Atlantic drift: now high-performing Alberta tells us the secret of its success

12th November 2010 at 00:00
Visiting academic flags up small class sizes and teacher investment

While President Obama's education secretary toured a London school last week, England had another, lower-profile visitor from North America - but from a place which actually does better than the UK and the US in the international education tables.

Dr Jim Brandon came here to talk to headteachers about the work being done in the province of Alberta, Canada, the world's most successful English-speaking region when it comes to education. It is only beaten by Finland in some global test rankings.

Dr Brandon, director of leadership capacity building at the College of Alberta School Superintendents, visited the Westlands School, an academy in Kent, and South Farnham School, a high-performing primary in Surrey.

He told The TES that Alberta spent heavily on ensuring that there are no more than an average of 17 pupils in a class in the first years of primary, rising to a maximum average of 27 in the final years of secondary.

"Professionalising" teachers had been key to the province's success, he added, along with a strong common curriculum for all its schools.

Dr Brandon said that, while research was mixed about the impact of class sizes on test results, the point was to make teachers feel better in their jobs.

"There's no direct correlation between small classes and student outcomes, but I believe there is between the emotional state of teachers and their sense of efficacy," he said. "It's costly, but it creates an emotional climate in a school system which can further good results."

Teachers in Alberta come up with their own "growth plan" for areas in which they want to develop professionally, and the cost of courses and cover is paid for out of the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement.

Dr Brandon acknowledged that Alberta, like Finland, may be helped by being small, well-off and relatively monocultural.

Alberta was recently praised by education secretary Michael Gove for offering parents a range of schools, including charter schools, which are similar to Britain's academies. But only 19 of the province's 2,133 schools have charter status.

"Our system is probably more centralised in some ways than in Britain. There's diversity with charter schools, private schools and independent schools, but that only takes up a very small proportion of the market," Dr Brandon said.



- Alberta has a population of 3.7 million.

- It is home to 2,133 schools, of which 19 have charter status - the North American equivalent of free schools or academies.

- The capital city, Edmonton, is home to the province's legislature, which controls schools and university policy.

- There are 42 public school jurisdictions in Alberta and 17 faith-based jurisdictions.

- International comparative studies rank it as the most successful English-speaking school system in the world.

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