Trip north of the border drove key lessons home

23rd November 2012 at 00:00
Edinburgh's forum for European school leaders gave vital pointers on the road to school improvement

On the long Sunday drive from West Yorkshire to Edinburgh at the end of October, I spent much of my time wondering what my first European School Heads Association (ESHA) conference would bring. I was in optimistic mode.

This was my second visit to Scotland in recent months, following a valuable fact-finding trip hosted by Greg Dempster, general secretary of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland. My earlier mission in May was to look in detail at the inspection process and work that had gone into developing the 3-18 curriculum through discussions with school leaders and representatives from Education Scotland.

One of the joys of being the president of the NAHT heads' union is being on the road, learning from others and expanding my own knowledge, which I can share with colleagues as I travel around the UK. I was also looking forward to hearing views of European colleagues on the Scottish models, and how other countries approach raising standards and manage the accountability agenda and the crucial teaching and learning agenda.

In England, in many ways, we have much to learn and reflect on from educational systems close to home and further afield - but perhaps more about breaking the shackles of what is essentially a top-down approach to education driven by central government and Ofsted. Of course one of the inherent dangers of hearing about the apparent success of systems elsewhere is that they can be cherry-picked - a failing of the politicians' approach in England. Context is often so critical, but frequently ignored.

And so to ESHA 2012. I was not disappointed. It was clear from the outset that the Scottish organising committee had got it right - the venues, the hosting and the balance of workshops and keynote speakers were first class. There was also plenty of time to explore Edinburgh and discuss educational issues with school leaders from across Europe and beyond in more informal surroundings, which is so important.

Early in the conference, I spent some time thinking that perhaps many English colleagues had missed a trick, me included. Are we too insular? Island mentality perhaps? Descriptions of exciting projects - with memorable names such as EPNoSL and LLWings - which are already having an impact in some countries were really stimulating. I enjoyed the presentations by colleagues from Croatia, Belgium and Spain who were bidding to hold the 2014 conference, and hearing more about the role and status of their school leaders. Croatia's sounded as if they would really benefit from the opportunity to host a Europe-wide conference and to celebrate their education system.

Hearing inspirational speakers is always uplifting, but sometimes by the time you return to your own school and community the daily challenges take over so quickly and the inspiration fades. I always try to find something, no matter how small, to take away with me that will benefit both my own pupils and those in other schools.

I was looking forward to hearing Tony Finn, chief executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, as this is an area of considerable concern south of the border. As I understand it, Tony is responsible for the management of GTCS and its strategic direction, while promoting high-quality professionalism in teaching in the drive for high standards. I like the sound of this. His presentation was certainly interesting, with strong references to the importance of continuing to raise the profile of the profession while driving hard for the positive outcomes for all children, regardless of their ability.

He was well received and, talking to a few Scottish colleagues afterwards, the general response seemed to endorse what he had said. Having a GTC - and a government which appears to promote the profession in a positive manner in the public domain - is something that in England we seem to have missed. The constant stream of negative press from ministers and Ofsted does without a doubt have an impact on morale which is currently at a particularly low ebb.

Other keynotes inspired in different ways, although I was particularly impressed by Frank Dick's presentation on motivation and use of his own sports-based experience, with video clips of sportspeople we all knew and a focus on personals goals and teamwork. Some of his thinking, including the story of the great athlete Cathy Freeman who showed determination against the odds in her fight for the Aborigines' cause, has already found its way into my repertoire.

Conversations followed over the next few days, particularly around the Scottish approach to school inspection and the strong links with school improvement. This is sadly lacking south of the border. It seems clear to me that there is challenge in Scotland, lots of it, but also a sense of the inspectorate and local authorities working with school leaders to improve learning opportunities and outcomes.

David Cameron (the real one) was. as ever. quick to highlight the negative aspects of the flawed English regime and asked how we have let it go as far as it has, with its punitive inspection regime and top-down approach to education - a question also asked on several occasions by colleagues from Scandinavia. I sensed a nervousness that what happens in England could spread abroad. I hope not.

As I travelled home, it was with a sense of much to learn from Scotland - a curriculum developed in partnership by the profession and educational experts, and an inspection system that really does appear to focus on development and raising standards. It was a great experience.

Steve Iredale is president of the National Association of Headteachers in England.

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