The Conversation: Shanghai dreams

4th January 2008 at 00:00
When Terry Creissen, a successful Essex head, was asked to run an international school in Shanghai, he didn't hesitate. Geoff Barton talks to him about the cultural differences and what we might learn from overseas.

Q: So after 14 years as a successful Essex head, had you been thinking of moving abroad or was it an opportunity that came out of the blue?

A: When opportunities arise, I have tried to use them to best advantage. Taking the UK school into grant-maintained status, then developing a first, second and third specialism was all very exciting. I've worked for the Training and Development Agency for Schools and later as a consultant for the Department for Children, Families and Schools and the National College for School Leadership. This broadened my perspective on school leadership.

I did some training of Chinese headteachers with the British Council, which gave me some idea of the culture of this country, as well as its education system. So when the chance came up to apply for the post in Shanghai through Nord Anglia Education plc, I was very excited. I've often wondered what it would be like to work abroad, and now I know.

So it was partly an opportunity that I felt should not be missed and partly luck that the job came when it did.

Q: And does headship of a school 6,000 miles away from Essex feel much different or are the essential elements of the job just the same?

A: Actually, I was surprised at how similar it is and how many of the principles of headship remain intact even though this is the other side of the world, in a country with a very different history, and the school caters for children aged 18 months to 18 years. You can be duped into thinking we are in the heart of the English countryside if you don't look out of the window or step out into the Shanghai sunshine. It really does have a very English feel, although the facilities are far better than any I've seen in the UK.

There are, of course, some significant differences. For example, I don't have to fight my way to my desk through a wall of paperwork. There are tasks that need to be completed (mainly responding to requests from the parent company on key performance indicators), but junk mail or repeated requests for the same information from different sources is a thing of the past. Plus no more unruly children, no more exclusions. Here we have the opportunity to teach children, and they have the opportunity to learn.

Q: Sounds blissful. I know from my own recent visit to Shanghai that it is a culture that very much values education, that people see this as intrinsic to making progress in life. Are there other things in the Chinese approach that would help us to improve our education system?

A: One of the exciting aspects of working at the British International School, Pudong, is the strong culture of learning - an aspiration that many UK schools yearn for but find elusive. Partly, this is about the context of the school in China, where education is highly valued as a way of improving one's understanding, as well as adding to the economic prosperity of the nation. The Chinese have always been recognised as highly motivated and creative scholars, and teachers are highly respected here.

The other important factor is the mind-set of parents and pupils. They value their time at school because they know we can help them in their long-term goals of moving into higher education and then into the world of work.

Q: Finally, how has living in Shanghai changed your perspective on education in Britain? Do we seem less significant than we like to think, or does the best of what we do feel genuinely world class?

A: Our school represents the best of British education, drawing from the state and independent sectors. So I still have a great deal of affection for the national curriculum and the key stage 4 programme. However, the British AS and A-level system is, in my view, out of touch with the needs of higher education and employment, which is why I am delighted we offer the International Baccalaureate. It is a broad and challenging programme that really pushes students to develop as independent learners. The sooner the UK adopts this type of programme, the better off the UK will be.

GB: Many thanks. What you say reflects a culture that places great value on education - a huge head start for teachers and learners. Also the opportunity you have to focus on the essentials of what makes a difference in school is enviable - and a useful lesson to us from one of the world's fastest-developing countries.

Terry Creissen, head of the British International School, Shanghai, was previously head of Colne Community School in Essex.

Geoff Barton is head of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds.

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