Take a leaf out of Canada's book

25th February 2011 at 00:00

In more than a few British novels and films, when a character has to be disposed of in a bloodless way, the simple line "and then she went to Canada!" is usually quite sufficient. From that point, we hear of this character no more. They just disappear anonymously into the blandest corner of the Commonwealth.

All this has changed in the world of school reform. Canada is now the go-to country for educational inspiration. Sir Michael Barber, once Tony Blair's education adviser, is the leading author of the McKinsey report on How the World's Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better. One of five systems that are "sustained improvers" and have gone from "great to excellent", according to the report, is the Canadian province of Ontario. Just days after that report came out, Ontario was highlighted as one of four "successful reformers" by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Ontario is congratulated for focusing on tested literacy and numeracy and for persisting when its test results reached a temporary plateau. Professor Michael Fullan is education adviser to the Ontario premier and also author of the preface to the McKinsey report. In his own books, Professor Fullan describes how the foundations for Ontario's reforms were borrowed from England's national literacy and numeracy strategy and its national performance targets under Sir Michael - which Professor Fullan evaluated. What Ontario did, he says, was reduce prescription, increase support, and persist through the results plateau, whereas, after Sir Michael left the education hot-seat in England, Mr Blair got distracted from his education agenda and "lost the plot" due to international events. So perhaps England should look to Ontario for inspiration.

Not so fast! Education secretary Michael Gove has been quick to point out that under Labour's strategy, England's scores in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tumbled down to a miserable 24th in reading literacy. We could learn more from another part of Canada, he says - Alberta.

Unlike liberal Ontario, Alberta has had 39 years of conservative government. In the early 1980s, the city of Edmonton pioneered school-based management - one of the inspirations for local management of schools in the Thatcher years. Alberta experimented with charter schools (though barely a handful took root) and it scores better than Ontario on Pisa. So should we abandon Ontario and hitch our wagons to Alberta instead?

But there are a couple of reasons to be cautious. I recently led a team to evaluate the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement: a decade-long, $80 million (#163;50 million) per year programme, developed by the teachers' union and the government to support school-designed innovations in more than 90 per cent of the province's schools. Freedom for schools has been matched with strong support and networking. Innovation has been unleashed. Teachers have been galvanised. Schools everywhere are improving.

Alberta isn't driven by government targets and doesn't focus so tightly on literacy and numeracy. In many ways, it's the opposite of Ontario. While Alberta may not be liberal or New Labour, it's clearly not the market-driven system that Mr Gove makes out. With strong unions, financial support and classroom innovation, Alberta has other messages for us.

Then there's a second issue. Ontario and Alberta aren't the only high-performing Canadian provinces in Pisa. On reading literacy, Alberta leads, followed by Ontario and British Columbia. On numeracy, Quebec leads. Some differences between provinces are tiny - barely a percentage point or so. Yet the strategies are very different. Superior Pisa performance seems to have something to do with Canada as a whole. So what is it?

Canada has some striking commonalities with Finland, the only non-Asian performer above it in the Pisa rankings. Both countries value teaching and insist on a professional programme of university-based training for all state school teachers. There are no Teach First or other programmes to bring people with minimal training into the profession. Working conditions are supportive with good facilities, pay, professional development, and discretion for teachers to make their own judgments. Both countries have a strong commitment to state schools and only a very modest or non-existent private sector in education. Both countries have strong systems of social welfare and public health supported by appropriate taxation levels. Lastly, both nations are characterised by deeper cultures of co-operation and inclusiveness that actually makes them more competitive internationally.

It's not this or that province's policy that makes Canada such a strong educational performer, but a social fabric that values education and teachers, welcomes and integrates immigrants, prizes the public good, and doesn't abandon the weak in its efforts to become economically stronger.

Perhaps these virtues could help people in lower-performing nations such as the UK succeed if they went to Canada and let a bit of the country's character rub off on them.

Andy Hargreaves, a British and Canadian citizen, holds the Thomas More Brennan chair in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, US.

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