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The Association of British Schools Overseas: Navigating a Global Landscape

by Belinda Breeze

In the dynamic tapestry of global education, the Association of British Schools Overseas (AoBSO), a not-for-profit organisation, emerges as a beacon promoting the UK Government’s BSO accreditation scheme.

In doing so it upholds the principles of a British-style education, fostering excellence in teaching and learning on an international scale. In this issue of Education UAE, Kieron Peacock, Education Advisor to AoBSO, talks about how, through the promotion of the BSO accreditation scheme, it helps to shape the trajectory of British education worldwide. The expanding number of BSO schools supports the intellectual and personal growth of a growing number of students across the global community of schools, united by the pursuit of knowledge and excellence.

Kieron Peacock, Education Advisor to AoBSO

Why Bother?
In my role as Education Advisor for the Association of British Schools Overseas (AoBSO), I’m often asked by school principals, head teachers, school group CEOs, and even overseas UK Department for Business & Trade (DBT) international missions, about the British Schools Overseas accreditation (BSO) scheme and ‘why bother?’ It’s a good question, as, like in many walks and aspects of life, the ‘Why bother?’ question may well get a standard and non-committal response of ‘It depends!’

Firstly, it is perhaps best to clarify what BSO accreditation is. Anyone asking the ‘why bother?’ question can then decide whether or not it’s for them. That is, of course, unless it is a requirement by an international government for British international schools or is a requirement for a specific association membership. In these cases, schools may not be in a position to choose.

A BSO is the UK Government’s only inspection scheme for British international schools. There are a number of other accreditation pathways available for British international schools, but they are not overseen by the UK Government and not monitored by Ofsted, the UK Government’s Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills.‘So what?’, some of you may ask, and I get that. Each school has its own USP in its own locale and with its own regional and international association membership options. BSO accreditation may not, from some perspectives, add any additional value and could be viewed as an unnecessary extra layer of accreditation in what might already be a crowded inspection calendar. If that’s the case, read no further; you’ve got what you need, and your school is ticking along very nicely. But, and there’s always a ‘but’, for many of the world’s top British international schools (about 250), a BSO is a must. Why, you may ask? Consider the three following points:

The BSO inspection framework mirrors the UK Government’s Independent School Standards for independent schools in England. Consequently, successful BSO schools can compare themselves to leading independent schools in England and many of the very best British schools around the world.

It is the only accreditation scheme endorsed by the UK Government for British international schools allowing such comparisons and is advocated within the UK Government’s International Education Strategy.

So, for those schools wishing to compare themselves to well-known independent schools in England and many outstanding British international schools, a BSO has gravitas and adds value.

Looking for Something Different
At this stage, it is perhaps worth outlining what the international school arena looks like. Believe it or not, there are almost 7,000 British or hybrid curriculum (where the English curriculum occupies a significant part of teaching and learning in a school) schools out of a total of more than 13,500 international schools. That’s 51% of the total, with US curriculum schools making up 22%. International schools employed 565,700 staff in 2018 and 650,000 in 2023. In 2018, six million students were generating $49.6 billion in income. By 2023, that had increased to 6.74 billion students, generating an income of $58.4 billion. It’s big business and generates a huge amount of cash for the UK, and the International Education Strategy is looking to increase educational exports to £35 billion by 2030 from what was £20 billion in 2016. There will continue to be an expansion in the number of British international schools across the world and target growth areas include KSA, India (a sleeping giant of growth opportunities), Nigeria, Vietnam, Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan, China (back on the radar after a while in the doldrums), and Hong Kong. As I said, this is big business with even greater potential for expansion and development.

But why the growth in British and US curriculum schools? There are many reasons for this, including, but not limited to:

  • Local market demand for English: English remains one of the key languages for learning.
  • Western pedagogy, directly and indirectly, provides Western opportunities for ‘local’ pupils, e.g., university education.
  • There is now a breadth of fee points making international education more affordable for ‘local’ children; India is an excellent example of this, hence growth opportunities.
  • Increased mobility and the potential to provide and explore more opportunities.
  • Educational choice is now much more accessible – more so than before.
  • Investment in international education is valued by local parents.
  • International understanding is also valued; it’s a complex world.
  • International schools are seen as offering a better alternative.
  • The UK IES will make further inroads – economically driven, soft power-driven, opportunity-driven.
  • Independent school brands occupy 1.5% of the global market – 209 independent school brands (158 UK, 46 US, 3 Australian, 2 Canadian) – and there is an appetite for growth and investment.
  • Consequently, within this complex and seemingly ever-increasingly busy and competitive international educational environment, those wanting to stand out from the crowd often look for something else.

A World-Class Kitemark

For many schools, the widely recognised gold standard is a BSO accreditation via a BSO inspection. As much as we Brits continuously scrutinise and sometimes metaphorically ‘bash’ our education system, it remains one of the most widely respected across the world. Even those with limited knowledge of independent education in the UK will probably have heard of one or two world-famous schools. If any inspection system mirrors that which these famous schools go through, it must be worth doing!

That is a simplistic and perhaps somewhat patronising perspective, but you get my drift. We are prone to criticising our education system, but there is a lot more right than wrong with it. Independent schools in England are groundbreakers, but so are many of the very best British international schools. Indeed, my experience as a member of inspection teams in the UK independent sector and BSO schools tend to lean towards the international schools as being on the even sharper side of cutting-edge best practice.

Of course, budget will always be a factor for all buyers. For a relatively small part of the global British international schools’ market, but for a significant proportion of the UAE market, a BSO inspection provides a high-quality ‘overcoat’ – a Hugo Boss, Ted Baker, or Dolce and Gabbana if you will – an extra layer of warmth that the buyer trusts. You get what you pay for, but you also get the added bonuses of:

  • Being able to support Early Career Teacher (ECT) Statutory Induction: you can employ ECTs fresh out of university or after completing iQTS (international qualified teacher status) and take them through their ECT induction. You have to be a BSO school to be able to do this.
  • Being DfE registered with a DfE number and listed on the GOV.UK website, Get Information About School (GIAS).

So, being able to benchmark against many of the best British schools in the UK and abroad, having an Ofsted-monitored external validation, allowing DfE registration on GIAS, facilitating the delivery of the DfE-regulated ECT induction, and being the only UK government accreditation for British international schools all add up to what some countries, international private school chains, British school associations and individual schools consider to be a compelling argument for BSO accreditation. It’s a comfy, warm coat and world-class kitemark of excellence that is developing an ever-increasing market share.

Standing Out from the Crowd
The Association of British Schools Overseas (AoBSO) directly supports over 100 of these high-quality schools around the world and actively promotes BSO accreditation on behalf of the UK Government. We also support aspiring BSO schools and BSO heads who are not AoBSO members as we have a vested interest in promoting high-quality British education, whether members or not! The three UK government-approved inspectorates, the Education Development Trust, Independent Schools Inspectorate, and Penta International, all deliver high-quality BSO inspections and are the only inspectorates approved to do so. British Schools in the Middle East (BSME) as an association has close to 160 members, with most of these schools having BSO accreditation.
It’s not for everyone, but general interest and growth in BSO school numbers globally suggest that the BSOs are now, perhaps even more than ever, recognised as a way of standing out from the crowd. Not only that, outward-looking schools and school leaders keen to seek comparisons with the very best of English independent and British international schools around the world really value the BSO ‘badge’, as do teachers and parents in the know.