many private schools both in the province and abroad, CDNIS has instead been embroiled in a dispute over governance.
The dispute has already seen the ouster of the former head of school, multiple resignations from the board of governors, culminating in the firing of nine teachers on the final day of the school year in 2015. The school’s current head, Gregg Maloberti, the school’s first non-Canadian to hold that position, recently announced he would be stepping down at the end of this academic year, though parents still claim the school’s governance is in turmoil.
Students, alumni and parents are hoping Ontario will pressure CDNIS – under threat of revoking its authority to grant Ontario credits – into finding a peaceable resolution.
Students sent a letter to the Ministry of Education pleading for help in June 2015, and, when they received little in the way of a response, took the opportunity to hand-deliver their message in an impromptu meeting with Wynne in November.
A ministry official investigated corruption complaints during an in-person inspection at Shanghai’s CIA in April. Around the same time, Hong Kong’s CDNIS was also the subject of a surprise ministry inspection, according to parents at the elite private school, which boasts a student body of nearly 2,000 pupils representing 41 nationalities on a sprawling campus in the affluent Aberdeen neighbourhood of Hong Kong.
Ontario’s education ministry has been evasive in answering questions about the extent of its oversight of offshore schools, and has so far declined to release the results of its investigations into either school.
A ministry spokeswoman confirmed that through all of its inspections of offshore schools, not one institution has ever had its credit-granting authority revoked.
While a scathing auditor general’s report in 2013 found “significant concerns” over credit integrity in a quarter of the province’s accredited private schools, and while the AG probed more than 1,000 Ontario-based private schools, the report did not make a single mention of the province’s 21 offshore schools.
Several sources insist the problems of “credit integrity” have long-existed at offshore schools, though many seemingly continue to operate with impunity.
Inspected schools that are flagged for violations are typically allowed to continue operating, and instead of revoking a school’s credit-granting authority or levying fines, ministry officials will offer the school time and guidance to correct issues of non-compliance.
Several Ontario-based private schools have had their authority revoked in recent years over a variety of non-compliance issues, though, as ministry policy notes, the offending school can simply re-submit a notice of intention any time in the following school year and, after passing a cursory inspection, be back up and running, and granting Ontario credits and issuing diplomas with the ministry’s blessing.
Penalties contained within Ontario’s Education Act, meanwhile, are rarely levied and offer little in the way of a deterrent.
As the auditor general noted in 2013, the portion of legislation concerning penalties for non-compliance was passed in 1962, and has only been updated once, in the 1970s, which brought a marginal increase in the dollar value of the applicable fines.
One of the most serious offences under the act – knowingly making a false statement to the ministry when opening a school, or when submitting data (such as grades) – is punishable by a fine of no more than $500.
The AG also noted that private school tuition typically ranges from $5,000 to $20,000 per student, but “can be significantly higher.”
The AG report noted the ministry’s position that “enforcing compliance through penalties is not economical … (as) the legal costs of pursuing a conviction far outweigh the fines that may be collected.”
When the AG report was updated in 2015, it found the ministry had made “little to no progress” on a recommendation to fix the legislative framework for penalties.
The ministry, meanwhile, has provided few answers to the many questions posed by Postmedia in recent weeks.
Nicole McInerney, spokeswoman for Education Minister Liz Sandals, said the ministry is “currently reviewing the results (of last month’s CIA inspection) and will provide an update in the coming weeks.”
Graduating students have already received acceptance letters from Canadian universities, and as far as CIA officials are concerned, the school remains in good standing with the province and continues to advertise its friendly relationship with the premier as a prime selling point as it continues with expansion plans in Shanghai.
Neither Sandals nor Wynne have commented publicly on the controversy.
But while Ontario has remained relatively silent over its handling of its offshore schools, counterparts in B.C. acted swiftly when near-identical integrity concerns surfaced in 2012.
Like Ontario, B.C. has long been a player in the lucrative market of international private schools, and its education ministry oversees 34 offshore schools, including 20 in China alone.
Teachers at one Chinese school complained loudly to the B.C. education ministry in 2012, voicing concerns that mirror the ones identified three years later by teachers at Canadian International Academy – alleging the Tianjin Maple Leaf international school “faked” inflated marks so its students could qualify for admission into North American universities, even when English language skills were minimal.
The story hit the Vancouver Sun in November 2012, and within two months the B.C. government had announced sweeping changes to the policies that govern its overseas schools, with Education Minister Don McRae telling the Sun the changes were necessary to ensure the province maintains its reputation for excellent education, and that its high school diploma was respected.
McRae said the teachers featured in the Sun report were not the only ones to complain, and the ministry had apparently launched a full-scale review of its offshore private school sector months earlier.
B.C. imposed tighter restrictions on its private schools, including:
• Students applying to offshore schools must pass an English language proficiency test before they are admitted. (At the CIA, by contrast, teachers said some senior students were allowed to graduate with an OSSD despite having little to no English comprehension.)
• Senior students must pass B.C.’s own standardized Grade 12 English exam before being allowed to graduate, and are no longer allowed to rely on course work to boost their overall grade.
• Offshore schools will have a “twinning” relationship with a B.C. school, and one-quarter of the graduates must spend at least one semester at a school in B.C.
• Any school that wishes to apply for B.C. certification must accept students no later than Grade 8 to ensure the pupils have adequate time to learn English.
In the case of the CIA, director of education Jim Sebastian said the school employed an admittedly “convoluted” strategy to comply with Ontario rules that demand 80 per cent of the teaching faculty is Ontario-certified.
The complement of qualified teachers fell well below ministry standards at the CIA, but Sebastian said because only Grade 12 students were being taught the Ontario curriculum, the school only required certified teachers for its Grade 12 classes. Junior grades are taught from a curriculum unrecognized by the ministry.
Yet Sebastian also acknowledged that since CIA students spent at least three years at an Ontario-certified school, graduates are exempt from taking an English-language proficiency test required of international students by the Ontario University Application Centre. Sebastian called the loophole “one of the (school’s) attractions for parents.”
The B.C. ministry also pledged to take a closer look at the owners and operators of its offshore schools, and made annual recertification a requirement.
The schools must submit annual reports and allow for surprise inspections, and the ministry posts the results of each of those inspections on its website for the public to see.
The Ontario ministry has refused to release its investigation reports into the CIA, despite calls from opposition critics to do so, and has so far declined to comment on the school’s current status as an Ontario credit-granting institution, or address the allegations of fraud and corruption brought forward by the teachers.