Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Widening horizons

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Shortly before the Olympics, then-ASCL president Brian Lightman went to Shanghai to represent ASCL at the Council meeting of the International Confederation of Principals (ICP), which includes school leaders from all over the world. He shares his impressions of the Chinese education system.

At the last Council meeting of the International Confederation of Principals (ICP) in Shanghai, the topics bore a striking resemblance to those preoccupying us in the UK. High stakes testing, the mental health of young people, parental engagement and school resourcing, for example, are high on the agenda all over the world.

The Shanghai meeting was hosted by the National Training Centre for School Principals based at East China Normal University. There are one million school principals in China and the centre only trains a select few who act as pioneers to the rest. The director Professor Cheng gave us a fascinating overview of the Chinese school system which we were then able to see first hand during visits to three schools in the city.

China - just like the West - is suffering from new and unprecedented economic pressures. Cheap labour which accounted for much of the competitive success of the economy has been severely affected by inflation, now running at 8 per cent. The need for a highly skilled workforce is greater than ever and the professor highlighted a number of challenges in the education system which need to be overcome.

Although he described teaching facilities as adequate the social status of teachers remains very low - they are classified as a socially disadvantaged group. Particularly in rural areas the funding is not available to pay them.

The high stakes testing system, in which students often study from 6am to midnight, leads to disaffection and some psychological problems. Although the students might perform far better than their counterparts in the UK or USA in terms of examinations, the professor described this as 'overlearning' which does not equip them with initiative and creative skills and thus does not prepare them well for employment.

On three days in June when every student throughout China takes the same university entrance tests, cars are not allowed to use their horns in the vicinity of schools (normally a piece of equipment applied as frequently as the accelerator or brake in the UK) and restaurants service the students while they are sitting the tests.

Having the highest number of students in any university system in the world presents an enormous challenge and opportunity. Since 1990 numbers have risen from 6.6 to 25 million students at university and, in the last ten years, from 11 to 48 million in secondary school.

A range of government measures aim to improve the quality of teachers and develop the curriculum. These include a big expansion of vocational education and exchanges of teachers from high performing and less successful schools.

Amongst the many striking features of the schools we visited, I was particularly interested to see two aspects of the large class size about which I was not aware. In a chemistry lesson for 48 16 year-olds the laboratory did have individual workstations where each of the 48 students in the class could carry out practicals.

In addition, teachers had a weekly contact commitment of ten hours. The rest of the time was spent on marking and preparation in a well equipped staff area and advising and giving feedback to students.

In spite of a longstanding conviction about the benefits of small classes it would be simplistic to conclude that there is no food for thought in this expensive 'quid pro quo'.


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The ICP convention is one of the largest international conferences on school leadership. The next one takes place in Singapore in July 2009. ASCL would recommend it to any member as part of his/her own professional development. For further details on the ICP go to www.icponline.org or visit the conference website at www.icpsingapore2009.com

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