Growing, Growing… Gone! by @BST_Principal

A view on what British Education means

In the halcyon days when I spent most of my time in the classroom rather than cloistered in my office in front of the computer or sitting in interminable meetings, I used to look forward to any opportunity to introduce my students to the writers who had sparked my imagination and set me on the road towards a life-long love of literature. One of my favourites was WB Yeats, and one of his best known poems The Second Coming seemed to strike a chord with most classes over the years. The poem begins with an arresting image of disintegration:

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In a lesson plan that might not escape censure in today’s more elf ‘n safety conscious world, I used to explain this dramatic opening by asking students to play a game now almost certainly banned from most school playgrounds. One student becomes the centreand joins hands with another and then begins to turn on the spot; a third student makes a further link in the chain, then a fourth and a fifth… and so on. Eventually, although the student at the centre is still turning steadily, the students further out along the chain are having to run so quickly that inevitably the links eventually break and things fall apart.

Why is this of any relevance in an essay about school inspection? According to figures published by the International School Consultancy Group earlier this year there are now more than four million students studying in English medium schools around the world. Many of these schools, and there are probably examples in most countries on the planet, describe themselves as offering a British or British-style education. It is a distinctive brand as ubiquitous as McDonald’s or Starbucks – and sometimes almost as profitable. Therein lies the problem.

Anyone can open a school anywhere and claim that it is British, that it follows a British-style curriculum, or that it espouses British values. However, as the number of such schools continues to grow exponentially and the circle widens to stretch all around the globe it becomes more and more difficult to hold onto the idea that a claim to Britishness is in itself an indication of quality.

Education is Great

In 2011 (when there were still fewer than three million students in English medium schools) the UK Department for Education introduced a voluntary inspection scheme and a set of nine standards for British Schools Overseas. These cover a number of specific areas and seek to help parents identify schools offering an education that might bear comparison with provision in the UK independent sector:

  1. The quality of education provided by the school (curriculum, teaching and assessment)
  2. The spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils
  3. The welfare, health and safety of pupils
  4. The suitability of the proprietor and staff
  5. The premises and accommodation
  6. The provision of information for parents, carers and others
  7. The school’s procedures for handling complaints
  8. The quality of provision for boarding (where applicable)
  9. Leadership and management of the school

It may be inferred from the first three of these standards that, quite rightly, inspections are essentially child-centred and have a primarily educational focus; they provide only limited investigation of other aspects of the organisation and do not, for example, look into the school’s financial viability or its accounting procedures. In order to gain accreditation under the scheme British Schools Overseas must commit to an inspection by one of the DfE approved inspectorates every three years – a more stringent schedule than the six-year cycle in place for independent schools within the UK.

So far so good: the better schools have nothing to fear and gain the equivalent of a quality kite-mark to confirm the strength of their brand while parents have the reassurance that the school does what it says it does and that, if their children move back to the UK or on to another similarly accredited BSO school, they will not be disadvantaged. Even schools that are not yet ready for accreditation have a clearly defined set of objectives that they can work towards and an easily accessed source of guidance and advice.

There is a problem, though – and it is one with which Yeats’s struggling falconer would readily identify. There are more than four million children in English-medium international schools and that figure is rising rapidly but, six years after its introduction, the number of inspected schools has only just crept up to the 100 mark. It is not too difficult to find reasons for this slow up-take. Although many of the international school membership organisations such as COBIS recognise the importance of inspection, the scheme remains voluntary and there are some institutions that see risk rather than opportunity in the process. Even schools with a strong record of external evaluation can think twice about committing to another round: What will parents think if we don’t do as well as we did last time? It is also costly. An outstanding report might save the school marketing team a small fortune but – no matter what the outcome – a significant inspection fee will have to be paid, plus the expenses (flights, hotels and meals for the entire team) and a considerable amount of valuable time and effort will have to be set aside to make sure that the school is presented in the best light. And the budget has to allow for it to be done all over again in just three years’ time.


Then, of course, there are the inspectors themselves. An effective system of quality assurance in our schools relies upon the ability of the various inspectorates to bring together strong teams of professionals, preferably with current or very recent experience, preferably with some understanding of what it is like to work in an international context, and definitely led by an experienced practitioner who can inspire trust and command respect. Good schools are built upon good people and the same can be said about the inspection of those schools.

How can the centre hold? How can more schools be persuaded to commit to BSO standards and have that commitment accredited? How do we maintain those standards in a climate of spiralling international school expansion?

At a time when demand for teachers in the international sector has never been higher the recognition that accredited schools have all the credentials to offer newly qualified teachers a high quality induction year has undoubtedly been a step in the right direction. This will become an increasingly attractive consequence of BSO accreditation as the competition for excellent teachers intensifies over the next decade. Given the importance of these schools to British business in so many major cities in every continent and their contribution to Britain’s ability to exercise soft power around the globe, it makes sense for the UK Government to find further ways to incentivise inspection. In these days of austerity – and particularly in the light of Sir Michael Wilshaw’s recent short-sighted and inflammatory remarks – it is highly unlikely to happen, but how about a return to the days when an international teacher could, for a relatively limited time, continue to contribute to the teachers’ pension scheme – with the proviso that any time spent teaching overseas was in an officially accredited school? That would certainly give such schools an edge in teacher recruitment.

It may also be time to recognise that the three-year cycle lays an unnecessarily heavy burden on some schools. Quite apart from the financial cost, there is the impact upon staff and the amount of time it eats up when there are always so many other things to do.  It must always be remembered that for those schools prepared to support the scheme in the most effective way that they can, releasing senior staff to carry out inspections will only become more problematic if steps are not taken to spread the load. A six-year cycle would ease some of the pressure, even if there were a more regular basic compliance check to confirm adherence to regulation and progress towards recommendations made at the last full inspection.

If a British education is to continue to be seen as something of a gold standard around the world then there must continue to be a meaningful and workable system of quality assurance. Some good work has been done, but in a time of such rapid growth it would be all too easy to let things fall apart.

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