In May I spent a couple of days in Paris looking at aspects of the French secondary education system on a visit organised under the Developing Effective International Education Practice initiative, which aims to examine ways of promoting staff development. The partnership's website is worth a visit (www.deiep-int-off.org.uk).
I found both experiences helpful and educational, as well as enjoyable. My French is limited and I had to concentrate very hard to understand most of what was being said in Paris. My linguistic experience in Birmingham was not quite as bad but I still had to concentrate to understand all that the children were saying. No doubt this was a two-way difficulty.
I was amazed at the difference between the Scottish and French systems. There were structural differences in selection and so on, but the biggest difference was in the attitude of staff to the students and their learning.
This attitude was evident at the start of the day when my colleague and I had to pass through a huge crowd of young people waiting in the street for the school doors to open for the start of classes. Many were smoking, many were standing in animated groups and a large number seemed to be standing isolated, back to the wall avoiding eye contact with fellow students.
The staff I met in Birmingham were much more like Scottish teachers than the French staff were and were striving to do their best for each individual child, though there were major differences in teaching approaches, in staffing and in funding arrangements.
In one school, a classroom assistant had passed A-level Spanish so that she could take the classes if the teacher was absent. The headteacher (PE qualified) took a maths class, with the view that it "didn't really matter" because it was the lowest ability class.
In order to improve passes at GCSE A-C levels, the curriculum had been amended so that difficult subjects were not taken and there was a concentration on practical subjects. This arrangement obviously worked because the statistics now looked far better than before.
A group of disaffected pupils who would be the equivalent of our S4 followed ASDAN (Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network) programmes. The activity-based curriculum is based on key skills and life skills, where tasks such as setting up a bank account or cleaning cars are included. ASDAN is an approved awarding body and the qualifications are the equivalent of GNVQs.
In Birmingham there are no catchment areas and each child can choose any number of schools and gain admission to all or none. Schools do not know until the start of term what their new roll actually is and re-timetabling is common. Many schools cater only up to GCSE and the abler students then have another set of choices over their school or college for the following two years.
One area of interest on both trips was the guidance provision for the children. In Paris two people, not necessarily teachers, worked full-time with the 1,200 students, doing what we would recognise as guidance work and organising links with other support agencies.
The system in Birmingham, and in most English cities, was to employ a small number of learning mentors (salary about pound;21,000). These people take on all of the counselling, social and problem-solving tasks that we expect guidance teachers to do. They are able to devote time to listening and discussion and setting up targets for improvement. They have very close links with heads of year and with social workers, community workers, health staff, the police and so on. They undertake attendance checks, make home visits, listen to a pupil's problem, train peer group mentors, form a first port of call for bullying incidents and provide a variety of information leaflets.
As the Scottish education system approaches a possible collapse of the guidance system next session following job-sizing, should we be considering ideas such as those used in neighbouring countries? Just because our system is Scottish does not necessarily mean it is the best.
John Mitchell is headteacher of Kilsyth Academy, North LanarkshireIf you wish to comment, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.orgNext week: Sheilah Jackson, head of Queensferry Primary, Edinburgh