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An incentive to improve

Melanie Butler explains why inspection results must be readily available and easily understood to really have an impact on raising standards

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Welcome to the latest update of the EL Gazette Centres of Excellence listing. We are often asked, ‘Are these league tables?’ and the short answer is no. We only list the top performers on British Council inspections, and we name the strongest centres and schools. What we do not do, for lack of space as much anything, is list every single school so people can see who is at the bottom. In other words, we do not shame the weakest.

There is no doubt this list encourages language centres to do better on the British Council’s criteria, or ‘performance indicators’ to give them their technical name. You only have to look at the number of centres marked in red on the listings – all of which were not Gazette Centres of Excellence before – to see that publishing results can improve performance. The Centres of Excellence listing exists to celebrate success. We do not, at least not yet, publish a list of those at the bottom.

Yet if you want to improve performance, you do need to ‘humiliate those at the bottom as well as lionise those at the top’, according to research quoted by economist Tim Harford in a recent Financial Times article. The research in question, undertaken by the London School of Economics, looked at four models for using inspection results to improve performance in schools and hospitals.

The first model, currently used by almost all language centre accreditation schemes outside the UK, is based on trust and altruism. You send the result to the school concerned so that they, the noble managers and teachers, will selflessly improve their performance. Except they don’t. In the UK, when education was devolved to Wales, the new Welsh government stopped publishing the results in league tables, sending them just to school managers. In England the government kept publishing the results. Researchers showed that, while performance in England continued to improve, in Wales it stood still. Of course, this was state-sector education, but the same results were found in another study of for-profit hospitals in the US. Hospitals subject to inspection were divided into three groups: one group had the results of inspection published, the second received unpublished results, and the third were not shown results at all. Only the first group improved.

In the second model, named ‘target and terror’, the government creates a dashboard of targets and performance indicators, and threatens the bejesus out of anybody who fails to meet them – but does not publish them. The result? Organisations begin to game the system. Schools set targets on the numbers of students reaching national average marks in national tests, ignore the clever kids and those on the bottom, while putting all their effort into the kids in the middle.

The final model is to publish extensive information on each target and performance indicator and let the consumer decide. The result is consumer confusion.

In his article Tim Harford quotes the example of his own local hospital. He logged on to the government website and discovered that it was ‘among the worst’ for ‘infection control and cleanliness’. But to Harford’s bafflement the website stated that ‘national standards have been met’.

British Council inspection reports can be equally baffling to the uninitiated, as in this example: ‘This large private language school offers vacation courses for under-18s. The inspection report noted a need for improvement in care of under-18s. The inspection report stated that the organisation met the standards of the Scheme.’

This is the kind of information that is baffling to parents. Those with sufficient courage to go to the British Council website will find the two pdfs of ‘publishable statements’ A–K and L–Z, download them and check each technical performance indicator to find the right school.

Agents, on the other hand, are well advised to check these pdfs carefully, at least under ‘needs for improvement’. If a child is hurt or harmed on a junior summer course, it is most likely the agent that the parents will take to court for negligence. If a court discovers that the British Council publicly states that the centre needs to improve its care of under-18s, it would certainly hurt the agent’s case.

Visit www.britishcouncil.org/accreditation-more-about-your-accredited-centre to read the PDFs