Life in Aussie colleges rules

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
Four-day week? No worries, mate. Joe Clancy on a north London lecturer's laid-back year down under

Steve Smith achieved a boyhood ambition when he added a new qualification to his name. He is now the proud holder of Surf Life Saving Australia's Bronze Medallion, enabling him to work as a lifeguard Down Under.

The City and Islington College manager turned dream into reality when he arranged to swap job and home with a counterpart at North Sydney College, for a year.

Weekly life-saving training once a week after college would see him first stop off to collect his board and buoyancy aid from his counterpart's spacious detached home in a smart Sydney suburb. It has three bathrooms and an outdoor swimming pool.

He switched from being curriculum manager of the school of business, computing, and IT at City and Islington, where he has been for 23 years, to head teacher of accounting and finance in North Sydney, taking his wife and three teenage daughters with him.

Now back in North London, he can reflect on a completely different working environment: with no classroom observations, no inspections, and no self-assessment and achievement reviews. Also, all teachers at Sydney college work a four-day week. The pace of life in short is more laid-back.

Though this makes for an easier life, he said the Sydney system has its drawbacks. He added: "It is hard to help teachers to improve or get rid of bad teachers. Without classroom observation it is difficult to identify teachers that need support and guidance. There is less opportunity for good teachers to share good practice. I tried to introduce that there by holding team meetings at which teaching styles were discussed. They were welcomed by the staff.

"What Australian colleges can learn from UK colleges is the focus on teamwork and internal quality assurance." But, despite the lack of monitoring, achievement and retention rates in the accounting department he headed were 80 to 90 per cent.

And he discovered methods that he will try to introduce at City and Islington, for example the Australian way of recruitment and the course structure. He said: "In Sydney you recruit to a pool, and any one of four neighbouring colleges offering accountancy can draw on that. Here we all do our own thing, with our own staff and websites. We don't even talk to neighbouring colleges with regards to sharing staff."

He also found that students in Sydney have greater flexibility. "What I liked about it was that students enrol themselves for modules and put their own timetable together for their individual needs. It was a really flexible approach where they mix and match modules instead of being put on a course.

That could not work here because our funding systems don't allow it."

He said the job exchange took him 18 months to set up, and he organised it with the assistance of the League for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers.

The seed was sown for the trip when he mentored a teacher over from the Sydney college on a previous exchange visit in 1999. "The first thing to do when considering an exchange is to find someone to swap your job and home with. LECT does this for most people, but through the teacher I mentored I was able to fix up my own exchange.

"The college took a bit of a risk in agreeing to the exchange, as they needed to be confident my replacement could manage our way of working. I think our system is much more dynamic. We face much more change and we deal with that change as part of our culture. The Australian system is very bureaucratic and people coming out of that system are probably less flexible."

Though the exchange worked very well for him, he is not so sure that the manager who took his job enjoyed it as much. He explained: "On exchanges you take your salary with you. In Australia salaries are lower, around pound;25,000 for a head teacher, and so is the cost of living. He found it difficult coping with London prices."

"Also the work load is a lot greater here. He found the working day a lot longer and of course he had to work a five-day week. He hated crowds and he refused to travel on the Underground, which he called the underworld.

"He was well liked here, although he didn't do everything that was expected of him. I hope he enjoyed his time here. He made great use of low-cost airlines to travel around Europe."

How the two families coped on the exchange was featured on the Channel Four daytime television programme, Home From Home.

So does Steve see himself returning to watch over the Christmas Day crowds on Bondi Beach on a more permanent basis? He answered: "I loved every minute of it, but I don't mind a bit of stress and I am quite happy to be part of the bump and grind of working in London."

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