Culture club

11th July 2003 at 01:00
When heads visit schools in other countries, the exchange of ideas and expertise crosses many boundaries

The acres of drab 1960s council housing on the rough Loughborough estate in Brixton, south London, is worlds apart from the gleaming, newly built luxury flats overlooking the Finnish coast just outside Helsinki. Yet the heads of Loughborough primary in Brixton and Helsinki's Herttoniemenranta comprehesnive school have found that they have much to learn from one other.

Heads in England have seen schools in Finland where teachers have much more freedom to devise their own course content, including choice of textbooks, while Finnish heads who visited England in June were impressed by the support given to new teachers and the building of a sense of belonging among pupils.

Richard Thornhill is head of Loughborough primary. The school was overhauled as part of the Government's Fresh Start initiative and has been taken out of special measures after a successful turnaround. Thanks to a government-backed study-visit scheme, Mr Thornhill was able to observe contrasting styles of school leadership in Finland and Singapore. He was particularly struck by the high level of autonomy enjoyed by Scandanavian teachers.

"Finland provides quite a huge contrast in the role of the headteacher while still producing results in terms of well-organised schools and mature and confident pupils," he says.

The typical concerns of raising standards and quality of teaching found in the UK are devolved to teaching staff in Finland, where international comparative tests show the country to be a world leader in literacy attainment.

"Teachers are treated as professionals able to make key decisions and are trusted by the system to get on with raising standards," he says.

He notes that there was almost no national testing or inspections which, he says, "can often erode a teacher's commitment to a school".

He adds: "It was interesting for us to see how you create that sense of vision and corporateness when you grant such high levels of autonomy to teaching staff."

Leadership in schools was more collaborative, it seems. "It is a partnership with more discussion and teamwork between the head and teaching body than in UK schools," he says.

Finnish heads, perhaps diplomatically, described their system as more democratic, yet after visiting England they began to question their freedoms. They insist that they would not wish to move towards the English model of national testing and monitoring; they felt it was "extreme", although they did acknowledge that some Finnish teachers needed more drive.

Some of the heads were willing to admit that the quality of teaching was "variable" as a result of their relative freedom.

Tiina Larsson, head of Herttoniemenranta school, hopes to implement some elements of English practice. "I think I should pay more attention to our new teachers," she says. "In England you have a programme for them. I am planning my own version."

She was also impressed to see school walls in England covered in children's work, targets and other materials.

"We have targets, but they are not written anywhere," she says. "It is better if pupils can be more aware so that they know all the time what we are doing and what we are aiming for."

She described the exchange as "very useful and important". "It makes me think wider and forces me to think more about our system - what is good and what we should change". She feels that her own leadership style would benefit from a more planned approach.

Anja-Liisa Alanko, head of SYK (Hilsingin Suomalainen Yhteiskoulu), a grade 3-12 school in Helsinki, agrees.

"We often do the same things, but we do them more informally," she says.

"Perhaps we are more haphazard. I have discussions with each of my teachers, but maybe I will do it a bit more."

Finland has far fewer whole-school activities compared with English schools, with less attention paid to school ethos. As a result, Finnish heads were interested in learning how to foster more of a "whole-school feeling".

By contrast, in his visit to Singapore Mr Thornhill noted a sense of corporateness imposed centrally rather than by heads and governors, as in England.

"A sense of belonging is a huge thing in Singapore," Mr Thornhill says, who describes the system he saw as a "paternalistic top-down model".

Singapore's high academic standards - it is the world leader in science and maths in international comparative tests - are achieved without the targets and national tests so common in England.

"Kaisu" or fear of failure is the main motivating force, and tends to push children to work long hours in and out of school, and often topped up with crammer courses.

Yet despite its success in international league tables, Singapore is trying to bring more innovation, creativity and autonomy into its schools; traditionally, they have been regarded as quite rigid and inflexible.

Since last year, the UK's Department for Education and Skills has funded 7 to 10-day overseas study visits for English heads, organised by the National College for School Leadership in partnership with the British Council. Some 520 groups of headteachers have visited schools in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Singapore and all over Europe since last year with the express aim of developing world-class leadership skills by enabling heads to observe best practice in other countries.

For Mr Thornhill, the visits were "a rare opportunity to get people together at that level over a protracted period. We do not usually get the opportunity to reflect on what we are doing."

In some cases, heads have found the visits so worthwhile that they are hosting return visits. The first group of headteachers from Finland returned in June this year.

Eeva Benttila, head of international relations in the Helsinki education department and a school principal for 20 years, says the overseas study trips have been important. "In education you can't take one system from one country to another because education is so linked to culture and the whole of life in one country," she says. "You couldn't take the Finnish system to the UK, for instance, but you begin to see more clearly your own task in society."

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