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Inspiring lessons of foreign approaches

Showing visitors around the school can be a good learning experience, even if it takes a little acting to pretend you have nothing better to do. You have to appear totally relaxed and focused only on them.

Last month, Queensferry Primary received an entire primary school staff from Norway - 40 visitors - over two days. A quality assurance system similar to How Good is Our School? is going to be introduced in Oslo soon. Our visitors wanted to talk to staff about how such a system affects the school community.

Visiting teachers love to look into classrooms and often pick up many more insights about another culture than the task intended. Our Norwegian visitors were fascinated by the concept of school uniform. Their pupils wanted to wear designer clothing and they were only too aware of the problems that caused parents.

Early stages teachers were amazed at how much our four-year-olds had achieved in reading and writing, but questioned whether that made them better learners by the age of eight.

Not much was said about our accommodation, but they were impressed with our information and communications technology facilities, especially the computer suite and interactive whiteboards. There were soon plans for e-mail links between our schools.

One visitor wanted to know if our quality assurance approach resulted in local schools competing with one another. Do the staff and pupils feel pressure from trying to achieve targets? Have there been genuine improvements to learning and teaching and, if so, how were they achieved? In what ways has the curriculum been affected? How do we deal with ineffective teachers? What is the role of the education authority in supporting schools?

The questions flowed on and on and certainly made us stop to reflect on gains at Queensferry.

In my view, there have been significant improvements in teaching and learning practices, particularly at the early stages. Our early literacy and numeracy programmes have resulted in children benefiting from much more direct interactive teaching.

In the past, I believe we asked too much of youngsters when we expected them to function as independent learners in the context of integrated programmes of work. There were too many groups, for reading, maths and so on, and these became self-fulfilling. Middle and low attaining groups rarely caught up with the best. Upper stages teachers then had the very difficult task of teaching five groups, spread across all the levels, in a number of subjects.

Let us hope that the "tail" of under-achievement can now be laid to rest. Staff have higher expectations of what pupils can achieve from an earlier stage and additional resources can be used to best effect to meet the needs of the small group of pupils with genuine learning difficulties.

While I was busy responding to the visitors' questions, my depute had questions for them. How was the entire staff of 40 - the janitor, school nurse, ancillary and support staff, all the teachers and headteacher - able to travel to Scotland together? Did their visit coincide with a local or national holiday?

There was no holiday: the school had been left in the hands of the parents. I almost collapsed.

I am now aware of the significant educational and cultural differences between our countries. I find it difficult to imagine how parents could be allowed to manage a school for several days to allow the entire staff to undertake a study visit. I am having trouble doing something as simple as re-employing a special educational needs auxiliary: vetting procedures are causing the hold-up.

Some of the issuses raised could become the focus of an international study visit or exchange, as described in the Scottish Executive Education Department document "International Opportunities within Scottish Education and Training 2003". Headteachers are being offered the chance to job-shadow heads overseas (usually for two to four weeks) and this could be one-way or reciprocal. There should be some timetabling flexibility after 2004 when class contact times are reduced in all primary schools.

I'm off now to write to my education authority to request an exchange visit for my entire staff of 65. I wonder if I should seek the support of my parents first? Perhaps their appreciation for the work of the school and its staff would rise immeasurably.

Sheilah Jackson is headteacher of Queensferry Primary in Edinburgh e-mail

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