An exchange will do you good

26th April 2013 at 01:00
Two headteachers - one in Aberdeen, the other in Adelaide - decided to swap schools and jobs temporarily to learn how the other operates. Their experiences could well shape the rest of their careers

Their senior students have been taking part in exchanges between Scotland and Australia for several years - then last year the two headteachers decided it was their turn.

Aberdeen headteacher Hugh Ouston became visiting head at Scotch College in Adelaide for 10 weeks and principal Tim Oughton came from Australia to be visiting head at Robert Gordon's College in Scotland.

Both men say the experience has been a professional highlight and they are introducing changes at home as a result of what they have learned.

"This really stretched the boundaries. I think as a professional learning journey it was the best thing I have ever done," says Mr Oughton, now back in Adelaide. "I spent years at universities training teachers and I didn't get the stimulus as much as I got from this," he says from his home in the school grounds.

"Walking in someone else's shoes is the most refreshing and invigorating thing you can do. You've got everything to gain and nothing to lose. They don't have to listen to you at all if they don't want to, but you bring a different perspective in and if you can get the trust early, there's so much sharing."

Mr Ouston echoes his enthusiasm: "Both of us felt that it was by far the most intense, enjoyable and interesting, hard-working and beneficial personal and professional development that we have ever had."

The two men had known each other professionally for several years and had visited each other's schools. Both held demanding jobs at respected independent schools that shared similar ideals, and both had taught in state schools. They liked and trusted each other, which was vital for the success of the unusual initiative they embarked on with the support of their school governors.

They also planned the exchange in detail - they met their new colleagues the year before, guided each other on what to look out for and held debrief sessions afterwards.

"I left my door open most of the time - or Hugh's door - and I would have regular traffic through, people coming in and just chewing the fat and saying, `Well how do you do it there?'" Mr Oughton says. "Look, it was fantastic - if I had my time again, I'd do it again."

Even the washout Scottish weather didn't dampen his enthusiasm: "To be honest, I didn't notice it," he says. "When the people are so warm, you don't notice the climate."

Maybe he got home just in time - heavy clouds are gathering above Aberdeen this morning, as Mr Ouston serves coffee in his office and reflects on his job swap. His background is teaching history and he's now in his ninth year at Robert Gordon's College, which he joined from George Watson's in Edinburgh, where he was deputy head.

"Robert Gordon's College is a city-centre, coeducational day school with a strong academic record," Mr Ouston says. "It also has a strong record in extra-curricular activities and I think the thing that it has in common with Scotch College in Adelaide is that both schools believe very strongly in educating the whole child."

Set in nearly 50 acres, Scotch College was the first agricultural school in South Australia and includes a working farm, shearing shed, vineyard and orchard. It's a coeducational, independent school with a 950-strong roll, slightly smaller than Robert Gordon's College. Unlike Gordon's, it takes boarders and has more than 100 children living on campus. It also has its own pipe band.

"We have a pretty holistic educational offering, where we focus on giving the children as many opportunities as possible, particularly in the outdoors," says Mr Oughton, a former head of Wellington School in his native New Zealand.

As well as extensive grounds, Scotch College has an island that children can sail to and camp on. "They also have a farm on the campus with a vineyard and they have another farm and a eucalyptus forest on another island about 100 miles from Adelaide," says Mr Ouston, who began his visiting headship there in early July, at the start of the third term.

A third of Australian children go to government-subsidised independent schools and there are more than 100 independent schools serving Adelaide's 1.1 million population. With its attractive setting, the Australian school is popular with children and teachers, according to its principal.

"It's strongly academic. We get good results regularly and we get about 90 per cent of our kids playing team sports on Saturday, so it's a very active school. If I advertise a position, I get a lot of interest every time - I have 60 applicants and most of our children, if not all, love being here," Mr Oughton says.

Despite the miles between them, the children at these schools have plenty in common: "Very similar - equally ambitious, equally articulate," Mr Ouston adds.

"I think probably if there was a difference, it would be that they were slightly more forward, I suppose you would say - in a rather attractive, Australian sort of way. And also just perhaps a little bit more laid back, in the sense that the whole lifestyle and physical environment is very pleasant."

Mr Oughton's wife, Heather, is an early-years teacher and taught every morning in the junior school at Robert Gordon's College. "They looked after us well and they valued a different perspective," she says.

"I was basically an eye in the sky for them and they wanted me to come and make some suggestions about what could be improved or what's different, and so I did," Mr Oughton adds.

"I thought the (Scottish) students were incredibly open and enquiring and they accepted me readily. I had no trouble striking up conversations with them - I found them remarkably similar to our kids."

The two school leaders were fascinated to discover practical and organisational differences in the way their two schools were run - and thought some ideas were worth importing.

"There were one or two big differences. The main one is that they have a middle school, which is a very strange thing that all Australian schools have," Mr Ouston says. "I could see the idea behind the middle school, but I wasn't really convinced of its benefits.

"Another difference, which I liked a lot and I am hoping to introduce as soon as I can back here (in Scotland), was the fact that all the children had their own personal ICT devices - they all had Apple laptops in the senior school. They have had this for about six years and it was absolutely normal. There wasn't any fuss made about the whole thing - it was simply a tool they had which they used for learning, which they did in the most natural possible way."

Since his return, a digital strategy group has been set up at Robert Gordon's College to investigate developing a similar system.

Mr Oughton noticed a different attitude towards using technology in Scottish classrooms. "I understand in Scotland the restrictions placed by local authorities and all that sort of thing, but I found it really strange that I couldn't Skype home from school and things like that. There was a lot of restriction, particularly with the internet, rather than opening up.

"I'm not blaming anybody - it's just where they were at and I found that similar in a lot of schools," he says. "I had a lot of complaints from teachers. It wasn't a lack of willingness on their part - it was just a lack of capability and everybody seemed to be so afraid of security and so on, whereas I could assure them that in 20 years we hadn't had to exit one student for abuse of the internet and we'd been doing it for so long."

What particularly impressed the Australian head at Robert Gordon's College was the intensity of children's motivation to achieve, particularly younger children. He also admired the collaborative cross-curricular working and shared practice among teachers at all levels of Robert Gordon's. And he liked the way student achievement data were tracked and has taken home some software to use at his own school.

"Children were getting feedback on a regular basis about whether they were on target, above target or below target and I really liked that and I thought that was effective," he says.

"I thought there were many guidance systems they were operating that were very good. A lot of student issues were being dealt with at the right level, rather than referring on to psychologists and things like that - I thought they handled that very well."

And his extra-curricular highlight? A trip to the Hebrides.


Robert Gordon's College is believed to be the first independent school in Britain to have taken part in an international headteacher exchange.

"I checked and in the whole of the HMC (Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference), nobody had ever done this before," says headteacher Hugh Ouston.

"People had visited other schools - you do learn from visiting other schools - but there's always an element of seeing the school's best side, whereas this way you got to know the school from the inside out.

"It was absolutely fascinating, because when you're running a school, every single thing in the other school is interesting," he says.

During his stay, the Scottish headteacher played a full part in school life.

"I said what I thought about things, because it was quite clear I was there as a visiting head, which gave me clear status in that I couldn't make any decisions about anything, but I had carte blanche to be involved in whatever processes were going on and that's a very good position to be in - and it was the way in which I think I got the most out of it."

He has adopted some ideas already since his return: "The way their management team had a fortnightly whole-school meeting, which I have now introduced back here again - that's a fairly big thing, but simple to introduce.

"The way they chose their prefects was very interesting and I am hoping to review that over here.

"They had a series of interviews and hustings and they involved the previous year's students in the choice of next year's students."

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