A pivotal year for COBIS

Colin Bell talks about the Council of British International Schools and its work in 2016

Walking into the open plan office area of the COBIS HQ in London’s Russell Square is rather like stepping through the doors of a good school. This, one feels, is the way that CEO Colin Bell and his staff like things.

China trip

Bell was in the process of preparing for an extensive trip to a string of Chinese cities, as part of a British Trade delegation headed by Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening. Aimed at strengthening ties between schools in the UK and the Chinese educational establishment and investment sector, the itinerary was clearly going to be demanding. Bell was enthusiastic:

“It was a real honour to be asked to be part of this delegation – a recognition of the Council’s growing influence”

An extremely successful trip followed. (Click image to see more).

Inspection of British Schools Overseas

2016 also saw important developments in the inspection of British Schools Overseas (BSO). Earlier in the year, the Department for Education (DfE) published a draft set of revised inspection standards for these schools. The proposals had caused some concern among the British international school community: although BSO inspections are voluntary, they bring certain advantages, such as the recognition of overseas service for staff in schools which have been successfully inspected. The new DfE proposals seemed more relevant to the UK than to British schools working in an international context, and in some countries they could even be considered illegal. A period of official consultation followed, during which the COBIS board asked their members what they thought:

“We canvassed opinion on-line and at our annual conference in May. The message we were getting was quite clear. The proposed changes would be difficult to implement, and might undermine the presence that schools had worked to build in the communities that they served”.

The Patron’s Accreditation

While representing the views of COBIS members to the DfE, Bell was not over-optimistic that things would be changed, and by November this proved to be the case. Nothing did change as the DfE issued its new inspection guidelines for British Schools Overseas very much along the lines of their original proposals.

“While respecting the final decisions of the DfE, it was not the outcome many of our members were hoping for” Bell says. “The new inspection regime may work for some schools and that’s great. However, we felt that many of our members needed an alternative”

Throughout the year, Bell and his team had been preparing such an alternative, and the result has been the COBIS Patron’s Accreditation scheme. Bell had come to think of the impasse with the DfE as an opportunity rather than a roadblock:

“If we had to provide an alternative, we felt that the time had come to look at the very principles of validating quality standards in schools. While wishing to maintain rigour, we were drawn to the idea of an accreditation scheme, which would be less of a random ‘snapshot’ than an inspection, and more supportive.”

The outcome has been the design of a new framework for compliance and accreditation, to be conducted by trained “peer accreditors” who would understand the context in which COBIS members operated. A number of things had to be thought through carefully. Bell knew the process of accreditation might involve a great deal of paperwork and could also be expensive in terms of time and money. He therefore wanted a scheme that would be reasonably-priced, user friendly and innovative. He is pleased with the emerging model.

“The pilot exercises have gone well, and we have been delighted to receive the endorsement of our COBIS Patron, HRH the Duke of York for the scheme. We are now training our second group of peer accreditors using an on-line platform, which speeds things up considerably and planning our first school accreditations for later in 2017.”


It’s not as if accreditation was the only major iron in the fire in 2016. Bell and COBIS have played a leading role in developing a support network for international schools in the difficult area of safeguarding:

“Setting up an effective safeguarding system is not easy for international schools. Often without the umbrella of an appropriate social services system, they need an alternative framework of support, and we want to help provide this.”

COBIS had already backed the International Task Force on Child Protection (ITFCP) in April 2014 and by 2016, like their partners in the scheme, were rolling out a series of guidelines and training for their members.

“Safeguarding is one of the ‘red threads’ running through everything we do at the moment. For the sake of children everywhere, we will continue to insist that it is part of the non-negotiables for any school seeking and retaining COBIS membership”

Pivotal year

2016 has been a pivotal year for COBIS. In addition to the safeguarding and accreditation initiatives, a greater range of activities has been established for COBIS students, including the first residential summer school at Clare College, Cambridge, while continuing Professional Development opportunities for staff in COBIS schools have been widened. Things seem set to continue in the same high energy mould in 2017.

Colin Bell was talking to ITM’s Andy Homden and Paul Cabrelli.


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