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EL Rankings 2016: Strengths and weaknesses

Melanie Butler looks at the British Council inspection regime and attempts to untangle some tricky knots

As of this year 80 per cent of accredited schools have been awarded one or more areas of strength on their British Council inspections, according to their summary statements, and the mean average of areas of strength is 3.75 per school. This is a significant improvement since the introduction of the new British Council scheme in 2012, when only 60 per cent of schools received a point of excellence, as they were then called.

The new system for awarding areas of strength is far more transparent: any school awarded a strength in 50 per cent or more of the criteria in a single area will be awarded an area of strength in the summary statement. The only exception is if they fail to meet the requirement for any single criterion in that area, in which case an area of strength will not be awarded.

Although this seems simple in theory, in practice it can confuse not only students and agents but even the language centres themselves.

In a typical phone call between the Gazette staff and an irate school principal complaining about our rankings, this normally friendly man accuses us of lying when we publish the results for his school based on the following hypothetical judgement from the British Council’s summary statements.

‘Strengths were noted in the areas of leisure opportunities and academic management. The inspection report noted a need for improvement in the area of publicity.’

Now the Gazette rankings are based entirely on the summary statements because they provide the only information available for centres inspected before 2013 and the only publishable information available before 2015, according to legal advice.

The summary statement of our friend’s school scores two areas of strength.

‘It’s not true,’ he replies. ‘We’ve got eleven strengths.’

This is the biggest cause of confusion – the distinction between areas of strength, which are publishable, and individual strengths awarded in those areas, which are not. Indeed if you check this individual school’s report, available on the web for those inspected since 2013, our friend’s schools has been awarded eleven strengths – in terms of individual criteria.

The school has been judged strong in three out of the applicable four criteria in leisure opportunities, and three out of six for academic management. Because it reaches the threshold of 50 per cent or more in both of these areas, they are shown in the summary statement as areas of strength. These areas of strength are publishable.

It also receives strengths in five more individual criteria: one in learning resources, two under accommodation all types, and one in accommodation homestay. None of these, however, reach the magic 50 per cent threshold, and so none are shown in the statement and none is publishable.

But there is something else which is publishable, which our friend’s school was given and which he somehow forgot to mention: a ‘need for improvement in the area of publicity’.

The term ‘need for improvement’ means different things to different people. To the lay person it may seem to mean ‘there are a couple of  things that aren’t good enough’. In British education, however, it generally means ‘the school is not good enough’ and can result in a school being put in ‘special measures’ – given a short time to change things or face closure.

For British Council inspectors it seems to mean something in between. It marks a point where a centre has failed to meet the requirement in a significant number of criteria, normally three in any given area, but the failures are not so egregious as to warrant the accreditation being ‘put under review’ and subject to re-inspection.

Currently only 20 per cent of all accredited schools are given a need for improvement in one or more areas in their summary statement. A further 4 per cent are currently under review.

Let’s look again at the summary statement of the school that called up to complain.

‘Strengths were noted in the areas of leisure opportunities and academic management. The inspection report noted a need for improvement in the area of publicity.’

Our school failed to meet the requirement in three of the criteria for publicity, which triggered in their summary statement a ‘need for improvement in the area’. This is the most common area in which a need for improvement is found, figuring in around 15 per cent of all schools.

In addition it failed to meet the requirements in three areas under accommodation but didn’t trigger a need for improvement, perhaps because it also had two strengths in that area, but different sub-areas too. Finally, it failed one criterion in the area of care of under-18s.

Failure to meet key criteria in care of under-18s, a standalone section of the report since January 2014, is the most common reason that a school is put under review. A centre doesn’t need to fail to meet the criteria under three areas – just one or two will do if the failure is deemed serious. Fail to criminal-record-check one host family recruited at the last moment and you will fail to meet that criteria. Fail to criminal-check any of them and you may find yourself under review.

This can happen to any school, however strong it is in other areas. Last year a centre long ranked in the top 100 in the country was put under review for failing to meet the requirement in three areas of care of under-18s. It failed despite having two strengths in the same area and being awarded more than seven areas of strength in the other sections under inspection. It can happen to any school, however good. And it does.

In our experience, too many school principals worry about not being given enough strengths. Too few of them worry about their needs for improvement or even notice how many individual criteria they have failed to meet.

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KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BALL One way to understand British Council inspections is to compare the way the results are reported to the way a tennis match is scored

Courtesy: PughPugh

Inspections – anyone for tennis?

One way to understand British Council inspections is to compare the way the results are reported to the way a tennis match is scored.

A match has a number of sets, a set has a number of games and a game has a number of points. You must win enough points to win a game, enough games to win a set and enough sets to win a match.

The British Council inspection reports have criteria (or points) in areas (or games) which are in sections (or sets). The sections are management, resources and environment, teaching and learning and welfare and student services.  If you take young learners, there is a further section, care of under-18s.

In tennis, you can lose up to three points and still win a game. Likewise, in the British Council inspection, you can fail to meet up to two of the criteria in an area and still pass in that area. More than that, though, and you will probably be judged as needing to improve in that area.

In tennis, you can lose a number of games in a set and still win the set. In a British Council inspection, you can be judged to have a need for improvement in a couple of areas in a section and still pass the standards of the section. There are currently no examples of a centre being given a need for improvement in three areas in the same section, say teaching and learning, and meeting the standard for that section. Though it is theoretically possible, there are also no examples of centres judged to have more than three needs for improvement in total and being re-accredited without re-inspection.

Just as each set is made up of a number of games, each section of a British Council inspection is made up of a number of areas. The teaching and learning section, for example, is made up of five areas: academic staff profile, academic management, course design, learner management and classroom observation (which is also called teaching).

Finally, there are two areas: care of under-18s and teaching (based on class observation) where a need for improvement often leads to a spot inspection, and failure to meet the requirements in more than three criteria, or a particularly egregious failure in three or fewer, can result in the centre being put under review.  A case of sudden death in a tennis tie break? No, much more serious.