Putting the spice back into teaching
One of the first things Ana Dominguez noticed when she walked into Warwickshire College was how few students there were in each classroom. As a teacher in Veracruz, a state bordering the Gulf of Mexico, she is used to coping with classes of more than 50.
Ms Dominguez is one of 10 Mexican teachers who have been at the college's Leamington Spa campus since April as part of a pound;25 million deal between the Veracruz government, two British colleges and a UK educational equipment supplier.
Cambridge-based Darwin Instruments sold smartboards and related equipment to schools and colleges in Veracruz, and is ensuring that the Mexican staff gain the necessary skills to use them by spending 12 weeks at UK colleges.
Twenty Mexican teachers are based at Bradford or Warwickshire colleges, both centres of vocational excellence. During their visit, they are joining teacher-training courses and preparing work schemes to take back to Mexico.
The large classes in Mexico, where Ms Dominguez teaches information technology, are down to a shortage of accommodation rather than teachers. Her colleague Manuel Contreras, who teaches English and psychology, says: "It's hard to give a personalised education."
The teachers, who work in post-16 institutes in Veracruz, have noticed similarities between Mexico and the UK, such as the problem of trying to engage disgruntled 17-year-olds. "Teenagers don't focus on the class all the time," says Ms Dominguez.
They acknowledge that Britain is way ahead on teacher training. In Mexico, staff receive a basic induction but have only to demonstrate they are qualified in their specialism.
Since 2001, all newly-appointed FE lecturers in the UK must hold or gain a teaching qualification based on standards set by the Further Education National Training Organisation.
Gabriela Valencia, another English teacher, believes the extra training and development means UK staff are more likely to set clear objectives for lessons. "Planning is taken much more seriously here," she says. "My students don't ask me about objectives and sometimes I forget."
The Association of Colleges approached Bradford and Warwickshire because of their training expertise and cites the UK's growing reputation for training lecturers using Fento standards as crucial to the deal.
"There was a lot of competition from other countries to sell the equipment," says Jo Clough, the AoC's international director, but she says the association wanted teacher training "as part of the package".
The deal is being seen as a model for UK colleges hoping to generate business overseas. "It's a classic example of how colleges can give added value to industry," she says.
Graham Snape, international manager at Warwickshire, says the Mexicans were surprised by the range of programmes at the college, which is a centre of vocational excellence in engineering.
The college offers support structures unavailable in Mexico. "We want to give them the confidence to run practical classes," he says.
It would be wrong to suggest that everything in UK colleges is better. Ms Dominguez noticed that computers at Warwickshire College are less advanced than at home.
But much of the investment in Veracruz has only come in the last five years after the state government identified education as a key priority.
The challenge for the Mexicans on their return will be to persuade other staff that some practices have to change. "Most of them have been using the same techniques for 25 years," says Ms Dominguez. "We will need to look at classroom management and timetables."
Teacher trainers from Bradford and Warwickshire will travel to Mexico in October to see if the new teaching methods are being successfully "cascaded" through Veracruz's education system.
Ms Valencia says the new equipment and better teaching "will be more dynamic for students". She concedes, however: "The most important thing is not the brilliant equipment. It's the way that you use it once it is there."