Any UK institution that wishes to sponsor non-EU Tier 4 students for courses of 12 months or longer will need to be inspected by an ‘education oversight body’ to obtain Highly Trusted Sponsor (HTS) status. The Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) is responsible for the inspection of private language schools and private FE colleges in England and Wales. It also also continues to inspect independent secondary schools.
Inspections generally take three days (see ISI box) and the process is not greatly different from the British Council-operated Accreditation UK, says David Jones, Managing Director of ETC International College, Bournemouth, although he was surprised by less focus on accommodation. Niall Chafet, Principal of St Giles Brighton, notes an emphasis on academic issues and more scrutiny of company governance.
A key difference is the grading system published in the ISI report. Schools are scored in three areas on a sliding scale: exceeds expectations, meets expectations, needs improvement and unsatisfactory.
The grades provide some reassurance for the language school sector. At the time of writing, 88 institutions had received a ‘perfect’ score of exceeds expectations in all areas. Of these, a clear majority were English language schools. “It is a welcome endorsement,” says Richard Quarterman, Centre Director of EC London. Jones agrees, “We have been very encouraged by the result of the inspection and more generally by the results registered by other institutions in the Bournemouth and Poole area.”
Thomas Sealy, Director of Studies at BLS English, Bury St Edmunds, welcomes the impact ISI could have on standards. “Given its thoroughness, we would certainly expect it to become something that can add value to and benefit the industry in terms of a renewed focus on standards. We see it as a measure of excellence within the industry that we hope will have a positive impact on the reputation of the industry as a whole.”
Some contributors said that in terms of a language school inspection process, Accreditation UK remains the benchmark and that the government has overcomplicated the HTS process. Ingmar Albig, Centre Director of EC Bristol, says, “I believe we are doubling up and the BC inspection would be more than sufficient and equally suitable to ensure certain standards are met.”
However, Stuart Rubenstein, Director of Language in Group, believes grading could assist in school selection. “When students are deciding where to study, it can be confusing for them to work out the quality of a school based on our own website descriptions. To have an independent body differentiate between schools and let customers know which are better can only be a good thing. As long as there is clarity regarding the criteria, this will help agents, students and schools with a benchmark of quality.”
Indeed, there may be benefits for agents in the full reports, which are on the ISI website (see box). Rubenstein says, “We’ve circulated the full ISI report and had a very positive response from our agents. It is a tool they can use to give their customers confidence because there is a world of difference between saying, ‘I think this school is good’ and, ‘They think this school is good.’ With the British Council, all we could say is that we were accredited, but this takes things further.” Albig confirms EC Bristol have experienced some benefits from a positive report, “From what I hear from sales, it’s especially important to agents in Japan and Korea, even though they may not send students on a Tier 4 visa, therefore it is definitely a good marketing tool.”
“We have used ISI as a marketing tool we promoted the ISI results on our website, blog, social media sites and we also did a mailing to our partner agents,” says Chafet. Current awareness in the industry is low, he says, but, “This might change over time of course as agents and students become aware of it.” Jones says at the moment, few partners recognise ISI, “although we have been doing a certain amount of PR work ourselves to explain the purpose of this new inspection, which should help raise awareness”.
It must be noted that schools only have to take the ISI inspection if they wish to sponsor Tier 4 visas. Many institutions have decided against the inspection process, as they have no or relatively few Tier 4 students. For some though, it was a reputational issue. Rubenstein explains, “Our decision to follow the HTS/ISI route is based on an opportunity to build our reputation and showcase our strengths. The fact that both Language in London and Language in Totnes achieved a perfect score has given our staff, students and agents a real boost.” Jones, meanwhile, adds, “For us, the ISI inspection is a badge of honour. We underwent the ISI inspection to demonstrate that we are serious about maintaining and, where possible, raising standards across the college’s operations.”
Other schools are hedging their bets about future visa policy; the UK government has yet to announce if the six-to-11 month Extended Student Visitor Visa (which doesn’t require HTS status) will become a permanent fixture. “We are taking a bit of a long view on how visa rules could potentially change in the future. If this were to happen, then we would already be in a strong position to continue to attract students from a greater diversity of countries,” says Sealy.
Legislative changes to student visas in the UK have arrived at a bewildering rate, but for now it seems ISI will be an increasing presence in the sector.
ISI Educational Oversight questions
A spokesperson from ISI answered our questions about the inspection scheme:
What does an ISI inspection entail?
ISI Educational Oversight inspections are student-focussed. They are concerned with the quality of provision at a private FE college or English language school in relation to student progress and outcomes. They check the quality of the curriculum, teaching and learners’ achievement, student welfare and the effectiveness of the leadership and management. If a college needs improvement, a follow-up visit within six months re-inspects those aspects needing improvement. Colleges found unsatisfactory, or failing a follow-up visit, have not achieved the requirements for educational oversight, but can re-apply after 18 months. Colleges/language schools must make the resulting report available to their students and the public. It is also published on the ISI website. There are also annual monitoring visits: short inspections checking on progress and on whether standards are maintained.
Did ISI have to make any modifications in order to inspect language schools and private FE colleges? (ISI also inspects schools in membership of the Associations of the Independent Schools Council)
ISI has long experience and the basic principles of inspection do apply for any framework. The framework for educational oversight was, however, specifically created for this purpose and a separate body of expert inspectors was recruited and trained thoroughly on the requirements of this new type of inspection. ISI has consulted widely within the sector on the inspection framework and introduced many changes as a result. And many of our inspectors have previous experience working with and for sector-specific accreditation bodies, including the British Council.
What are the benefits of an ISI inspection, other than the obvious route to HTS status?
The purpose of inspections is to provide educational oversight but they also provide added value for the institutions. Early feedback on inspections confirms that our recommendations for improvement are particularly valued and that good providers find them useful for marketing, since the reports are available to students and agents overseas.
What useful information for an overseas agent/student is contained within the ISI reports?
Reports give them an impartial, detailed, student-focussed, quality assessment. This was simply not available before in this format. ISI is not a membership organisation and does not offer any form of accreditation, so its inspections are completely independent and objective. Furthermore, the individualised logo that ISI issue to those that achieve Educational Oversight avoids fraudulent use. There is an integrated link to their inspection report which allows students and agents to verify instantly the legitimacy of a college.
Website: www.educationaloversight.co.uk: Email: email@example.com
Accreditation still required
HTS status is not required to accept students on Student Visitor Visas (up to six months) and Extended Student Visitor Visas (six-to-11 months), but institutions must be accredited by one of four designated bodies for those visas: Accreditation UK (British Council), ABLS, BAC and ASIC. Elizabeth McLaren, Manager of Accreditation UK, talks about the continued importance of accreditation. “Accreditation UK is a quality assurance scheme specifically for UK English language centres which applies the same standards across the whole UK and inspects all types of provider (language schools, home tuition, independent schools/colleges, FE colleges, universities). British Council inspectors are ELT experts. They assess the quality of management, suitability of premises and academic resources, as well as teachers’ qualifications, the support they receive and the quality of the teaching. British Council inspectors also check welfare, accommodation and leisure activities. Accreditation UK is the only inspection scheme with a student emergency support fund which ensures students can complete their studies in the rare event of a centre closing.”
Other educational oversight bodies
ISI is the designated education oversight body approved to carry out inspections of independent schools, private language schools and FE colleges in England and Wales wishing to be Highly Trusted Sponsors of Tier 4 student visas. The other approved bodies are:
Quality Assurance Agency (QAA): Universities and other higher education institutions in the UK
Bridge Schools Inspectorate: Independent schools and FE colleges with a clear religious purpose
School Inspection Service: Independent and privately funded Montessori and Steiner schools in England and Wales
Education Scotland: Publicly funded and privately funded FE colleges, and private language schools in Scotland
Education and Training Inspectorate: Publicly funded and privately funded FE colleges, and private language schools in Northern Ireland
Ofsted: Publicly funded FE colleges in England
Estyn: Publicly funded FE colleges in Wales