Virtual can be virtuous
Pilot online accreditation visits
Gary Minnitt, Director of Accreditation at COBIS looks at the advantages emerging from a series of online pilot school visits. Not easy, but so far, so good.
An idea whose time had to come
A year ago, the idea of virtual accreditation visits would have been as remote as using drones to gather evidence. Now, both are a reality.
COBIS discussed remote visits last summer. We knew CIS were pioneering the virtual approach and we remain in their debt for generously sharing their early experiences. As recently as September 2020 we remained cautiously optimistic about on-site visits. When rescheduled visits fell away as new restrictions appeared, it was time to give the idea serious consideration.
Three months on, COBIS’s virtual visit pilot programme has been successfully completed and we have a steady stream of bookings until mid-summer 2021 and beyond.
The proof of the pudding
Whilst meticulous planning gave us confidence, we were surprised about how smoothly the pilot programme has gone. COBIS approached five schools initially which would give a representative range in terms of location, length of establishment and type and which would offer a tough enough test of our adapted methodology.
The remarkable thing was how natural it felt because, in less than 12 months, we have all adapted to an online environment. There is no question but that the visit was exacting, standards were uncompromising and the COBIS team developed a genuine sense of the school’s operation and strategy.
Alan Stevens, Marlborough College, Malaysia.
The approach works! Every school has been different and each one has been a pleasure to work with. We admire their courage and enterprise and are grateful for their faith in us and the revised Standards which were published in September. We have certainly learned together as the project has unfolded.
So how are we gathering our evidence ? It helps that our approach is one rooted in school improvement and partnership. If anything, the virtual approach has enhanced that sense of collaboration.
For Simon Crane, Headmaster of Brighton College, Dubai despite some initial misgivings, the experience positive which,
‘helped enormously with our strategic priorities. The entire process felt like a partnership, with all stakeholders working towards the common goal of improving the school experience for our pupils, whilst ensuring compliance in key areas . . . I felt the Lead Improvement Partners (LIPs) invested their time and energy in the process and fully understood “our school”.
“You know our school”
That last sentence really resonated with us. It was important not simply to make the process work, upholding the integrity of the system, but to recognise the uniqueness of each school whilst not being there physically. It was a question we asked each of the pilot schools.
Dave Strudwick, Principal at REAL School, Budapest paid tribute to the ‘LIPs’ who:
‘Shared their expertise freely and took us through a rigorous process to ensure we had the necessary foundations to grow our school and make it even better. Most pleasingly, they recognised the strengths and distinctive heart of our school which left staff, parents and children connected to our future development in new ways’.
The digital workbook, which is at the heart of the COBIS accreditation process remains the key storehouse of the documentary evidence, but video sessions replaced face-to-face meetings with staff, students and parents. Live feeds enabled us to see the school in detail and get a sense of light and space and to observe learning, which was, perhaps, the biggest challenge.
From necessity comes . . .
The verdict here was that it worked really well and whatever the outcome we have used the process to continue to move the school forward.
Chris FitzGerald, Panyathip International School, Laos
Drones may yet have their day but for the moment simple hand-held devices providing live feeds are the answer. There is little we could not see. Initial drawbacks have brought advantages. The process is more time-consuming, yet we are no longer hemmed in by the need to travel. We can even take our time a little more -even for formative reflection. Not being bookended by flight schedules allows us to be agile and flexible, especially when conditions changed along with the pandemic, and further add to still more restrictions.
We always allowed 4-5 months to prepare for a physical visit as LIPs met with heads. Now, preparatory meetings for virtual visits are more frequent and involve more people: another virtue from a necessity. Talking to more educational and operational personnel in advance enhances the collaborative approach to COBIS Compliance and Accreditation. The feedback suggests the schools feel similarly.
Putting schools at their ease
As affable as we try to be, staff still feel nervous about any external visit as their school gets put under the microscope. With more dialogue beforehand, hopefully the message gets out there that we are as approachable as we are professional. I also hope that our school partners feel we are looking down that same lens together as we celebrate a school’s strengths and identify the next steps on the road to improvement.
“By conducting a virtual compliance visit, COBIS have bravely adapted their process to the changing circumstances in the world – just like what our learners will need to do as a core skill,” added Barna Baráth, Founder of REAL School.
It has been a delight to work with our pilot schools. It has been a real education for us, as Barna suggests. We look forward to the next six months with great confidence in the integrity of our Standards and our collaborative approach, both on-site and virtual alike.
Gary Minnitt, Director of Accreditation, COBIS
With thanks to the COBIS pilot schools:
Brighton College, Dubai
Marlborough College Malaysia
Panayathip International School, Laos
Prior Park, Gibraltar
REAL School, Budapest