Freedom of Aussie rules

16th December 2005 at 00:00
A year back in British schools has persuaded teacher emigrees to foresake targets and worksheets for a life less controlled. Stephanie Northen reports

Twenty years ago, two young teachers left Hull for the other side of the world. Last December they returned to check, once and for all, that they had been right to leave the land where the grass is greener. Graham Cattle and Susan Hanson decided to spend a year back in England. But they didn't want - and couldn't afford - a long and expensive holiday. So Graham arranged to swap jobs and homes with a teacher keen to spend time in Australia.

For the past 11 months, Graham, who works at a private boys' school in Perth, has been, metaphorically speaking, Amanda Barber, a teacher at Hamond's high in Swaffham, Norfolk.

The 49-year-old admits it was a shock going from the prestigious Guildford grammar school in wealthy Western Australia to a comprehensive in an East Anglian market town. "I knew it would be different; that was part of the motivation. It was a chance to leave the ivory tower and to come out of my comfort zone. It has been so worthwhile I would advise anyone to do it."

The couple moved into Amanda's three-bedroomed semi, which had been annotated with copious Post-it Notes and equipped with a welcoming chocolate cake and a pot of Granny's homemade jam. There were also two mentors chosen by Amanda - one professional and one social - to ease them into Norfolk life. Once there, Susan, 46, who had taken a year's unpaid leave from her Perth primary, found work at Fairstead primary in King's Lynn. She is employed as an instructor - getting registered was a headache, and getting qualified teacher status impossible.

Like Graham, Susan would "truly encourage" any teacher to seize the chance to spend a year working abroad, expanding professional horizons and enjoying the opportunity to travel. As well as a return trip to Hull, Greece and France have been on their itinerary and half term was spent in Ibiza. But, despite the enriching experiences, the couple are going back.

The reason boils down to one word: freedom.

Graham and Susan have both felt stifled; not by their schools, but by the English education system. "We have far more freedom in Australia," says Graham. "We do work to a curriculum, but it is only a framework. It has some overarching outcomes, but how we achieve them is up to us. We don't have the huge amounts of monitoring and planning."

Graham, who teaches English, says there are no prescribed texts in Australia. "Learning is more student-centred. We take the boys to the school bookshop and let them choose the books they want to study. Then they feel ownership of a text rather than having it foisted on them." Even in a traditional school like Guildford grammar, the teachers have dropped Shakespeare for the younger pupils, accepting that it just wasn't relevant to them and they didn't connect with it.

"We're pretty much left to our own devices," says Graham, at liberty to cook up beans in his classroom to give the boys a feel for the drifter life portrayed in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. He's also free to try out different approaches to engage the disaffected and excite the apathetic.

And simply to enjoy his teaching.

Susan's experience as a reception-class instructor mirrors that of her husband. She has been shocked by the demands of planning to ensure targets are hit, and by the prescriptiveness. "I've never seen so many worksheets.

They are almost banned in Perth, where teachers are told to go out and be creative."

Primary schools in Perth are influenced by Montessori and the artistic nurseries of Reggio Emilia in Italy. Even the youngest children discuss and vote on which topic they want to study. If they pick dinosaurs, then numeracy, literacy, art and science are all taught through that topic.

Susan's classroom is organised in learning centres with no individual desks. Eight-year-olds can still enjoy home corners and dressing-up boxes.

Assessment is through a portfolio of work compiled throughout the year, a personal scrapbook for each child to take home.

"It's very hands-on and creative. There is not so much of an emphasis on literacy and numeracy in terms of written work. We do a lot of speaking and listening and learning through good play." Susan says her colleagues at Fairstead are envious. "One of them says it is how she used to teach in the 1970s, but there is just so much more pressure now."

Some of the pressures Graham and Susan recognise. Workload is similar, they say, and competition between schools is as keen and controversial in Australia as it is here. Still, when it comes to deciding which country is home there is no competition. "We've laid the ghost," says Graham. "We're going back."

Graham Cattle's exchange was organised by the Australian Education Union, New South Wales and Amanda Barber's by the League for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers

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