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Far distance learning

Heads have been going to the ends of the earth to develop their professional skills under an international placement scheme. Martin Whittaker reports

How far would you go to improve your leadership skills? Headteacher Annabelle Guyver flew nearly 10,000 miles to spend a fortnight in schools in Perth, Western Australia. "It was the best piece of in-service training I have done," she says.

The location was chosen for her under the International Placements for Head Teachers programme run by the British Council and the National College for School Leadership.

Ms Guyver, who is head of Alcester high school in Warwickshire, was among a group of 10 UK primary and secondary heads visiting Perth. And never mind sun, sea and surf - the visit was strictly education, education, education.

Once there, an intensive programme of school visits was laid on. With the possibility of a new building at Alcester high, she wanted to look at some new schools.

"You have heads in other parts of the world talking to you and challenging you about your system," she says. "You also find out how they do things, and it makes you to realise that the UK doesn't have all the answers, and actually children are successful in other systems and work very well.

"Western Australia hasn't got the Office for Standards in Education and yet their children perform. They have a different way of making schools accountable. Alongside what we do, I now have a view of what Western Australia does, and I can make judgments about what will work in my school."

IPHT is now in its second year. Last year the British Council organised places for 155 heads, and this year that number will more than double, with 500 expected for its third year.

So far destinations have included Brazil, the United States, Russia, Romania, Norway, Thailand and New Zealand. All travel and accommodation costs are met - heads just pay for their subsistence.

The aim is to give them an intensive taste of education abroad which will help them examine themes relating to school improvement.

Those applying to go have to give the areas of interest they want to pursue and they are expected to relate this to their school development plans.

"The idea is to build it into a two or three-year strategic plan for continuing professional development right across the school," says Judith Mullen, who manages the programme for the British Council.

"If somebody applies saying they fancy going to Australia, they don't get a cat in hell's chance.

"If they say they are interested in looking at urbanisation and how refugee populations affect school leadership, then we'll do our best to find a place for them."

After selection, groups of 10-12 people are put together. The British Council has so far appointed and trained 50 experienced heads to act as international facilitators, and one of these is appointed to each group.

For their first day abroad they work as a group before being assigned individual placements in schools. They eat together in the evenings and hold debriefings.

"It's a professional visit, not educational tourism," says Judith Mullen, who was herself a secondary head. "They are there to talk, observe, share, peel back the issues about leadership.

"It's one of the best professional development opportunities for heads. I wish I'd had the opportunity when I was in post."

Annabelle Guyver says she has put a number of measures into practice at Alcester high following her trip. For example, the school is opening a student services department with non-teaching staff to deal with matters like enquiries from parents, sick pupils and school trips. She says letting go of the school's tiller for a fortnight was also good professional development for the deputy head.

Peter Farrington, head of Prince of Wales first school in Dorchester, is less enthusiastic. He joined a group of heads visiting Copenhagen. He was interested in early-years provision in Denmark, where children do not start school until the age of seven.

"Before that they have a curriculum that is devoted to personal, social and emotional development rather than literacy and numeracy," he says.

But he believes his placement taught him little about leadership.

"If the heads came to look at our pyramid, where we have a first, upper and middle school, I think many things they would see would have their jaws dropping.

"I think this is a culture we have lived with for some time - that we are getting it wrong and other people are getting it right. And the area where I think Denmark and other Continental systems are right is in this approach to early-years education. But we're not learning from that, are we?

"Maybe we should be a bit more proactive about selling the good things that do happen in our schools."

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