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Share practice and build trust: the lesson from other countries

Governments and opposition parties dream up new ideas almost every week to improve our education service, but do they ever look to other countries to understand what might stand some chance of success?

Critics would say such comparisons are not valid as no two education systems are the same: cultural aspects are dominant and reliable data is difficult to obtain, while any form of international comparison of pupil progress can be unreliable because of translation problems. But given our competitive, knowledge-based economy, good education is crucial to our success.

At the Centre for Innovation in Mathematics Teaching in Plymouth, we have co-ordinated two international projects based on understanding the reasons for varying pupil progress. This work, conducted over the past 12 years, has provided an insight into education systems across the world and highlighted aspects that are important in achieving successful outcomes. We have learnt, for example, that in Hungary success is based on very interactive styles of teaching and learning, providing motivation for all pupils. In Japan, lesson study and other forms of collaborative practice provide the catalyst for improved teaching and learning, with professionals sharing their good practice.

There have also been recurring themes associated with good international practice, including: no national tests until age 18; supportive advice, but no inspections; starting formal education at age six or seven; high entry qualifications for teachers; and use of collaborative practice to enhance their skills. Worryingly, few of these factors that seem to give rise to successful education are now seen in England. Yet some policies would be relatively easy to adopt and would provide real impact in helping to attract and retain high quality, creative teachers. Here are three suggestions.

Collaborative practice: This is such a simple process to use to improve teaching and learning. A group of teachers plan a lesson, observe the lesson, then review that lesson, noting action points - with the cycle repeated regularly. The focus has to be on evaluating and improving the lesson plans rather than on the teacher.

University practice schools: Collaborative practice is also the basis for the idea of university practice schools, which are common in some countries (). These are characterised by having expert teachers and are linked to or governed by the local university. These schools are in the state sector, have a range of pupils and are funded for their roles in initial teacher training and continuing professional development. Initial observation and teaching are conducted by groups of trainees alongside the expert teachers - similar to university hospitals in medicine. University practice schools are also used as centres of excellence for professional development, for outreach work and as test beds for innovation.

Starting age at primary school: The evidence points to raising the age for primary school to at least 6. This would not hold back high-flyers but would give a chance to those who at 5 struggle to develop the skills needed for formal education. Hungary also uses the simple strategy of holding back in kindergarten for a year a small number of pupils who are thought not to be ready for primary school even at 6-plus. This solves many of the problems of having pupils struggling throughout primary school.

The CIMT is now being funded by the CfBT Education Trust to compare primary and secondary maths teacher training in high performing countries during the last year of training and the first years of teaching. We have already seen the key role played by all three of the above practices. It is the teachers that matter and to attract, support and retain the highest quality teachers we need professional collaboration, innovation and trust.

This column is based on a talk given at the CfBT last week

David Burghes, Director of the Centre for Innovation in Mathematics Teaching, Plymouth University.

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