In a spacious boardroom overlooking Canada's prosperous financial heartland, 30 school principals were summing up three weeks of intensive training. All were from Sri Lanka, a small strife-torn island half a world away, but light years from the tranquil setting of the Ontario Principals'
"In some of our schools even electricity and drinking water are non-existent," said Jagath Chandrasiri, principal of the Kuli Ihala Kadigamuwa comprehensive school, named after its village in north-western Sri Lanka. "There aren't enough books for the students, and they don't have the budget for school meals."
The training is part of World Bank's development programme for education in the developing world. In spite of the massive problems facing poor countries, both the bank's experts and the participants believe it will prove a significant catalyst for creative change.
"When you're isolated and lacking in resources, you get the feeling that yours is the only way of doing things," says Weeratunga Sarath, principal of the Namadagaswewa school in the north-western town of Sooriyawewa. "This visit has opened our eyes. We see possibilities we had never thought of, and new ways of doing things even with our limitations."
The World Bank chose Toronto as a leading centre of educational excellence, offering the Sri Lankans largely the same training as their counterparts in Ontario province, focusing on universal challenges and skills. They participated in workshops on decision-making, school safety, teacher standards, programming improvements, student testing, leadership and ways of meeting students' special needs. They also undertook intensive internet training, a boost for principals from villages where computers are almost unknown.
"The big issue in Sri Lanka is the quality of learning," says Vincent Greaney, lead education specialist for the World Bank in Washington. "They have a very high level of students completing school, but much still needs to improve."
Part of the problem is nepotism - educational officials too often appoint friends and relatives to positions for which they are not qualified. That also leads to favouritism in staffing schools, leaving some bulging with surplus teachers while others are understaffed.
Money is unevenly distributed, and modern equipment is mostly concentrated in the capital, Colombo. In the north-east, inhabited by embattled minority Tamils, some schools are little more than clearings in the woods.
"There are 149 schools in Sri Lanka with only one teacher," says Mr Chandrasiri. "You can imagine what the effects are on the students."
Because of poverty and civil war, teachers and school heads are often called upon to fill the role of substitute parents. "Children come to school for love and affection," says Mr Chandrasiri. "Their mothers may be working in the Middle East to support the family, and their fathers don't really take care of them. Even if they're sick they refuse to stay at home."
By Western standards, Sri Lankan teaching is an unrewarding profession.
Principals seldom earn more than $200 (pound;123) a month, and teachers make do with less than $100. But in this country of 19 million, with soaring unemployment and 60,000 people killed in the three-decade civil war between the majority Sinhalese government and the Tamils, there is no shortage of candidates for jobs that offer a form of stability.
Away from the troubles of their home country, the Sri Lankan principals said they were able to analyse their problems in a new way. Whether their experiences lead to breakthroughs for the educational system, only time will tell.
"We were very impressed by the freedom and tolerance in Canadian schools," says Suppan Rajandran, a Tamil. "Students and teachers of all sorts of backgrounds and religions learn and work together peacefully.
"That's one message that will stay with us when we return."
INTERNATIONAL VISITS: GET ON YOUR WAY
* The British Council wants to arrange 500 short, expenses-paid six to ten-day visits for headteachers in England to other countries next year, allowing them to examine and reflect on their own practice by shadowing a host principal. Countries taking part include the United States, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands: www.britishcouncil. orgeducationheadteachersindex.htm
* The Arion scheme allows education decision-makers to spend five days investigating particular aspects of education in another European country.
On their return, participants act as "multipliers" to disseminate information and good practice:www. socrates-uk.net arionindex.htm
* Council of Europe: 3-5 day professional development courses across Europe for teachers, headteachers, teacher trainers, school inspectors and other educational staff: www.britishcouncil. org education teacherscouncilof europe.htm
* Comenius projects, from nursery to further education levels, include development projects for principals on management issues such as violence at school, combating racism, working with the wider community, classroom management and equal opportunities. Projects may last up to three years: www.socrates-uk.net comeniuscomenius1develop.htm
* Professional development for college principals: The Tirisano Fellowship is a five-year international exchange programme introduced in 1999 to develop the skills of some of South Africa's most talented college managers. FE colleges in the UK apply to host a South African fellow and then plan a tailor- made professional development programme which the fellow completes during the three months of their stay in the UK: www.britishcouncil.org educationvetvettirisano.htm
* Links with China, Russia, France, Japan and Ireland for headteacher study visits, joint curriculum projects, language learning and assistants (China only) programmes: www.britishcouncil.orgeducationschools index.htm
* Teachers' International Professional Development (TIPD) programme, funded by the Department for Education and Skills: www.british council.orgeducation tipdtipdopps.htm
* Windows on the World: This free website managed by the British Council enables schools and colleges to use a database to find a partner school anywhere abroad: www.wotw. org.uk