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Peer through Channel fog

The famous Times headline "Fog in Channel, Continent isolated" is an apt metaphor for the insular approach to educational development in England.

In my 32 years working in the education service, I have taken part in numerous in-service training activities, not a single one of which, including the National Professional Qualification for Headship programme, involved consideration of educational provision or practice outside this country. My knowledge of foreign education systems is entirely the result of my own reading and personal experience.

A recent invitation to give a presentation at the Ecole Superieure de l'Education Nationale (ESEN), the French national training college, brought home to me the blinkered nature of our approach. The two-day seminar focused on four themes, and I had the pleasure of working with education professionals from Germany, Spain and Sweden, as well as our French colleagues, to lead workshops on guidance, virtual learning environments, extra-curricular support and school admissions. Participants were able to compare and contrast policy and practice in these areas in France and elsewhere.

The international aspect of the seminar was not an exception as the ESEN is progressively incorporating a European dimension into its training, an approach sadly absent in England. No education system has all the answers. There are strengths and weaknesses in all, and it is important to be open to that realisation and be able to learn from others. The French have overcome their traditional insularity. We have yet to do so.

If we could take the same step forward, we would be able to appreciate better our strengths, such as the significant advances made in developing innovative approaches to teaching and learning, and the developmental effectiveness of our approach to self-assessment.

We would also see more clearly our weaknesses, such as the destabilising nature of the "choice and diversity" agenda that has led to a multiplicity of school structures for which there is no coherent rationale. In some areas, this has led to damaging duplication of provision and made strategic planning problematic.

Also, we would avoid reinventing the wheel. When ministers proclaim the radical nature of the new diplomas, they are presumably unaware that similar qualifications, the technological and vocational baccalaureats, have been operating successfully in France for decades.

Moreover, an international perspective would better equip us to avoid self-inflicted problems, a danger inherent in our "accretion" model of planning, as evidenced by 16-19 provision: is it secondary education or further education? The question has implications for heads' and principals' qualifications, teacher training and membership of a professional body, to name a few.

We can only gain from bringing an international dimension into our training.

Don Lillistone, Principal of St Mary's College, Middlesbrough.

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