A taste for tartan in Santiago

30th May 2003 at 01:00
Margaret Alcorn went to Chile to tell teachers about recent innovations in Scottish education and see how they look from the other end of the world

SOMETIMES you are made an offer you really cannot refuse. In April, I was invited on behalf of the Scottish Executive Education Department to visit Santiago in Chile where the Ministry of Education was interested in learning about the Scottish system.

Education is the top priority in Chile, and is seen as a key element in the fight against poverty. Today's system reflects the turbulent political history of the past 30 years. There are elements of a market approach, the legacy of the military government of 1973-1990, including a policy of decentralisation, free parental choice and the promotion of competition between schools. This has promoted the growth of a strong private sector.

More recent initiatives, introduced by the centre-left coalition which has been in power since the restoration of democracy in 1990, are based on strategies to combat the effects of poverty and a modernising agenda.

There is an emerging sense of social and political frustration that this national commitment, and a large investment of funds over a period of 10 years, has not translated into the anticipated levels of school improvement. A new minister of education was appointed just three weeks before my trip, as a reaction to this perceived lack of progress, and with an agenda to sort out the teachers.

It soon became apparent that the Scottish system was known and admired by many Chilean teachers. Several members of the ministry staff had visited Edinburgh two years ago, and were enormously impressed. Thirty minutes into our first meeting, I was asked some very searching questions related to the use of How Good Is Our School? (or @Que tan buena es nuestra escuela?), which they consider an excellent document.

The ministry staff were keen to explore new ways of developing school leaders, and strategies to move towards a more transparent and equitable system of promotion. There were lots of questions about the distinction between leadership and management, and how leaders can be nurtured and developed, and a genuine interest in the Scottish Qualification for Headship.

A key theme was the need to unblock the logjam in policy and funding that seems to have formed at the municipal level. Ownership of schools was transferred to the municipal education departments during the 1980s, but it seems that staff in local government do not always have the commitment or the systems to ensure school improvement. Very few have been willing to delegate financial autonomy to schools, and even fewer have the necessary confidence or knowledge to take the unpopular decisions which are required to protect service credibility in extreme cases of underperformance.

Teachers I met expressed a real interest in recent innovations in Scotland, and were impressed by the changes which have arisen from the teachers' agreement. They wanted to discuss the idea of national priorities in education, how these can be used to shape a vision and how they can translate into action in the classroom. In my presentation, I described our new national framework for continuing professional development, and this generated much debate and comment, all favourable. Our induction programme for new teachers was met with enthusiasm and envy.

Everyone I met, including the new minister, asked penetrating and detailed questions. Their concerns centred on how we controlled schools and teachers. They did not feel that a system of supported self-evaluation would encourage school improvement. They thought their first task was to develop quality assurance processes at all levels of the education service.

Margaret Alcorn is continuing professional development manager with Edinburgh Council's education department.

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