Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

International rescue?

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UK schools and colleges c an only gain from introducing an international perspective to training but first we must lose the small island mentality, says Don Lillistone.

"What do they know of England who only England know?" Rudyard Kipling's challenge to English cultural insularity still applies to educational development in this country.

In my 33 years working in the education service, I have taken part in numerous in-service training activities, none of which, including the National Professional Qualification for Headship programme, included educational provision or practice outside of this country as part of their course material. My knowledge of foreign education systems is entirely the result of my own reading and personal experience.

Three invitations last year to give presentations at seminars organised by the Ecole Supérieure de l'Education Nationale (ESEN), the French national training college for education leaders, brought home to me the blinkered nature of our approach.

The first two-day seminar focused on four themes and I had the pleasure of working with education professionals from Germany, Spain and Sweden, as well as French colleagues, to lead workshops on guidance, virtual learning environments, extra-curricular support, and school admissions. Participants were able to compare and contrast policy and practice in these areas in France and elsewhere.

Optimising education leadership was the theme of the second seminar, in which the participants were particularly interested to have an Anglo-Saxon perspective on inspection, self-assessment and performance management.

The third seminar was targeted specifically at trainee headteachers. Following a cogent analysis by a specialist from the University of Grenoble of the principles underpinning education policies of OECD member states, I joined colleagues from Finland and Spain to give presentations on the training, appointment, role and responsibilities of headteachers in our countries.

Insularity of vision

The international aspect of these seminars was not exceptional as the ESEN is progressively incorporating a European dimension into its training, an approach sadly absent in the UK. Within a few years, France will have a new generation of trained inspectors, administrators and senior leaders who will benefit from a European outlook on and an enhanced understanding of education policy, while we will continue to be hampered by insularity of vision.

If the French have realised that they have much to learn from us, do we not have at least as much to learn from them, given that 63.6 per cent of their 18-plus age cohort achieved a level 3 qualification in 2007, as opposed to the 47.9 per cent in England?

No education system has all the answers. There are strengths and weaknesses in all, and it is important to be able to learn from others. The French have overcome their traditional nationalism. We have yet to do so.

If we could take the same step forward, we would be able to appreciate better our strengths, such as the significant advances made in this country in the development of innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

We would also see more clearly our weaknesses, such as the destabilising nature of the 'choice and diversity' agenda that has led to a multiplicity of school structures for which there is no coherent rationale, and which has led, in some areas, to damaging duplication of provision and to the fragmentation of strategic planning.

In addition, we would be able to avoid re-inventing the wheel. When ministers talk of the radical nature of the new diplomas, they are presumably unaware that very similar qualifications, the technological and vocational baccalauréats, have been operating successfully in France for decades.

Moreover, an international perspective would enable us to avoid self-inflicted problems, a danger inherent in our 'accretion' model of planning, as evidenced by the confusion over 16-19 provision: is it secondary education or further education? The question has significant implications for heads' and principals' qualifications, teacher training, membership of a professional body and many other issues.

Swedish model

Finally, involving education professionals from other countries in our training would equip us better to spot the flaws in political initiatives that are inspired by practice elsewhere, but which have been taken completely out of context.

For example, it was widely reported that the Conservatives were looking at the 'free schools' policy in Sweden which allows companies to run schools for profit by attracting parents whose education vouchers are redeemable at the school of their choice.

A brief presentation by the Swedish headteacher with whom I worked at the ESEN would suffice to demonstrate the inanity of trying to implement in England a policy that works because of socio-economic conditions that are fundamentally different from our own.

We can only gain from introducing an international perspective into our training. But I fear that there are still too many in influential positions who share the smug insularity that created the famous Times headline: "Fog in Channel. Continent isolated."


Further reading...

For further information on the Ecole Supérieure de l'Education Nationale (ESEN) visit www.esen.education.fr

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