Make the connections

10th May 1996 at 01:00
Past and present Harkness Fellows David Bell and Matt Dunkley (below) celebrate their years in America

I am not sure yet whether it will be the big things or the little things that will stick in my memory when Harkness Fellowship year in the United States is over in August.

Will it be my car insurance company agent, who gave me a lift in a shrine to Elvis Presley which passed as her car (number plate "ELVISLIVES") and who asked me what language was spoken in England? Or will it be my neighbour who takes his 4'6" giant lizard for a walk on a leash every day? Or rather will it be the memory of some of the truly wonderful early-years education I have seen here, together with the not so wonderful, which I have also seen? The answer is probably a collage of all of these. What seems certain is that the year will live up to its reputation as a "life-changing experience".

The journey that brought me and my family to the San Francisco Bay area of California began 18 months ago when, with the encouragement of my county education officer, I applied for a Harkness Fellowship. I felt that in terms of the timing for my career and my family it was "now or never". The Fellowship had not had a high profile within education, but an average of one fellow per year (out of 15) had pursued an education-related project.

My proposal was to look at the management, funding and quality of pre-school education and care and its relationship to statutory education. Fortunately this project coincided with a number of the Fellowship themes - on families and children, child development, school readiness and the organisation of education - as well as being a "hot" political issue on both sides of the Atlantic.

Fellows who have families are encouraged and supported financially and pastorally by the programme. I came with my wife and three-year-old daughter, who have been full and active participants in my Fellowship. My wife is an education authority adviser and certified inspector, also with East Sussex. We were fortunate to work for the same employer who was generous enough to allow us both to take unpaid leave for a year, in spite of impending local government reorganisation.

It has also been a great asset to my fellowship to have my wife's professional input. She has used the year to do her research, supported by our LEA, into early literacy and school reform and improvement initiatives in the US. This has meant we have been able on occasion to work together, visit schools together and share impressions. It also provided one of the most amusing moments of the year when we visited an elementary school in Berkeley. A 10-year-old student asked my wife what her job was in England, and on being told she was a school inspector turned to me and asked "So, are you a School Suspector too?". Using the "out of the mouths of babes" principle, we intend to suggest to Chris Woodhead that he change his job title to Chief Suspector of Schools!

Fellows are encouraged, nay, required to travel extensively to do their research. So far I have been able to cover much of California and to go to Arizona, Florida, New York, Washington DC, Maryland and Washington State to visit pre-school services, schools, school districts and state education departments. I have also met education professionals from many other states at conferences. Although my visits have focused on my project, I have tried to make it a two-way exchange by giving talks or leading discussions about aspects of the English system for my American hosts.

The effect of this experience is difficult to quantify eight months into it, save knowing that it will be considerable. The process of constantly comparing and "translating" between the English and American systems has made me look at both in new ways. An interesting result has been a sense that I have learnt as much about what I think and feel about the English education system as I have about the American. One overriding feeling has been of renewed respect, verging on awe, for the incredible amount of change achieved by schools in England and Wales over the past eight years. Seeing how much more slowly educational reform proceeds in the US, I realise most American teachers cannot begin to comprehend what their English and Welsh counterparts have been through since 1988.

There are many other benefits associated with the Harkness experience. The luxury of having time to think, read and reflect away from the day-to-day demands of my job cannot be overestimated. Coming from a profession as inward looking as education can sometimes be, I have relished the opportunities for collaborative working with other fellows.

I am currently engaged in a project with a health service manager, an urban regeneration policy adviser, a geography lecturer, a lawyer and a furniture designer. Together we are looking at four US cities to see if we can work out what makes cities attractive and successful. We are able to share our different professional perspectives, challenge our own and others' assumptions, make the connections and place our own part of the jigsaw in the larger picture. Which constitutes a reasonable summary of what the Harkness Fellowships are all about.

Perhaps the best comment on my fellowship year came when one of my American hosts, a school superintendent, introduced me to a group of her colleagues as follows. "This is Matt. He's a Harkness Fellow, which means he gets to travel around the United States, far more extensively than we have ever done, learning from our mistakes and copying our successes". Amen to that, I say.

Matt Dunkley is education officer (primary) for East Sussex. He is a 1995-96 Harkness Fellow, based at the University of California at Berkeley


The Harkness programme encourages opinion formers and professional leaders to benefit from new ideas, practices and contacts in the USA with a view to enhancing UK developments.

Fellowships are offered for study, practical experience and travel in the United States for seven to 12 months starting in August 1997.

Benefits include: travel to and from the United States for a Fellow, and family. Living allowance: $2,150 (Pounds 1,430) per month for up to 12 months, plus family allowances, US travel allowance, allowances for setting-up and for books and equipment, and health insurance. Allowances adjusted where paid leave is possible.

Applications Details from: Harkness Fellowships, 28 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3EG, accompanied by a 10" by 7" SAE, with a 36p stamp. Closing date October 16, 1996.

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