Leading Your School Through International Accreditation

by Alistair Downs

Leading a school through international accreditation for the first time (or any time!) can be a daunting proposition. Where to start? and what does the process look like? Read on…  

Choosing the Right Accreditation for Your School

Once you (or your School Board) have decided that your school is going to complete international accreditation, the first task you have is to select your preferred route amidst an ever-increasing number of options. 

COBIS (Council of British International Schools) Patrons Accreditation; MSA (Middle States Association); CIS (Council of International Schools); WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges); ASIC; BSO (British Schools Overseas); NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges); ISQM (International Schools Quality Mark); Cognia; I could go on…

The type of school you lead, your student body, the curriculum, and the style and format of the different accreditation frameworks available will likely guide your decision-making, as might your school’s marketing strategy and the education market in your location. Ultimately the accreditation you choose should be the best fit for your school’s needs. 

Preparing for the Accreditation Visit – Selecting the Accreditation Visit Date

One luxury of completing international accreditation is that the school is usually able to choose the date when the inspection team will visit. When choosing this date there are a number of factors to consider which can ensure you have the inspection team visit at the best time of year for your school. For example, a well-established school with little annual staff turnover might be happy to have an accreditation visit early in the academic year because practices and routines are already well-embedded and there might be little/no staff turnover. Having the visit early allows your school to reflect on the accreditation outcomes throughout the academic year.  

However, a school in its early stages of development, or one that has grown significantly in student numbers over the summer months, and/or has recruited a large number of new staff might request an inspection date towards the end of the academic year or mid-way through. This will allow the school more time to not only embed policies and practices but to also allow new staff and students time to settle into the school. 

Presenting Evidence

As part of the accreditation process, you will be asked to present evidence across a wide range of areas which might include Teaching and Learning; Governance; Academic Attainment; Pastoral Care; and Curriculum. There is often a requirement for self-reflection and/or narrative whereby you have the opportunity to present further information about the school.

It is important that any narrative and related evidence you present is accurate and truly reflects your school. If you are saying that your school is outstanding at community engagement then you need to make sure you have the evidence to back that up. Similarly, if your First Aid Policy says that all staff complete training annually then you need to ensure you have the evidence to hand (signed attendance sheets, photographs, certificates, etc.). It isn’t ideal when an inspector asks multiple staff members about the First Aid Training and none of them have taken part. Believe me, it has happened!     

As part of a school development/improvement process, many schools complete ongoing self-reviews involving as many staff members as possible. This then feeds into a school development plan. If you do not currently complete self-reviews it can be useful activity as part of an accreditation process as the inspection team will want to have confidence that you know where your school is on its development journey and that you also know where you want to get to. Crucially you should be able to demonstrate (and convince the inspectors) that you have a clear plan in place to achieve your goals. 

Arrangements for the Inspectors 

Schools are usually responsible for obtaining visas and booking flights and hotel accommodation for the visiting inspectors, together with arranging transport and meals for them while they are in the country. Although this is not part of the accreditation itself and should certainly have no impact on the outcome, the manner in which such matters are handled can reflect on the school. 

I would suggest delegating a trusted (and organised) member of staff to be responsible for making all arrangements for the visiting inspection team, including ensuring dietary requirements are catered for. Communicating clearly and having everything well organised ahead of time will ensure a good first impression for your school. 

During the Accreditation Visit: Non-Negotiables

There are some things you can plan for and control, and others that you can’t. Take the school where parents are overwhelmingly happy and supportive, and where student behaviour is exemplary. You are supremely confident that these are strengths of the school and the inspectors will be impressed.  However, you can’t control the one disgruntled parent approaching an inspector in the playground to air their grievances at length. Likewise, you can’t control the otherwise model student jumping down the stairs and almost knocking the inspector over as he/she happened to walk around the corner at that precise moment. Incidents like this though are unlikely to make or break your accreditation. What may have an impact is not having items in place that you can plan for and that you are in control of. These are what I call the ‘non-negotiables.’ 

Using policies as an example: You chose to complete accreditation and therefore invited the inspectors into your school; you chose the date of the accreditation; you have read the accreditation manual so you know which policies are required and if they should be publicly displayed on your school website. Yet you don’t have all the policies written; they aren’t on your school website; and they haven’t been shared with the relevant people. There isn’t really any excuse for that! 

Ensuring staff are on their ‘A’ game

A focus for any school accreditation is, unsurprisingly, the quality of teaching and learning. Although you may be confident in the quality of all the teachers you have employed, it is likely that there are some who are not performing as well as others. During the accreditation, however, you would hope that all your teachers can bring their ‘A’ game. After all, the inspectors will only be in a school for a few days so if teachers can’t be ‘on it’ and raise their game for a few days then, when can they?! 

We all know that even the very best teachers can have a bad lesson, but if you see multiple lessons by different teachers during an accreditation visit and planning and preparation are poor, the classroom environment is disorganised and uninviting, and the quality of teaching and learning is sub-standard, it can leave you wondering what the lessons are like when you’re not there as this is the best they can do when they know inspectors are going to be in school and they have had months of advanced warning.   

Alistair Downs is the Education Director,  Reigate Grammar School, Riyadh

To connect with Alistair on LinkedIn, click Here

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If you are considering becoming an International School Principal, then why not sign up for our course in January – ‘Becoming an International School Principal’.

In next week’s Leading Your International School Principal’s Blog, Lee Sanders – Executive Principal, ISA Wenhua Guangzhou Foreign Language School IB Programme and Deputy Head of School, ISA Science City, writes about ‘Shape the Wheel, Don’t Remake It

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