There are many schemes that enable FE staff to gain experience abroad and keep abreast of intgernational developments, writes Martin Whittaker
There are valuable lessons to be learnt from abroad. A recent survey by Ofsted examined vocational education and training for 14 to 19-year-olds in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia. It found that such courses there are held in higher esteem. Staying-on rates beyond the end of compulsory education are higher too than they are in England and Wales.
Vocational teachers in these three countries have their experience regularly updated by placements in industry. It's high time we looked at what opportunities exist for FE staff in the UK to work or gain experience abroad, say the inspectors. Shadowing overseas colleagues is an ideal way to see good practice and other countries' systems at work first-hand.
According to Judith Hemery, director of the British Council's schools and teachers division, there is a huge range of such opportunities available.
But she says many staff working in FE don't take them up because of a basic lack of communication or the work pressures that exist in colleges.
"There are a number of reasons. Firstly, in very large institutions it's often difficult for all staff to receive the message," explains Ms Hemery.
"In the adult education sector, you will have people who are part-timers or with other responsibilities, which makes it more difficult finding someone to cover."
The British Council runs European Union-funded schemes under the Socrates education programme, offering grants for work placements and training abroad. One of these is Comenius, a scheme that supports partnerships and European in-service training for staff in schools and FE colleges.
Another scheme, named after the19th-century Danish theologian Nikolai Grundtvig, a contemporary of Kierkegaard, is helping teachers to broaden their horizons in adult education. "It's one of the best-kept secrets in further education," says John Perry, European and community funding manager at Lancaster and Morecambe college in Lancashire.
The Grundtvig scheme has helped Mr Perry's college forge links with adult education and lifelong learning organisations in Italy, Sweden, Bulgaria and Austria. And it paid for Mr Perry to attend a training course in Estonia with staff from other European nations. The participants have since collaborated on a project to write web-based training materials for adult education tutors.
Mr Perry says the Grundtvig initiative has added an international dimension to professional development at Lancaster and Morecambe. Last year, 11 staff went overseas for work experience or to attend European conferences.
"One of the first things you realise is that you're not alone in experiencing problems," says Mr Perry. "You think something is peculiar to either your institution or your country, then you suddenly realise that other people right across Europe are facing the same problems of disaffected young men, long-term unemployment and women returners to work and education.
"It's interesting to see the way they are tackling it, and there are all sorts of spin-offs from it. You inevitably start talking about other things, and you're meeting people from your own profession with a different cultural background."
Colleagues who have embarked on similar exchange programmes include a head of basic skills at Sheffield college who went to the Netherlands to build and share good practice in teaching adults with second language needs, including refugees and asylum seekers. A tutor from West Lothian college in Livingston, Scotland, went on a course in Iceland and says his college is now better informed of lifelong learning strategies. And the scheme enabled an adult education tutor from Norfolk to refresh her language teaching skills on a course in Paris. "I have been able to amend and improve my teaching methods and use a broader range of materials," she says.
Last year more than 3,000 tutors and students took part in foreign placements under the Leonardo da Vinci programme. Elsewhere, a work-based training scheme called Training Bridge funds visits and exchanges for staff and students to German companies. The British Council also administers a programme of subsidised foreign study visits for staff in FE, backed by the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training.
British and American schools overseas provide a huge jobs market for qualified schoolteachers. But what of jobs abroad for FE teaching staff? Many overseas schools are privately run and the criteria for selection of teaching staff is in the hands of each individual school.
"Any decent private school will need to see that their staff are properly qualified," says a spokesman for the European Council for International Schools.
International schools have very high rates of students staying on to go to university and there is no parallel international network of FE institutions. Some colleges in the Middle East advertise for international teaching staff, particularly for people with vocational subjects, but they often look for people with postgraduate degrees.
A few colleges running the International Baccalaureate (IB) in Britain offer the potential for overseas employment or exchanges. The IB has mostly been the preserve of independent schools, but FE colleges are increasingly offering it as an alternative to AS and A-levels.
Teachers at Swansea college benefit from a growing network of colleagues from around the world, thanks to international in-service training placements. Sue Phillips, Swansea's IB co-ordinator, recently attended a meeting in Dresden, Germany, where she rubbed shoulders with co-ordinators from Africa, the United States and other European countries. "It's a wonderful networking opportunity because we can email each other," says Ms Phillips. "We can run ideas by each other and share best practice or problems."
Those staff teaching the IB at Swansea tend to be more experienced staff with qualified teacher status.
"I frequently get teachers writing to see if we have any opportunities here in the college," she says. "Teaching the IB opens up the world to them.
They can work anywhere "
FE Focus inside main TES
For more information about FE opportunities overseas, see www.britishcouncil.orgeducationvet