The heartbeat of any school
Having recently handed over the reins after five and half years as Director of Accreditation at the Council of British International Schools (COBIS), Gary Minnitt finds himself in reflective mood.
The importance of accreditation
I know that I am biased, but in my view, any serious school worth its salt should seek external validation through the process of accreditation. School self-evaluation against a set of well-thought out standards facilitated by one’s professional peers is essential for the health of any school. COBIS accreditation is of course only one pathway: CIS, NEASC, WASC, BSO and others all offer good alternatives that will enable schools to find a good ‘fit’ for them.
Schools choose to undergo this process – and accreditors need to respect that. By the same token, schools should embrace it for the right reasons. Of course, a positive outcome helps with marketing, but the real benefit lies in experiencing the process itself: much like classroom learning. Indeed, the COBIS approach was deliberately designed as a learning process and is centred on partnership, school development and positive engagement.
Partnership and trust
We all tend to learn best through being stretched within the right kind of supportive framework built on trust and openness. Establishing all-round trust is an absolutely necessary precondition to successful accreditation as there are bound to be one or two difficult conversations to be negotiated. Once trust is established, however, these conversations can be very productive.
The importance of values
So what are the most common points of challenge that a school might face with an accreditation process and how do accreditation teams support schools in these areas?
Everything, in my view, centres around the accreditation standards that deal with the school’s ethos and values – the heartbeat of any effective school. Often COBIS teams uncover value statements like archaeological layers, made at different times by previous regimes, half-buried under rhetorical rubble: mission statements, learner profiles, codes of conduct, principles, and so on. The more statements there are, the more they can confuse and confound. In such situations, we often see a large portfolio of policies where principle and rationale are mixed up with procedures and where there is little or no reference to educational values.
Supportive accreditation holds up a mirror to a school and can help it move forward quickly towards best practice. Clearly expressed values will provide reference points for everyone to draw upon to sharpen policy statements, facilitating accreditation and creating the conditions in which learning and teaching thrive.
After considering values, over the last five years or so, two issues have stood out for me as requiring considerable discussion with schools seeking accreditation: governance and safeguarding,
Of those two, governance is perhaps the biggest challenge, particularly as ‘proprietorship’ in for profit schools is often confused with ‘good governance’. One does not automatically follow from the other,
Governance works best where the strategic role of a Board is clearly separated from the delegated day-to-day operational responsibility of school leaders and where a balanced Board composition brings different perspectives to the table. This is more elusive than you might imagine.
Good governance can take many forms, of course, but it should be active and effective. Governance should be ‘active’ in the sense of Board Members being involved and interested in the life of the school – as opposed to interfering operationally. Governance also becomes ‘effective’ when governors reflect on their own practice and are clear about what benefits their work brings. Governors are unpaid volunteers who are often surprisingly coy about the importance of their work. Appropriate transparency and positive engagement with the school community works wonders.
There is no real optimum size for a board, or advisory group. It should be large and wide enough to encourage healthy debate and small enough so it can act effectively. Ideally, the school community should be suitably represented – parents and staff – along with professional specialists who can offer expertise in certain areas like project management, HR, marketing and, yes, education.
Principals / heads should be at least ex officio members.
Roles should be clear: parents and staff are not there to represent an interest group or lobby for a particular change. Their job is to work for the best interests of the school.
This is an area that needs constant attention. Safer recruitment has come a long way in the past decade, but it still has a long way to go – surprisingly not every school has a single central record of staff. Safer recruitment is also a relative term rather than an absolute. Nevertheless, no stone should be left unturned in the pursuit of background checks.
Policy and practice need to be sharp, punctilious and reflective. Everyone in the school who comes into (potential) contact with children should be covered, including governors. I have heard it argued regularly that somehow trustees and board members should be immune from this scrutiny, either because they seldom visit the school, or because they do not encounter any learners (Why not? Is another issue!)
Governors, should set the example for others: why should contracted cleaners or kitchen staff undergo safeguarding training and not board members?
They are the overseers of safeguarding in the school and their oversight must be based on knowledge and understanding of all elements of safeguarding – safer recruitment; mental, physical and emotional health; child protection and well-being – which should be regularly replenished and updated.
Accreditation should be also concerned with helping schools assess the quality of recruitment as well as its safety. Indeed, they should be inextricably bound together. Is there anything more effective in influencing the quality of learning and teaching than recruiting well?
As an aspect of safeguarding, child protection is the area which commands most attention and yet training is commonly confined to the beginning of the year and, perhaps for reasons of cost and efficiency, is often online. This is insufficient. The safeguarding pot needs to simmer and be regularly stirred through the academic year to build confidence and knowledge. It’s all about building a positive, buoyant and effective safeguarding culture where nobody is left alone or unsupported and safeguarding is a collective responsibility. To read more about Safeguarding in schools through COBIS click on the image above.
Back to values
Safeguarding, then, is the golden thread which should run through daily interaction. Practice needs to be underpinned by clear policies, which brings us back to the idea of ensuring that a school’s values create the conditions in which learning and learners can thrive.
At the heart of any successful accreditation visit, one that will facilitate continual school improvement, there will always be an honest and supportive discussion about values. All else follows.
Gary Minnitt is a Senior Consultant with Consilium Education and a former Director of Accreditation at COBIS (Council of British International Schools)