In the back of Dave Bruzga's sports utility vehicle are a scarred baseball bat, a giant bottle of mouthwash and a crooklock. In the front passenger seat is Steve Byatt, head of the Ellowes Hall school in Dudley, West Midlands. Mr Bruzga drives his passenger past lawns striped with sunlight, past white clapboard houses with pumpkin-studded verandas, past a notice outside the Harvest Baptist church warning that "Trouble often starts out as fun", while Mr Byatt explains that his chair of governors is the local coal merchant. Mr Bruzga seems stymied. Perhaps he's unfamiliar with chairs of governors, or coal, or merchants. "Boy, you have a lot more accountability," he remarks, on hearing that Mr Byatt can set the number of hours taught each week. "Can you set your own salary?" He pulls up outside his school and parks nose to nose with the vehicle that belongs to the police liaison officer.
Mr Bruzga, principal of Long Reach high school, in Columbia, Maryland, is hosting Mr Byatt as part of a British Council programme of international placements for headteachers. The government-funded initiative - set to involve 150 British heads in its first year and 300 next - kicked off this autumn with study visits to the United States and Australia; subsequent parties will go to Singapore, Thailand and Scandinavia. The purpose, says organiser Judith Mullen, formerly head of New College, a fresh start school in Leicester, and now leadership adviser with the British Council, is to give serving heads the opportunity to "reflect on their own practice in the light of that of other principals worldwide".
Steve Byatt, one of a party of nine secondary heads from Dudley signed up for the US exchange, is hoping for "inspiration or at least instruction" on learning-centred leadership.
Dave Bruzga, head of Long Reach since it opened in 1996, is highly regarded by Maryland education officials, and was last year voted principal of the year by his state peers. With 30 years in education, he has four principalships and two master's degrees from Johns Hopkins university on his CV - as well as membership of a two-page list of committees. His school has 1,550 pupils from ninth to 12th grade (14 to 18-year-olds), compared with Mr Byatt's 1,100 11 to 18-year-olds. Who better then to bring on Mr Byatt's thinking and practice on instructional leadership?
But the first day's pairing threatens at times to be overshadowed by what the two heads don't share. "It looks like an insurance company," says the Dudley head, on first glimpsing Long Reach high. "It is like an office building," replies Mr Bruzga, his manners as immaculate as his brown hair. The Washington sniper, still at large at the time of the visit, has forced the school, like others in the area, to go on "modified lockdown", with only one entrance open.
Mr Byatt, sitting under a partially unfurled stars and stripes in the dark-wood and silver-trophy grandeur of the principal's office, seems a little overwhelmed. "It must make a difference to how you feel doing a job," he says, eyes swivelling around the office, "the environment."
What quickly emerges is how different the role of the English headteacher is from that of the American principal. While Mr Byatt teaches every day, Mr Bruzga does no teaching, nor do any of his three assistant principals. The 125 teachers at Long Reach each spend 25 per cent of their time on planning; Ellowes Hall's 64 teachers get two or three hours a week for preparation - if it isn't lost to cover. Mr Bruzga, at the top of the salary tree and about to retire, earns $101,000 (pound;64,500) a year; Mr Byatt gets pound;60,000. Mr Bruzga has nothing to do with hiring and firing, or buildings, or salaries. "Handling all that money? That would drive me crazy," he observes. "Are you an instructional leader, or are you a businessman?"
A mystified Mr Byatt wants to know how his American counterpart spends his time. "Walking round the building, interacting with the kids, being around for them," he explains. "And I get into the classrooms enough to know who's doing well, who needs help." He spends at least an hour a day responding to emails from the Maryland education department, although he says his rule of thumb is "to try to touch each piece of paper only once".
The Dudley head's eyes widen as Mr Bruzga takes him on a tour of the building. The purpose-built school has impressive facilities - a huge indoor arena where up to 900 people gather on Friday nights to watch basketball games, and a 700-seat auditorium for the performing arts - and is clean and well maintained. There is a 14-place nursery for staff children, and the full-time Howard County police officer, Paul Matthews, has his own office, from which he watches students through five closed-circuit television cameras. "We got a pretty good eye on them," he says, gun gleaming in his belt.
"At least we can match them on IT," says Mr Byatt, entering the library. Dudley is a Pathfinder authority for ICT, and well equipped. The seven-year-old computers at Long Reach, says Mr Bruzga, are "slow as molasses" and no replacements are in sight. "Have you been to England?" Mr Bruzga asks his librarian, Molly Kelley. "Enough times so I can't donate blood any more," comes the instant response.
Mr Byatt is surprised by the calm of the corridors. "I don't know what he does," he says, "but something must have happened here to make what could be a challenging school so orderly." Two hundred pupils here have special educational needs, and, although some students come from affluent backgrounds, others, says the principal, live in trailer parks. The school is racially mixed and contains a special unit for newly arrived students with English as a second language, primarily from Central and South America.
Mr Byatt's focus shifts from differences to similarities. "It feels very much like my school," he says. "Noisy at changeover. Lessons are quiet, civilised, happy." But he's surprised by the number of students who appear to "ignore" Mr Bruzga, and vice versa. "That wouldn't happen in my school."
As the day wears on, Mr Byatt's step regains its spring. Although the American has better buildings, more staff and more time to think, he also has less autonomy. Aspects of the job that appear burdensome at home - handling budgets, recruiting staff - are cast in a different light here, where they are the responsibility of the state or county education department. Principals in Maryland don't even apply to lead specific schools, but join a pool and are allocated to institutions.
Over a lunch of chicken stir-fry and broccoli, the talk turns to teaching styles, routes into headship, and the elusive "instructional leadership". American principals must do a master's degree in education administration as well as a qualification for headship. Mr Bruzga favours an active learning style. "The straight lecture model is not the best," he says. "For a kid to have to sit and listen to an adult for 90 minutes at a time, that's brutal." When pressed, he volunteers a definition of instructional leadership. "An instructional leader is someone who establishes classroom instruction as the priority of the building and demonstrates that teaching and learning is the most important event occurring in that school - by observing, knowing what's occurring in the classroom, and by influencing what's going on in the classroom."
The exchange programme began for the Dudley heads with two days of educational tourism; they took part in an international video conference on school leadership at the World Bank headquarters in Washington DC, and heard the preoccupations of heads from Brazil, Sri Lanka and Uganda. They visited model schools selected by Maryland education department officials Mary Cary and Jim Foran, the trip's upbeat hosts, and heard the Maryland take on school improvement from Dr Foran. "Reform cannot happen one classroom at a time," he says. "It has to start at the top, and that's you. The principal is the single most important person in the building." And, crucially, in the back of taxis, in the tiled corridors of the Capitol building and over crabcakes in the hotel restaurant, they talked to each other. "At the end of the week, at nine o'clock on a Friday night, we were still talking teaching and learning," says Tom Johnston from Dudley's the Earls high school. "It had fired us."
Over the 10 days, the Dudley heads realised that the opportunity was not so much about learning directly from their American counterparts, or necessarily emulating them, but using them to reflect on their own practice. That - combined with the ongoing professional dialogue between the group - was a powerful experience.
"I feel as if I've jumped out of the goldfish bowl for a week and swum in the ocean," says Stephanie Sherwood, head of Dormston school in Dudley. She was matched with Steve Gibson, one of three principals in Maryland appointed as "distinguished fellows" - and paid bumper annual salaries of $125,000 (pound;80,000). Mr Gibson has been charged with turning around a highly challenging inner-city Baltimore middle school. "The children love him," says Ms Sherwood, "but all the positive changes are put down to him. I thought there must be some way to make sure leadership went right through the institution, which made me reflect on my own school and how essential it is there too.
"Steve Gibson is doing an absolutely fantastic job, but you realise how little power those principals have. How can you build your team when you can't even appoint them? It made me grateful for the powers we have."
On returning to England, the group are unanimously enthusiastic about their experiences with their US counterparts. "It was a superb experience," says Tom Johnston, who spent a week with principal Joe Wilson at Baltimore city college. "When you're put into a different context, you have to rethink your responses. And the host principals included us in discipline and other decisions; that was a fantastic opportunity."
Sue Bates, head of Dudley's Ridgewood high, matched with Almenta Bell at Southeast middle school, was reminded of her own previous headship, of a troubled but improving school in Birmingham. "Southeast was very much like my previous school when it was in special measures, and probably in a comparable situation." She says she learned from Ms Bell and was able to offer her own experience. Being with colleagues in a new context was almost as powerful. "We appreciate each others' differences and similarities. We've got to know each other, and don't want to lose that. The visit created a fresh awareness in me," she says.
Jeff Williams, head of the High Arcal school in Dudley, was partnered in Baltimore with Addie Kauffman of Reservoir high school. He hopes the visit will lead to an exchange programme. "We developed a good rapport with our hosts and were open about the issues," he says. "There's a good chance that Maryland will now arrange a return trip, and we'll host them in our schools." He would also like to see other members of staff involved. "It would be fantastic for middle management and younger teachers, and perhaps some students in the future. I'd love to get the whole of my school interested in educational issues."
National College for School Leadership notwithstanding, the study visit highlighted the dearth of professional development available to many British heads. "As a group of Dudley heads, we have never been collected together and told we really matter," says one. "Quite the contrary - we've had documents and policies thrown at us. We're all agreed that this has been the most positive time we have spent for as long as we can remember."
After pupils at Long Reach high had seen Steve Byatt spend three days with Dave Bruzga, who retires next year, the word went round that Mr Byatt was a candidate for his job. Mr Byatt denies the rumour. "We've got more autonomy, but there's more baggage that goes with it. They've got more time to think, but there's a feeling that some of the thinking is futile, because so much is centrally dictated. It's made me reassess how I use some of that autonomy. I intend to re-examine how we structure our courses and how I use time. It's made me uncomfortable with some of the things they do and some of the things we do, which I think is a good state to be in."
Heads from both phases and all types of maintained schools are invited to apply to join other study visits. Applications for the 300 places of the second year of the scheme, beginning April 2003, need to be completed by the end of this term. For further information, visit the British Council website at: www.britishcouncil.org.uk educationheadteachersindex.htm or email firstname.lastname@example.org