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Accreditation and inspection bodies exist to review and maintain standards at schools. As with any kind of school, good international schools undergo regular checks by recognised organisations to make sure that they are providing the education they claim to and to safeguard the qualifications the students may receive as part of that education.

Is accreditation of international schools important? 

A thorough accreditation process vets a school in ways parents usually cannot, even if they currently have children in the school. That process, along with other processes, forces a school to pull up its socks and closely examine its own standards and plans. 

It allows an independent body to look behind the scenes for appropriate governance and clean bookkeeping, encourages transparency, and measures the amount of input ‘stakeholders’ (parents) have on financial planning – all of which is particularly important in international schools, when many are privately owned and, according to the laws of the land, it is quite legal for an owner to do whatever they want with the school funds (including buy themselves a new boat if they so wishes). 

Accreditation also matters because without it, high school qualifications are not usually accepted by universities and (in the US) college credits cannot be transferred; nor are degrees accepted for graduate schools. There are exceptions to this; occasionally universities will overlook a questionable or non-existent accreditation problem if the student is enormously exceptional (child prodigy violinist, has already won Wimbledon at age 14 etc), but mere mortals do need to come from a school with known academic qualifications. 

If the initials don't line up with those of one of the accreditation agencies listed in this article (and do ask what they stand for): red flag here. There are certainly bogus accrediting agencies, giving meaningless certification to equally bogus schools. 

The real question for a school without any legitimate accredition is, ‘Why not?’ A good school, with most of its ducks in a row and stable finances, has nothing to fear from this useful, arms-length process, and everything to gain. Do be wary of schools that do not bother, and don't hesitate to ask pointed questions. 

Accreditation of British international schools 

The British Schools Overseas (BSO) programme, run by UK Department for Education, provides an across-the-board inspection process for all British schools overseas, with reports published with the full authority and oversight of the British government. 

These inspections ensure ‘schools advertising a ‘British character’ are upholding the rigour and excellence of [the British] system’. 

These inspection providers have been approved to inspect British schools overseas under the BSO programme (inspection providers in operation and being monitored by Ofsted** are marked with an asterix): 

Now, of course not all schools will take advantage of this rigorous and bare-all inspection, so we still advise parents to sniff the air when an overseas school claims it has been ‘inspected by Ofsted’, and urge you to detect which inspection agency was used and to find the report. 

Because British schools are mostly results driven, there's less emphasis on the process for teaching than on each student's exam results (I/GCSEs and A levels). But it doesn't hurt to look for further evidence of excellence and oversight; it may not be a deal-killer if you don't find it, but you should certainly ask schools why they haven't been inspected or accredited. 

**For those who aren't familiar with it, Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills) is part of the UK Government and is the inspectorate for ‘children and learners’ in England (‘through a comprehensive system of inspection and regulation covering childcare, schools, colleges, children's services, teacher training and youth work’. Quotes are from the Ofsted web site). 

Accreditation of American Schools (in the US and Abroad) 

All American schools, public or private, based in the US or abroad, must be accredited by one of the accrediting agencies recognised by the US Department of Education. Each region in the United States has an acronym that ends in ACS or ASC under the Commission on Colleges (COC) [NB ‘colleges’ in the US means post-secondary level schools, synonomous with the generic British ‘university’]. However, that having been said, MSACS (see below) is usually known as MSA (Middle States Association).   

These accreditation bodies are strict and complete. Repeat: without an accreditation from one of them, high school diplomas are not accepted by most colleges and universities and college credits cannot be transferred; nor are degrees accepted for graduate schools.   

They are: 

Private (or independent) American schools (in the US and abroad) may also be accredited by other agencies, most of whom should be members of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), or Educational Collaborative for Independent Schools (ECIS) (notably their accreditation arm, Council of Independent Schools (CIS) – see later section on memberships) and which may include regional organisations specifically set up to accredit independent schools (an example would be the Florida Council of Independent Schools (FCIS)). A school accredited by one of those organisations AND one of the regional agencies even gives an extra layer of assurance. 

However, there are private schools, both secondary and post secondary, that do not pass the rigorous standards of any NAIS-recognised accrediting organisations, or the official regional agencies, yet might claim accreditation by a reassuring alphabet soup of initials that sound confusingly close to, but should not be confused with, the ones mentioned here by name. 

To check for legitimacy amongst regional or state accrediting associations, go to the membership organisations National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), which require accreditation by one of the agencies they recognise and which you can definitely trust. 

International schools membership organisations

There are also other very good organisations that eyeball international schools, British, American and otherwise. For example the Council of British Independent Schools (COBIS), is so well respected that it is recognised by the UK Department for Education (DfE) and its members may join the UK teachers retirement and pension scheme. These are not official accrediting agencies, but membership in them does carry weight and serves as a marker for legitimacy.  

Membership in some organisations (like the Council of International Schools, National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), Association of British Schools Overseas (AoBSO), British Schools in the Middle East (BSME) and National Association of British Schools in Spain (Nabss)) is only possible if the school is accredited by an approved agency. There is also FOBISIA (Federation of British Independent Schools in Asia) which is less stringent than COBIS and basically self-regulating. They say they want members to be British curriculum schools that have good practice, but it is their own membership who determine that. 

The important thing is not to confuse mere membership (no matter how august the body), or even just licensing by the local government, with genuine accreditation or inspections by disinterested, legitimate bodies. Memberships, associations, and accreditations are often listed together on school websites, with distinctions or details hard to find (or avoided on purpose). 

Not to be Confused With... 

Occasionally, international schools might mention their association with curriculum or examination boards like the CIE (Cambridge International Examinations),  International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO), International Curriculum Assocation (ICA) Pearson Edexcel, or UCLES (University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate) in a way that suggests these organisations perhaps have something to do with inspections or some form of overall accreditation. They do not. 

Totally reputable, no question, with a key role to play, these organisations produce quality curricula and exams that are available throughout the world, and take care to ensure that results are not fiddled. But while a site inspection of some of a school’s services and facilities is required for it to become an authorised examination centre, the organisations in question should not be confused with bodies that control, oversee, fully inspect or accredit schools.  

So, CIE, Edexel, or UCLES are in no way Ofsted or NEASC or CIS type inspections, where programmes and governance are inspected. But because part of the criteria that these agencies scrutinise is ‘who’ authorises the school, having those organisations somewhere on the school's oversight credentials is yet another clue towards a ‘good’ school for discerning parents.  

A word of warning about international school accreditation

Beware of infinitesimal but crucial differences in wording and initials between the accepted and the rejected.  

If a school is not accredited by one of the organisations recognised by any of the above agencies, do not hesitate to ask why. It is expensive to have a proper and comprehensive accreditation or inspection, but if a school can't afford this very important item in their budget, it should raise serious questions as to what else they can't or won't afford...and even how much longer they'll be in business, quite aside from the obvious lack of transparency and indication of quality education. 

We do trust the above referenced lists, and if an agency is not on it, it would be a good idea to do more research (feel free to contact us; we do occasionally discover and add agencies).

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