The British Schools Overseas (BSO) scheme...one of the British government's great success stories! Before 2011, if schools outside the UK said they were inspected by Ofsted**, could you believe them?
But once the BSO was started, that changed. And fast.
Until fairly recently, outside of the UK, Ofsted officially inspected only Ministry of Defence schools. Dodgy schools abroad might airily say they were 'inspected by Ofsted' when that simply was not the case.
In some cases, Ofsted contract inspectors might be hired in private arrangements between the school and a real Ofsted inspection contractor, but there was no way to know what changed in the report after the inspector flew home- or even whether the "inspector’s" credentials really just included a gap year making coffee in an Ofsted UK office. Certainly there was no requirement by a foreign government that the inspection report be authentic, public, or provided to parents in its entirety.
But inspections and accreditations are among the most important tools a parent has for verifying basic standards in a school, let alone excellence, with scrutiny that is objective, arms-length and unavoidable for good schools.
Top notch British schools abroad have been securing inspections and accreditations from excellent private organisations for years. But there has never been an across-the-board inspection process available for all British schools, with full reports published with the full authority and oversight of the British government.
Official inspections overseas....at last!! Enter BSO...
To our great delight and at long last, the UK Department for Education launched the British Schools Overseas (BSO) programme in 2011. They originally approved seven agencies, all authorised to perform "accreditation against standards similar to independent schools operating in Britain", complete with published inspection reports that are available to parents and show how well individual British schools abroad measure up against British standards.
These inspections ensure "schools advertising a ‘British character’ are upholding the rigour and excellence of [the British] system".
According to the UK Dept for Education website, to be recognised by the Department for Education a British school overseas must have an inspection report which shows that their performance against all the standards is at least satisfactory. This reflects the standards required for continuing registration as a school in England. Schools meeting the standards will have their inspection reports published on the Department's website and will be allocated a unique reference number on the national school reference system, Edubase".
We would have expected this to be a fairly ponderous undertaking, taking years to get round to so many British international schools. But once it was launched over a decade ago, we found ourselves racing to keep pace with these fresh inspections across the globe.
A (slightly confusing) (after all, how else would you have known this was an official government site?) set of maps on the following links show the locality of each British school overseas that has been inspected (or will be in the next three years) under the Department's inspection scheme. Individual inspection reports are available to download via the school location pins on these maps:
These now-five 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):
- Independent Schools Inspectorate*
- Penta International*
- Cambridge Education*
- School Inspection Service*
- Educational Development Trust
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 click right over to one of those maps to see if that school is listed.
And if that school claims to be British and is not on the Ofsted list, do not hesitate to ask why not.
**For those who aren't familiar with it, Ofsted 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).
If not Ofsted, Who?
There are also other very good accreditation agencies that eyeball British schools. Because British schools are mostly results driven, there's less emphasis on the process for teaching than on each student's exam results (GCSEs, or IGCSEs, 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 example, look for accreditation by the Council of Independent Schools (CIS), and membership in their former sister organization, the European Council of Independent Schools). COBIS (Council of the British Independent Schools, previously known as COBISEC), itself a member of the ISC, is another worthy membership organization and as mentioned in the introduction to this section, well enough respected that it is recognised by the UK Department for Education (DfE) and its members may join the UK teachers retirement and pension scheme. To be members, COBIS requires that schools be inspected or 'willing to be inspected' by ISI. British Schools in the Middle East (BSME) is another membership organisation that requires members to have gone through a full accreditation process by a recognised and reputable agency.
They have a sister organization, FOBISSEA (Federation of British Independent Schools of South East Asia) which is less stringent that 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).
Why Should You Care?
As pointed out by Yojana Sharma, writing for the Times Educational Supplement after the startling closing of a famous school in the South of France several years ago, "Accreditation involves a strict process of inspection and reporting, including on financial matters over several years. CIS teams [for example] are sent into accredited schools at regular intervals to observe teaching practice and to look at the books."
That was an example of a school loved by teachers, parents and students, with great exam results, but which stunned students and staff when they arrived one morning to find the gates chained and locked....closed without warning due to unsuspected poor management.
Although a school may do very well for many years, and its students receive a fine education, only the transparent processes of formalized dispassionate scrutiny can assure parents of the stability and bone-deep quality of an apparently good school.
Not to be Confused With...
Occasionally, schools might mention their association with CIE (Cambridge International Examinations) , Edexcel, or UCLES (University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate) in a way that suggests these organizations 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 organizations produce quality 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 authorized examination center, the organizations in question should not be confused with bodies that control, oversee, fully inspect or accredit schools.
Schools that want to offer exams such as GCSE, IGCSE and A-Level must join one of these exam systems and be authorised as exam centres. These different exam systems have different syllabi, so a school may opt for a combination.
However, the inspection process is not the point: these agencies are more concerned about the delivery of the exam rather the delivery of the curriculum. If you see any of these agencies mentioned by a school, this means the school is a registered exam centre; the agencies want to see that qualified teachers would proctor the exams, that the ‘exam taking’ conditions are suitable, and most important that there is a satisfactory secure room to store exams when they arrive and until they are sent off for marking (say, bars added to the windows, secure fire-proof storage arranged, keyholders named etc).
Similarly, once a school is an exam centre, the school can register anyone to take the exam there (in other words the school can opt to register a student they don’t teach – a home-schooled pupil for example, or a student who goes to a local national school but wants to do a GCSE in a subject like French or IT).
On the other hand, an organisation may be UK based and credible (and inspect for Ofsted in the UK) but not claim to be an inspectorate or accreditation agency. Schools abroad might contract with them to inspect for school improvement or development and to make recommendations, but this is not to be confused with a full fledged, comprehensive and rigorous inspection.
So, to review: 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 three agencies scrutinize 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.