THE SEARCH for the Holy Grail of school improvement has taken many twists and turns. Research from England, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and, more recently, the Pacific Rim, has been used to illuminate the Scottish experience. Rarely do we look at the developing world and countries such as Pakistan.
Undoubtedly, we have the advantage in terms of two generations of universal, compulsory secondary education and the body of teacher expertise built up over that time. But if staff development is to be a key component of school improvement, if it is to be something that empowers teachers and makes schools more responsive, the Pakistan experience has some lessons for us all.
For three years, colleagues from the faculty of education at Strathclyde University have been working with the City School organisation in Pakistan, jointly delivering staff development at postgraduate certificate level, here in Scotland and in Pakistan itself. There are two different modes of study: a four-week, intensive course in the summer delivered jointly by Jordanhill and Pakistani tutors, and the "ongoing" certificate, taught one day a week for 20 weeks (either on a Saturday or on Friday afternoon, after school), five hours per session, by Pakistani tutors, all of whom have been to Glasgow for the month course.
City Schools, of which there are about 50, are run by a charitable organisation but are fee-paying. I visited Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad in February as an external evaluator. I met some 80 participants in the certificate courses in their schools, observed them during training sessions and talked with them on a one-to-one basis to give advice with assignments and in larger groups to discuss the courses in general.
There is a quiet revolution going on as a result of the synergy of Scottish training expertise and the professional commitment of the staff in Pakistan. My abiding memory was of the transformation which has taken place in some of the schools as a result of the experience of the teachers, in some cases up to two-thirds of the staff, who had participated in the certificate course. Not only that, many teachers spoke of the course as a life-changing experience.
The range of topics which emerged in individual discussions about their assignments was remarkably similar to that in Scottish schools. Praise, encouragement and rewards to help raise pupil achievement; language learning; school development planning; effective learning and teaching; skills for adolescence; reading; small group learning and teaching; maths; discipline and classroom management; staff development; parental involvement; appraisal; teacher observation; evaluation of pupil perceptions of learning and teaching - all these emerged as issues.
The quality of the tutoring was high. Discussion was well managed and there was a high level of participation. Some of the topics were heavy going for the tutors - concepts such as "validity", "reliability", "credibility" are difficult at the best of times. And yet the sessions were generally well organised, clearly presented, had a good blend of exposition and discussion and were conducted in an atmosphere of humour and personal warmth. The tutors made frequent checks on the understanding of the participants, required them to explain their answers, offered individual help and generally maintained a brisk pace.
As an exercise in empowerment of local trainers, Scotland should be proud of this initiative - and apply its lessons to schools here. There has been a process of empowerment of Pakistani tutors and of teachers and managers in schools. The fact that senior regional staff have also participated in the courses, to certificate and diploma level, is testament to their commitment. This staff development model of training significant numbers of teachers in an area or in one school to certificate and diploma level, with a practical, school-based element, should be applied more widely. It may not be enough to give individual teachers in Scottish schools such experiences. Instead, we should aim for larger groups of teachers from a school or cluster so that organisational change has a greater chance of happening.
Other issues emerged. All of the teaching I saw was in English, by teachers who were native Urdu speakers, and Urdu was taught as a separate subject. The result of this immersion model of foreign language learning from the age of three was that by primary 4 pupils were as fluent in reading, writing, speaking and listening in English as their counterparts in Scottish schools.
But perhaps the biggest challenge in Scotland is to find a way of applying this staff development model to the whole of the Pakistan system of government schools. In a country where it is estimated that only 25 per cent of secondary-age children attend school, largely because of the poverty of the people and under-investment in the state system, the City School as a self-financing organisation is not typical of Pakistan.
However, it has shown what can be achieved with investment of resources, commitment and expertise. If we could engage with the Pakistan government in a partnership approach to teacher training and staff development, then perhaps all children and their teachers might benefit from the city school experience.
Brian Boyd lectures in the faculty of education, Strathclyde University.