Faith schools compare notes

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Pat McDermott Answers your questions

Our diocese has contacted us to ask if we would host a group of Catholic headteachers from Australia. Principals there are given support for an extended period of professional experience every seven years. What would these Catholic heads be interested in investigating?

The easiest way to find this out would be to ask your diocesan director for schools for the contact details of your potential visitors. When you contact them they will tell you what's keeping them awake at night, professionally speaking, and it's always a good idea to make direct contact before such visits are organised in detail.

But before we get into what they may be interested in, wouldn't it be just great if we heads here had a similar opportunity? How about starting a campaign for sabbaticals for seventh-year heads? Anyone interested?

Leaving aside any feelings of envy, let us see where they are, educationally speaking, Down Under at the moment. My spies tell me that Australian schools are experiencing the increasing involvement of the national and federal governments in setting and driving the current educational agenda. Check this out when you make initial contact.

There are four areas where I think your knowledge will be of particular interest: lContemporary issues facing Catholic schools lAccountability lLeading educational change lMeasuring and evaluating pupil progress There may well be others, such as whether or not Australian wines travel that well, but let's leave that for the "cultural" exchanges in your local watering hole.

They will be interested in comparing the value your school has as a Catholic school in your diocese with theirs.

What part does your school and theirs play in any diocesan plans for (re)evangelisation and catechesis? How are you and they addressing the changing role of the Catholic school in relation to the contraction of the Catholic Church in many parts of this country and Australia?

What about the problems with succession in Catholic schools? Is this as acute for them as it is for us here? If so, what are they doing about it? What is the relationship of their Catholic schools to their state system? What would they make of recent calls here to remove state funding for faith schools? Plenty for you to go at there I would have thought.

Accountability is rife here for headteachers and their schools, as we know.

There are early symptoms of this appearing in Australia too, I believe. For example the introduction of external literacy and numeracy exams designed to track pupil progress.

You might want to share with your visitors your experiences of similar strategies here about this.

Ask them about moves in Australia to tie the funding of their schools to the publication of an annual report outlining pupil performance and improvement across a range of public examinations. How is this changing the role of the headteacher?

Leading educational change is never easy whatever the context. How are they and you exploring new and more effective ways of leading the school to improve the learning outcomes of the pupils?

What systems do you and they have in place for analysing pupil performance, measuring learning outcomes and driving up standards? What improvements have been made to pedagogy? What use has been made of new technologies for education and the latest knowledge about how pupils learn? Exploration of these areas would be a useful piece of comparative research leading to rich benefits for your school and the wider Catholic community here. Discuss it with your guests before they travel and see if you can set up a series of visits to some of your partner schools.

You never know, you may be invited to visit their schools and if our campaign for Sabbaticals for Heads catches on and is successful you may find yourself going to Australia with sponsorship from the DfES innovations unit. Meanwhile, put the Australian Semillon Chardonnay on ice...

Patrick McDermott is head of St Joseph's Catholic college, an 11-18 girls school, in Bradford. This is his third headship; he has been a head for 12 years and a teacher for 27. He is a facilitator for the National College for School Leadership and mentored Catholic heads for 10 years.The TES welcomes your queries, but please keep requests for private replies to a minimum. Questions should be sent to The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX; fax 020 7782 3202. Or email

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