Just 3 per cent of UK heads have been on an international placement, yet studies show it has a profound impact on leadership. Yojana Sharma reports
I t was one of the most significant opportunities one could have to develop leadership skills while broadening one's personal and professional horizons," said Wendy Downey, head of Barley's Court primary, in Bristol, after a visit to Melbourne, Australia. Other heads have described it as a "life-changing experience".
They are referring to the week-long international placements for headteachers, funded by the National College for School Leadership and run in partnership with the British Council.
"The international perspective is very significant to the professional development of leaders and to the quality of learning within schools," says Meg Maunder, NCSL assistant director. However, she stressed, "we have to be sure the learning that took place on the visit not only benefits the head but has an impact on the pupils".
Since 2003, 970 headteachers have participated in study visits to 30 different countries. "The impact has been profound," says Pam Matty, head of Grove school, in Birmingham, who has carried out a study on the scheme.* Until recently, the impact on schools and pupil learning has been less easy to quantify.
Using NCSL survey data** and her own questionnaires sent out to headteachers, Ms Matty found the overwhelming majority - 94 per cent - believed that their leadership skills and knowledge had been increased by going on a study visit. Between 82 and 95 per cent said they had developed professionally, with 82 per cent adopting different approaches to learning in their schools afterwards. In addition, 80 per cent said it inspired improvements in the school culture or ethos, while two-thirds said it led to improved learning of pupils in school.
Some heads said it significantly raised expectations of pupils and, in particular, an increased awareness of the importance of better and more language teaching. However, these are preliminary findings. Headteachers are also reporting knock-on effects on staff motivation and retention as findings were transmitted to their leadership teams.
But less than 3 per cent of heads have participated in such visits to date.
"One of the challenges for the future is how to extend this global experience to a larger numbers of school leaders," Ms Matty says.
Jean Lebrecht of the British Council said more was being done to help disseminate the experiences. Some headteachers come back and talk to groups of heads in the area, she says. Elsewhere, such as south Gloucestershire, networks of heads help "multiply" the effect of their visits by talking to other heads, but this in no way replaces "seeing for oneself".
Ms Matty collated specific data from field trips to schools in Hamburg, Germany, and Toronto, Canada, to illustrate the impact on schools of a headteacher's visit. After the visit to Hamburg, heads were able to use the experience to rethink the delivery of the 14-19 curriculum in their schools.
Peter Lang, head of Uxbridge high school, in Middlesex, visited the specialist vocational school Staatliche Gewerbeschule Energietechnik, in Hamburg. He said he was more able to present the vocational option as a positive choice in his own school, a 1,200-pupil technology college which serves areas close to Heathrow Airport. "I came back from Hamburg more convinced of the need for vocational education," he says. "Even in a world of IT, skilled tradespeople will always be needed. While in this country vocational qualifications such as vocational GCSEs exist, they do not actually provide work and training opportunities."
Brian Houghton, head of Vyners school, in Ickenham, Middlesex, who was on the same trip, was impressed by how German pupils had mapped out a particular vocational pathway and followed it through.
Both heads held discussions with the local education authority on how best to organise post-16 vocational provision to avoid overlap and provide maximum choices for those not keen on the academic route.
"I was very impressed with the planning of the Hamburg vocational system,"
Mr Lang says. "At the local education level there was no duplication of places between schools, and that meant good quality, specialised vocational education could be provided."
However, Gunter Parey, head of Staatliche Gewerbeschule Energietechnik, warned that the vocational system was entering a period of challenge.
Because training lasts four or more years, "the system depends on those sponsoring companies and those jobs being available. Globalisation is causing some anxiety for vocational students".
Even so, Brian Houghton believes some vocational ideas from Germany can be grafted on the specialist schools system here. Before going to Hamburg, he regarded the problem of 14 to 19 education as a massive one. "After the visit, I began to see what I might do in my school and local area."
*A flight Away, an HTI Trust think-piece, by Pam Matty (HTI Trust) 2005 **IPH for Impact, International Placements for Headteachers Evaluation Conference 2005, published by the National College for School Leadership (November 2005). Available at www.britishcouncil.orgiph