Re-ignite the flame

17th August 2001 at 01:00
The drive to improve standards is a global thing and in Brazil they do it through training to inspire the teachers, says Kathryn Riley

ON a recent visit to Brazil, I met Anna Louisa, a teacher from Rio de Janeiro, teaching in conditions of considerable poverty and social upheaval.

Anna Louisa told me that she had just completed a training programme which had improved her skills and confidence in herself as a teacher, and made her determined to go back to her school and say to her students: "Believe in yourself. Hold on to your dreams. Don't give up." Anna Louisa's source of inspiration was a training programme run under the umbrella of the Universidade do Professor - a virtual university, set up by the government of Parana, Brazil.

Parana state has set itself the goal of raising standards in schools - a goal shared by many other governments, including our own. Most of the reforms introduced to achieve that goal will have similar ingredients - new curricula or the development of teacher education programmes. What differs, however, is the way in which governments go about introducing reforms, and the levers they select to kick-start, or steer the reform process.

There are many possible levers - standardised testing (the United States); the development of external audit and inspection procedures and the introduction of accountability mechanisms (the UK); the expansion of large-scale teacher development programmes (Uganda); the involvement of parents and communities (Columbia's escuela nueva programme); the creation of school-based school improvement projects (Guinea).

Parana's approach has been to focus on people. The government has invested heavily in a capacity building programme which aims to reach all educators, not just teachers, and to encourage the development of leadership skills throughout the education system. In a country where education resources are far less than our own, teachers are entitled to a minimum of 40 hours per year of training and directors (headteachers) are entitled to 80. Staff are released from their day-to-day responsibilities and all costs are covered by the state.

The heart of the Universidade do Professor is Faxinal do Ceu, a village in central Parana with a rich and creative learning environment, and the'brain child' of the current state governor. (The Universidade do Professor also has other sites, as well as a strong distance learning element.) Communal lectures are held in the Rousseau building. Images of poets and artists are festooned on walls. Course members (from Parana and other parts of Brazil) are encouraged to develop their love and knowledge of music, art, literature, the theatre, as well as their teaching, technology or management skills. Some of Brazil's leading artists, musicians, historians and writers contribute to Faxinal's Foundation Courses.

Teachers I spoke to at Faxinal described the ways in which the Faxinal experience had "opened their minds" to new ideas, enabled them "to see Brazil in a global context", helped them feel more confident in themselves and enabled them to recognise their own abilities. They had become re-engaged in the joy of learning in ways that had reinforced their belief in the transforming powers of education.

Although Parana has a long way to go to achieve its long-term goals, it has made major gains from this capacity building (people investment) approach - a view shared by Jim Rose (ex Ofsted) and Mike Watts (from Roehampton) who were with me in Parana. Firstly, the state government has been able to offer teachers a range of professionally-rewarding experiences. Secondly, it has been able to demonstrate to them that teachers' professional judgments are valued, and finally, it has begun to create a common language in Parana to talk about education issues.

In the wake of the election of a New Labour government, we need to take stock of how our Government has gone about the business of education reform.

In his last days as Education Secretary, David Blunkett expressed his regret that he had not won over teachers. If Estelle Morris is to inspire and enthuse them, she needs to adopt an approach to reform which re-ignites teachers' love of learning, and their belief in themselves as contributors to the process of change and improvement, and not (as Caroline St John Brooks commented in The TES (June 15) as obstacles to it.

If Parana can provide teachers with an annual entitlement to learning, then why can't we? If Israel can offer a regular programme of sabbaticals to teachers, then why can't we?

Let's hear Estelle and her team talking about how to inspire a love of learning in children. Let's hear about their ambitions to improve children's capacity to read, not just to improve key stage results, but to give them access to the worlds of literature, art and music; the ability to question truths and the desire to discover new horizons. Then, the endless, the boundless, the infinite begin to appear possible - not just for Anna Louisa and her pupils in Brazil, but for our children too.

Professor Kathryn Riley is director of the centre for educational management at the University of Surrey, Roehampton.

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