Yes. As I write this I am on a plane to Toronto, for a full day of meetings to work on the Strategic Plan for CAIS – Canadian Accredited Independent Schools – which is the new name of the merged organization of the two major national independent school bodies: CAIS, the Canadian Association of Independent Schools; and CESI, the Canadian Educational Standards Institute. This merger had its genesis over a year ago, when the boards of the two organizations explored the benefits and cost savings of becoming one.
SMUS is actually one of the few schools in BC that will benefit from any cost-saving: until very recently all of the BC independent schools you might be familiar with were members of CAIS but not CESI; we were the only BC school in CESI, which was the accrediting body for Canadian independent schools. We joined CESI over ten years ago, embracing the examination and accreditation process that CESI requires, believing that it is important to undergo regularly a comprehensive and searching review of all the School’s operations, for the purpose of improvement. We have now experienced two of these accreditation visits, visits which involve not just the presence on campus for three and a half days of a team of ten or twelve administrators, Board members and teachers from other schools across the country, but which also includes an extensive self study assembled by our school (which takes about six months to complete) and put together by our own staff, Board, alumni and parents. The most recent visit, two years ago, was extremely constructive and positive, and in particular praised the school’s staff for its attitude of continual self-examination and improvement. “An attitude of continual self-improvement”: music, I can tell you, to the ears of the one who sits in the Head’s office.
Since most BC schools have not been involved in the accreditation process in the past, there are numerous tricky issues around how the merger unfolds. It is one thing to have embraced the standards and somewhat imposing accreditation process of your own volition, as we did; it is another to find that you are now expected to have your standards verified by a visiting team as a result of the merger. CAIS, for its part, had moved several years ago to add an accreditation element to its membership, so it was a direction in which that particular organization had been moving anyway. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say the change isn’t within the comfort level of all schools in BC. At the moment, our schools in BC do have a “compliance” visit from the BC Ministry of Education that makes sure we satisfy requirements for course outlines and teacher certification. Schools that have International Baccalaureate programmes do get accreditation for their academic programmes. Nothing however, is as comprehensive as the former CESI process that examines – and aims to improve – all aspects of the institution, from academics, to personnel practices, to athletics, arts, extra-curriculars, residence life, parents’ auxiliary, alumni, financial operations, fundraising, risk management – and that trickiest, most sophisticated and most fundamental building block of an independent school: leadership and governance.
It just so happens that I was prevailed upon to be the Chair of this national exercise. Hence my presence at the meeting this weekend. Given the sensitivities to this merger in BC Schools, the CAIS Board in its wisdom thought it was important to bring BC right inside the tent, so to speak, so here I am. With the same motives in mind, the co-chair of CAIS is Pat Dawson, head of Crofton House School in Vancouver. Similarly, the strategic planning exercise is being managed by Berlin, Eaton Associates here in Victoria – the same outfit that has done the strategic planning for the Independent Schools Association of BC. This significant BC presence doesn’t automatically resolve the issues but it does help.
So why would I bother putting myself in the middle of this potential mess of spaghetti? To begin with, as you can infer from our longstanding participation in the accreditation process, I think it is a valuable exercise to submit the school and its entire operations to the scrutiny of professionals from across the country, for the purposes of improvement, and also to be able to say so: to say that we believe in this process of self-examination and improvement as part of – and proof of – our continuing pursuit of excellence. Also, I believe in a strong national organization to which our school will belong: an organization which espouses standards in all areas of a school’s operation from academics to sports to leadership and governance and which will hold its members to those standards, an organization that helps us to share those elements that are truly national rather than provincial (such as lobbying the federal government on taxation issues), and an organization that focuses on the professional development especially of administrative leaders and Boards in our schools. It’s not a simple thing to be a Canadian nationalist (except during the gold medal game of the Olympics), but I find the relationships and shared world of my colleagues across the country to be one the most fulfilling experiences I have as a Canadian. Somewhat emotional, perhaps – in the old days, a very unCanadian moment, I know. Not any more.