I can’t let the not so recent now EAQUALS accreditation of our school go unnoticed on my blog! And I’d like to share the process to encourage other schools to go for it.
I have something very valuable in common with my two great bosses, and it’s something you can’t really train in. It’s shared vision (which is a key, underlying factor in everything, really – see my IATEFL Day 1 blog here for a look at vision – especially Oliver Beaumont’s great talk).
So, a couple of years ago during our informal talks on how to drive the school forward, how to provide a better service for our students and how to develop a professional and dedicated teaching team, all goals stemming from our vision, the word EAQUALS was thrown into the mix. I knew of EAQUALS and so looked into what the inspection process entailed. And immediately felt the process matched the flow of where we were going and of where we wanted to be.First of all, where were we going and where did we want to be? I think, working together, from the start we were interested in being a centre of excellence, but with a very human heart at the centre of it all. A school with a solid foundation but with the flexibility which appreciates we are in the people business. Research I did prior to working at Swan turned my ideas upside down in terms of what really makes for effective learning, and being student centred is at the centre of that. We were flowing in the direction of letting Learner Autonomy be at the centre of the classroom, and of letting our teachers develop in their confidence to allow this. We wanted lots of outside influence so that what we offered was principled and good value. We wanted to end up as a school which offered above and beyond the expected. With these factors in mind, it’s difficult to imagine an inspection guideline which honours this. But EAQUALS most certainly does. Of course. It’s EAQUALS.
It’s a thoroughly researched, comprehensive and COMMON SENSE set of guidelines which appreciates the individual context of each school. Perfect for our goals. You start out by ordering the self-inspection handbook, which we did about a year and a half ago. I worked through the points methodically and focussed on the academic issues while creating a core team within the school to work on the admin side of things (another plus point – EAQUALS addresses the school in a wholistic way, equally valuing everything that needs to happen to get the students into the school and keeping them happy once they’re here). There isn’t a criterion on there which you think of as just a box to be ticked in order to pass. Everything on there was either something we were doing already or something we wanted to be doing. It was that simple.
I visited other EAQUALS schools, put a plan together and made an appointment to have a pre-inspection in December 2012 (the pre-inspection is optional but a great idea). The busy summer is more or less a period when you can’t work on anything other then ‘putting out fires’ and so I had a couple of months to bring things together well enough for that pre-inspection. We were aiming for a ‘warts and all’ inspection, so we would end up with a clear picture of where we needed to go for the real thing. In an above average busy week we had our pre-inspection, which lasts only a day (after sending relevant documents to the inspector weeks beforehand). The inspector checks you do what you market your school as (do we do what it says on the tin?). You get initial feedback at the end of the day, and EAQUALS don’t say things like ‘pass’ or ‘fail’. They say you meet EAQUALS standards, or you almost do, or you don’t at the minute! Sounds fair to me. We met the standards, just needed some of the procedures I’d developed to become habit in the classroom, and so we set about booking the real inspection for early 2013. The admin team just needed to maintain their high standards, and the academic team just needed to maintain teacher development and quality checking for the above mentioned new-ish procedures.
While this was good news, I had a niggly feeling. I believed that the real inspection would require more work. While we had, in effect, passed the pre-inspection and so the real thing shouldn’t be an issue, though I felt that as things stood we may pass but the team may become complacent and not maintain the standards. It does happen that a ‘good show’ can be put on for an inspection and while EAQUALS would no doubt capture that, I still felt we needed to dig a bit deeper to create more solid foundations. I needed to push the high expectations further and solidify the support structures.
Then, a few things happened which some may think of as bad fortune, but at the time I recognised as very GOOD fortune in creating an EAQUALS worthy team! First of all, we found a new ADOS who was more than capable of the EAQUALS high standards (read about her here!). We waited a few months for the ADOS to get used to the role before booking the appointment – Joanne more than rose to the challenge! So, one major personnel change but one which helped us greatly. All set for the inspection…Or not quite! The appointment loomed, autumn 2013, and the weeks leading up to it saw major changes in the teaching team! Either due to sickness, leave or teachers moving to different countries, we had the inspection with a teaching team of temporary cover teachers and new teachers. Not ideal! But, I was still aiming for a ‘warts and all’ inspection. If we can’t cope with unexpected personnel issues, then the frameworks we have in place are not strong enough.
The inspection went well! Every admin area was praised and the way I developed our syllabus to fit our context was praised too, as were the academic structures in place. The report (which arrived a few weeks later) was a pleasure to read, very fair and a comprehensive description of our school. However, The inspectors felt the new teachers needed a little more time to ‘bed down’ before they could be sure the team were doing themselves justice; so with Christmas coming up they suggested one of them should return early 2014 (or we were given the option of a new one, but we preferred one of the original) and view the team for a one day follow-up.
After this, I didn’t have that niggly feeling I had before. I felt vindicated that the vision we were aiming for required just a little more ‘digging deep’ before we got there. I was pleased the personnel change facilitated this. I knew all of this meant the results of the inspection would be more lasting. And I could roll my sleeves up and get on with some exciting changes which I knew would benefit the teaching team and the students. It allowed me to raise the bar much higher for the teachers, and meant I had to raise the bar much higher for myself.
We got to work and during it all, with the ADOS, we were so busy doing it all that we didn’t see the fruits of our progress. New observation frameworks, more teacher induction and in-service support, more frequent quality control, comprehensive teacher development, more links with teachers and students, better communication…It transformed a good teaching team into one of the best in Ireland (IMHO).
Our follow up was a joy! Was great to have the inspector back and I was very surprised when she summarised our progress in such a short time – I hadn’t had the chance to take a step back and realise what we had achieved.
So, we are an EAQUALS school, which means:
- The teaching is effective, well-planned and enjoyable and teaching staff are well-qualified, and well- trained, and have access to extensive teaching resources. All EAQUALS accredited schools have their own observation and teacher development programmes. Their teachers are also observed and evaluated during EAQUALS inspections.
- Curriculum: there is a tried and tested teaching/learning system with a clearly defined curriculum and syllabus. Language learning objectives and assessment are based upon Common European Framework of Reference levels and principles. Balance and variety in the programme are assured.
- Truthfulness: all information published by an EAQUALS school on its website and in print is carefully checked in EAQUALS inspections. EAQUALS-accredited members are committed to providing clear, accurate and complete information about all aspects of the courses and services they offer.
- Legal requirements: EAQUALS inspectors check that accredited members have met all the relevant legal requirements. EAQUALS members are committed to exceeding minimum standards in all areas, including client welfare, health and safety, and staff pay and conditions.
- Appropriate standards: the EAQUALS quality standards used for self-assessment and during EAQUALS inspections have been developed and refined by language teaching specialists over many years. Unlike most quality management systems, the EAQUALS scheme focuses on the school in action and the actual experience of students and clients, not just on processes and documentation .
- Internal and external quality assurance: an important criterion in the EAQUALS accreditation scheme is the the existence of internal quality assurance procedures. These are verified and all aspects of the school are thoroughly checked during EAQUALS inspections. These inspections take place every four years, last for at least two days, and involve two independent inspectors who use the very detailed quality criteria to audit all aspects of the operation.
But, I see it as just the start. The inspector noted some practices which need more training and development, so we have more work to do there. We need not only to maintain these standards but I plan to exceed them. We are now in the top 8% of language schools in Ireland and it’s nice to know we are offering our students and teachers something that worthwhile.
But, if we only manage to maintain those standards for the next time the inspector calls, I’ll still have that niggly feeling…