Hybrid future

The Council of British International Schools London conference 2022

The annual COBIS conference took place in London as a hybrid event in May. At a time of such change, it was important to get people together again, as Andy Homden reports.

Reset point?

If the annual COBIS conference is anything to go by, world education is experiencing something of post-covid reset moment, as one keynote, Rachel Sylvester, put it.  As delegates gathered in London and were joined by others online there was a distinct smell of radical change in the air.

What it said on the tin

The conference did what it said it would do on the tin – asking delegates to  ‘connect, reflect and explore.’ As a ‘British international’ organisation COBIS, like its membership, has one eye on what’s happening in the UK and the other on how British education is being offered and interpreted in an international context. There was plenty to report and discuss on the home front and it wasn’t all about the latest government or Ofsted initiative.

Quite the reverse. Rachel Sylvester, who for the past year has been looking at the state of education in the UK as the Chair of the Times Education Commission was clearly exasperated by a UK government dragging its heels, one that was more interested in the past rather than the future, while Lord Jim Knight chaired an excellent panel of UK doers and thinkers who had the confidence and experience to think round the constraints of regulation.

Internationals leading change?

If you got the impression from speakers that international schools use the greater freedom they enjoy to fulfil  the potential of a British-style education to good effect  you wouldn’t be wrong. According to Dr. Fiona Rogers, the data from the latest ISC Research/COBIS survey of teachers and leaders working overseas paint a largely positive picture, despite all the hardships and constraints endured in a variety of jurisdictions during the pandemic.

International schools and teachers are clearly in the habit of making things happen, rather than waiting to be told what should happen. And if COBIS thinks that its members are in many respects leading the kind of educational thinking that has a real impact on student learning, they might not be far off the mark. The same can also be said of individual teachers who have chosen to experience international teaching, whether they make a career overseas or, ultimately, return home where they have so much to offer. More’s the pity then, as online conference chat boxes remarked, some returnees have difficulty getting their experience overseas recognised. Feeling a joint responsibility to education in the UK and to its members, this is a cause that COBIS has been fighting for some time.

Talking points

There was plenty to discuss over coffee, from the profound insights about climate change provided by Martin Siegert, Professor of Geosciences and Co-Director of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, to the  forthright declarations of Katharine Birbalsingh, Headmistress of what has been dubbed ‘the strictest school in the UK’. Professor Siegert’s presentation about the speed and processes of global warming, was all the more terrifying because of the objective and rational style of his delivery. In complete contrast was the provocative – some would say confrontational – style of Ms. Birbalsingh: whatever most international educators believe, she challenged many assumptions that may have been built up over the years. Perhaps that was why it was so uncomfortable listening to her, but whatever the impression, you were likely to come out stronger on the other side because she made you think.

COBIS and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA)

Perhaps the most important of a string of initiatives presented at the conference was the announcement that COBIS was about to start working with with the QAA to externally quality assure the global COBIS Patron’s Accreditation and Compliance scheme (PAcc). Now in its fifth year of operation, the COBIS approach to accreditation has seen more than 200 schools in 67 countries engage in the process. COBIS itself will now be subject to the scrutiny of an independent body. This is absolutely as it should be. According to COBIS, the QAA will review all elements of their accreditation scheme including all protocol documentation, policies, sample accreditation reports and the ratification process to recommend COBIS school membership status. The QAA will also observe accreditation visits and accreditation training in action leading to the COBIS Lead Improvement Partner and Peer Accreditor qualifications.

COBIS Chief Executive, Colin Bell, it seems, is not content to rest on the laurels of positive but rather anecdotal feedback about this relatively new accreditation system, which by all accounts has come through the pandemic rather well:

‘The QAA has a reputation as a leading provider of educational quality assurance. It has a broad international reach and extensive partnership network with Ministries of Education and regulators worldwide. COBIS has a reputation for setting and expecting high standards. These principles absolutely should apply to our own accreditation scheme.’

Other accreditation bodies should take note. One watching closely will no doubt be the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), who have just entered into collaborative partnership with COBIS, opening up a new pathway to COBIS membership.

The future of conferences

So, did the event demonstrate that hybrid conferences are the way to go? Without a doubt. Even at a distance it was impossible not to feel the emotional impact of Anna Azarova from the British International School Ukraine as she spoke of the impact war in her country, or of Matthew Savage telling the story of his trans son. ‘Being there’ to hear these things in person is great. Having a live audience was also obviously good for the speakers, but listening at a distance was very good indeed. There was still a sense of involvement and of being ‘part of something’.

This format certainly has legs, if only because, as we go to into the difficult and inflationary future that faces us, it might just not be possible to attend in person every year.


Andy Homden is the CEO of Consilium education and Editor of International Teacher Magazine, which was a media partner at the 2022 COBIS conference. He attended the conference online.




All images kindly provided by COBIS