Been there, done that . . .

10th May 1996 at 01:00
Past and present Harkness Fellows David Bell and Matt Dunkley (below) celebrate their years in America

To leave a local government desk for a short time is a risky business given the threat of reorganisation and restructuring. To leave a secure post for a year may be considered particularly foolhardy. However, that was precisely what I did when I began a Harkness Fellowship in August 1993. I left my post as assistant director of education with Newcastle and went, on unpaid leave, to Atlanta, Georgia, for a year.

Established in 1925 by the Commonwealth Fund of New York, the Harkness Fellowships were intended to offer young people from the United Kingdom an opportunity to spend time studying and living in the United States. For almost the first 70 years of their existence, Harkness Fellowships were an opportunity for post-graduate students to pursue their studies in America.

However, in 1990, the Commonwealth Fund decided to change the nature of the programme. A new emphasis was to be placed on encouraging mid-career professionals to follow a study theme related to their professional area of interest. Candidates were required to propose a study theme which allowed them to look at their own professional field in the context of the American experience.

Following an induction seminar in New York I arrived in Atlanta with my wife, Louise, and children Laura aged four and Shona who was nearly one. On the professional side, I was the first mid-career Harkness Fellow to be based in Atlanta, Georgia. I had a "home" at the department of educational policy studies in Georgia State University. I was also offered a desk and facilities in the Georgia state department of education.

My study theme was "Reforming the Republics", which was a study of the influence that school districts and boards had on educational reform in what was, and is, a highly decentralised system of education. As well as looking at reform efforts in Georgia, I had the opportunity to visit 25 other states and in most of them I was able to visit schools, talk to district administrators and meet state legislators.

As a family, we lived in the suburbs of Atlanta and did all the things that American families do. Attending kindergarten, watching little league baseball, going to the drive-in and eating out regularly all became part of the life of our family for a year. My wife also engaged in that powerful American experience of volunteering as she worked in the schoolroom of a local hospital. It was also possible to overlap professional travel with personal travel and as a family we ranged far and wide across the US. "Been there, done that" became a family joke every time a reference was made to a particular city or state on the TV.

Yet the year had to end. "Re-entry" at both a personal and professional level proved to be remarkably smooth. Our older daughter, by then five, came back into Year 1 at the local primary school and had little difficulty adjusting (beyond losing her Southern accent) even though she had missed her reception year. At work, I came back to some of my old responsibilities and picked up some new ones along the way. Within a week of being back, I felt that I had never been away. Yet, it soon became clear that "America" was to have a significant impact on my life and career.

In an output-driven world, the Harkness Fellowships are based on the old-fashioned liberal notion that travel broadens the mind. Although the Commonwealth Fund which sponsors the fellowships is anxious that clear policy links are established between the two countries, it has held on to the notion that professional life can be enhanced by a range of personal opportunities.

There is a requirement to publish an end-of-year report which is an attempt to summarise the key findings of the fellowship study. However, even that is better informed when a Fellow draws upon their observations of all aspects of US life. In addition, in the frenetic world of education, it is refreshing to step aside from day-to-day life and see the world from a different perspective.

Once back, I dreaded being asked the inevitable question, "Well, what did you learn that you will apply in Newcastle?" However, it is clear that a number of American influences have shaped my view on particular themes. For example, it is impossible to leave American schools without being impressed at the confident demeanour of young people, a characteristic which seemed to transcend race and social class. The longer you stay in the United States, the more apparent it becomes that American culture does emphasise the importance of expressing feelings and opinions in an open and relaxed manner. There is an undoubted emphasis on rewarding the positive and boosting self-esteem. To the casual observer, the currency of positive reinforcement can appear to be devalued when there seem to be prizes and rewards for everything. Yet, it was refreshing to hear the positive messages about an education system and this is not always present in this country. In addition, my views on subjects as diverse as pre-school education, school-to-work transition and school management have all been shaped by the American experience.

At a more mundane level, it is interesting to note that you quickly become the local American "expert". I am now approached on a regular basis by the local media to comment on a whole range of issues from an American perspective, including school security, race relations, gun control, juvenile justice and so on. Again, the value of this from a professional perspective is that it allows one to see this country through the eyes of another system. Arguably, this sharpens your perspective as you are not necessarily an uncritical observer of policy in this country as you know there are alternative ways of doing things. In terms of attitudes, the eternal optimism and "can do" spirit of Americans particularly in the public policy field is a constant encouragement even though there is some irony in the fact that Americans are much more suspicious of "the government" than we are.

With all the uncertainty that faces everyone working in the education system, it will always be a concern that a year out on a Harkness Fellowship will impede career prospects. In some ways, this is a difficult point to challenge because even if one moves on in professional terms after coming back, it could be argued that this has little to do with the fact that a year has been spent abroad. On the other hand, in the competition for jobs it is hardly likely that international experience would count against a job applicant particularly if their study theme is related to pressing issues.

For all the undoubted professional benefits, the Harkness year will always remain first and foremost a wonderful life experience. At times, as I travelled across America, I had to remind myself that I was actually being "paid" to do it by the Commonwealth Fund of New York. Career prospects are undoubtedly enhanced but more importantly, life can never be the same again when you have "been there and done that". David Bell David Bell became chief education officer for Newcastle upon Tyne in 1995

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