Why the US wants to follow England's lead on headship

27th March 2015 at 00:00
Ofsted is the backbone of strong school leadership, report says

The US is the source of many educational fads that have arrived in England: charter schools were a precursor to our free schools, finger clicking is spreading as a means of showing appreciation in class and, of course, there is the school prom.

But a report from an influential US thinktank argues that it's time for other countries to start learning lessons from England.

The Washington D C-based Thomas B Fordham Institute believes that much can be learned by analysing the English education system, particularly when it comes to improving school leadership.

The US, the institute suggests, could benefit from looking at the National College for Teaching and Leadership, handing greater autonomy to principals and even adopting the approach of teachers' bte noire, Ofsted.

The study, Developing School Leaders: what the US can learn from England's model (bit.lyFordhamStudy), argues that the US has a "pressing" need for better and more defined leadership roles, and should look across the pond for inspiration.

The report says there is much to admire about Ofsted, and it credits the inspectorate as one of the key factors behind England's strong school leadership.

"While accountability in the US primarily centers on student test scores, the Ofsted system evaluates schools on a mix of qualitative and quantitative indicators and includes an emphasis on self-reflection that's more akin to accreditation than to the American notion of accountability," the report states. "This represents a profound shift in thinking that considers a school's inputs and practices (performance of teachers and leaders) as well as its outputs (student behavior and outcomes)."

Ian Fordham, a co-founder of London-based thinktank the Education Foundation who helped to produce the report, said Americans had long been fans of England's education system and particularly Ofsted.

"It is obviously impossible to import wholesale what we do and place it into the US, because of the federal system they have over there. But certain states, such as New York and Florida, have taken aspects of our accountability measures and used them," he said.

Mr Fordham added that it was about time the UK marketed its school system's strong points: "Education is now an import and export business and the UK has been doing a lot of importing. But there is a lot to be proud about, not least when it comes to leadership, and this should be reflected in how we export it."

The report developed from a conference held in Washington in November, which was attended by England's education secretary Nicky Morgan and potential US presidential candidate Jeb Bush. The conference discussed findings from the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) showing that England has some of the best school leaders in the world.

Liam Nolan, executive headteacher of Perry Beeches Academy in Birmingham, was one of five representatives from England flown over to explain what our headteachers do so well. He said it was a chance to "show the Yanks the very, very best of Britain".

"It was fantastic. All the time we are told to see what's happening in Singapore or Finland or the US, and they do some amazing things there, but to be able to go out and talk about why our leadership is among the very best in the world was absolutely breathtaking. It was one of the moments where you felt very proud to be British," Mr Nolan added (see panel, left).

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, said it was right that the quality of leadership in English schools should be praised, but he disagreed with the idea that Ofsted promoted "self-reflection".

"From my experience, Ofsted does not encourage reflection because of the high-stakes nature of [inspection]," he added. "It is more like a court case where you have to defend yourself. Rather than talk about your weaknesses, it encourages you to try to hide them."

`Ofsted is about driving up standards'

Liam Nolan, executive headteacher of Perry Beeches Academy, says Ofsted has played a vital role in ensuring that schools have strong leadership. And he is not surprised that other countries consider the model worth copying.

"There are obviously issues with some aspects of Ofsted, but I would never be critical of it," he adds. "It's about driving up standards, and it's there to tell us as school leaders what we need to do to improve.

"It is not always pleasant, but Ofsted is there to report to parents and the public on the quality of education provided, and that is absolutely right.

"We provide a public service - we're doing a public job - and it's right that people's taxes are properly accountable."


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