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Inspiration with the global touch

International links and sabbaticals abroad can boost your staff's professional development. Anat Arkin reports

Name: Brandling school, Gateshead

School type: community primary

Proportion of children

eligible for free school meals:

65 per cent

Results: In last year's KS2 Sats, 63 per cent achieved level 4 or above in English; 57 per cent in maths; 86 per cent in science. Ofsted's verdict: "a very effective school". In 2005 Sats, 57 per cent achieved level or above in English; 83 per cent in maths; 87 per cent in science.

Noa-5 Dawn Foster was so fired up by what she had seen and learned on a study trip to Perth, in Western Australia, that she trawled the web for details of the leadership development programme and filled in the forms as soon as she got home.

"I felt so inspired when I came back - we all were," says Miss Foster, deputy head of Brandling primary, in Gateshead, and one of 10 senior teachers who recently went to Australia to study school leadership.

Funded by the League for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers, the trip took in visits to the education department and leadership centre in Perth as well as several schools. Their meetings with heads confirmed one thing: whatever the education system, heads need to have a clear vision for their schools.

But they were surprised to discover that heads in Australia do not often stay in the same post for more than four years, and that there is much less external monitoring of schools than in the UK. They were also struck by the way pupils could negotiate their curriculum with teachers.

"It's an outcomes-based system, so the children decide what they want to learn about, and they fit that to the outcomes," says Miss Foster, who has since tried this approach and seen a big difference in pupils' attitudes and behaviour.

She has discussed her findings with her head, Maggie Mitford, who led a similar trip to Perth last year. The trips to Australia were the latest overseas visits by staff at the school, which has built up a network of international links in recent years.

It began when Mrs Mitford spent a summer working in a school in Masindi, Uganda. The placement, organised by the charity Link Community Development, turned out to be life-changing. It convinced her that overseas visits could provide valuable professional development opportunities.

"I was there to support the leadership and management of the school, but I realised that it sharpened my own skills," she says.

Mrs Mitford worked with the head of Masindi school on developing a school improvement plan, monitoring lessons and other heads' duties. But the learning went both ways. Kasaija Peterson Painento, the head of this poorly resourced school with 1,200 pupils of all ages, had much to teach his colleague from Gateshead.

"He had the will to change things for the better, and I came back with the understanding that if you create the conditions for change you can encourage others to join you," says Mrs Mitford.

After her Ugandan experience, she trained as a study-tour facilitator at the National College for School Leadership. She then went with a group of heads from Gateshead on a British Council-funded trip to China, where they visited schools in Qingdao, an hour's flight south of Beijing.

Another chance to use travel for professional development came from a Department for Education and Skills scheme offering sabbaticals to schools in deprived areas. With more than half its pupils eligible for free school meals, Brandling qualified, so Mrs Mitford used the funding to take 11 of her teachers and assistants to Kristiansand, in Norway, to look at the use of outdoor learning there.

"People joke and say we had a jolly, but it was the best professional development my teachers and assistants could have had," she says. "The discussions and team-building were tremendous."

The trip generated ideas for developing the school grounds, which now have a vegetable patch, wildlife garden and adventure playground, used for environmental studies in various subjects.

As a result of the staff's globetrotting and forging of international links, children have learnt about other cultures and now regularly exchange emails and postcards with pupils in schools as far afield as Uganda and Brazil.

But to have an impact on schools, Mrs Mitford believes visits abroad must have a clear focus.

Linda Kiernan, leadership adviser at the British Council, which manages the International Placements for Headteachers (IPH) scheme, makes a similar point. Detailed discussions are needed beforehand, she says, as are clear communication between placement organisers, facilitators and hosts, and between facilitators and participants.

But even with good planning, things do not always go smoothly. On some trips, heads encounter illness, travel delays and poor organisation by the hosts. "But most visits run smoothly," says Ms Kiernan. "Heads come back absolutely full of their visit and keen to move the international dimension on in their schools."

Heads are asked to submit evaluations and attend post-visit meetings when they return to ensure the impact of placements is not lost once heads are back in their schools.

For Maggie Mitford, the key to success lies in the attitude of the participants. "You have to be open-minded and prepared to celebrate another culture," she says. "That will make you re-assess your school, stand back and reflect on your own practice."

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