The world is our oyster for schools

8th September 2006 at 01:00
A global dialogue is essential to improve leadership, learning and teaching, says Graham Thomson

ffective leadership, especially from headteachers, is seen by many as an answer, sometimes it seems the only answer, to effective school improvement. Certainly it is central to the ambitious Excellent Schools agenda. In this context, the Scottish Executive Education Department organised two teams, each comprising six Scottish educationists, to visit two Harvard University educational leadership summer schools during July.

One might ask whether trips on this scale are justified. Could costs not have been reduced with fewer people? And why go abroad for ideas when there is plenty of expertise on our doorstep? And finally, will the visits add value?

While two teams of two would have been cheaper, this would have limited the experience. The teams were deliberately made up of headteachers and deputes from primary and secondary, along with colleagues with leadership development responsibilities at national and local authority levels. This mix enabled high-quality discussions on a daily basis as colleagues shared the impact of the experience on their thinking and its relevance to their context. From this, a wide variety of ideas and next steps have been identified that will be taken forward for further discussion when both teams come together in a few weeks' time.

The aim is not only to use the teams' experiences as a platform for further leadership development in Scotland, but to use group members in disseminating good practice. People often make an implicit assumption that such visits reflect key weaknesses in the Scottish context. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the trip reinforced the fact that there is much that we can be proud of in our education system.

From talking to American counterparts, our school leaders are ahead in areas such as improvement planning and quality assurance, and there is simply no equivalent to our highly successful NQT programme. Given the high stakes and costs involved in terms of school improvement, it is vital that we access best practice from abroad.

Richard Elmore, who will be visiting Scotland in March, outlined the development of a successful "medical rounds" model of improvement in learning and teaching, with a group of colleagues from different schools, along with university representatives, touring a particular school to observe practice and discuss next steps.

What is distinctive about the American system is the uncompromising vision of principals directly involved in the support of learning and teaching, following full lesson observations. The theory is that this will boost teachers' effectiveness and therefore pupil attainment. Kim Marshall, a former principal, raised the question "what if the theory is wrong?" And he questioned the value of extended observations from principals where the teacher has prepared in advance and receives questionable feedback.

Instead, he offered an alternative of regular brief snapshot visits to every teacher, often no longer than 10 minutes, with informal face-to-face feedback within 24 hours. By being regularly involved in a dialogue about learning and teaching with individual teachers, the impact of the visits on teachers improved, as did the influence on the principal's strategic thinking.

While some members of the audience railed against the time involved in classroom observation, Malachi Pancoast argued that principals need to think more deeply about how they spend their week and what they do that makes a difference. He has researched how American principals use their office staff and, in a challenging and uncompromising presentation, he outlined practical strategies to free a couple of days a week for principals to concentrate on strategic issues and learning and teaching. If the comments of the American principals who have worked with him are anything to go by, the results are transformational.

While leadership on its own is not a panacea for school improvement, various speakers highlighted how it acts as a catalyst with other factors to effect powerful change. To ensure this in Scotland, we must regularly challenge our leadership assumptions and question our orthodoxies. As Kim Marshall showed, it is not enough simply to carry out a particular approach, without first thinking deeply about its impact. Moreover, he showed an approach to teacher observation that was not tied to the language of monitoring and supervision but one that was driven by the language of learning on behalf of the principal as well as the teacher.

I hope that visits abroad to look at best practice in education leadership will become a feature of Scottish education. This doesn't need to be to the US, although the diversity of practice on offer makes it a good prospect.

Certainly, a critical lesson from the summer schools is that connecting the key players in leadership development, from schools and universities to local and national government, results in increased impact on schools. We must ensure that, as the leadership agenda progresses in Scotland, all those with key roles are fully involved. A perfect opportunity for this would be to run our own international leadership summer school. This could showcase Scottish expertise, bring internationally renowned speakers to Scotland and create a forum for Scottish colleagues to debate issues with participants from around the world. The success of certain local authorities in running a variety of development programmes during the recent holiday period suggests there is a ready market for a summer slot.

It is vital that a country as small as Scotland, but which has big ambitions in terms of education, is up to speed with best educational leadership practice from around the world. While much of this can be done at a distance, it is essential that every so often we test the waters and experience developments at first hand. The key is not simply to duplicate good practice from abroad, but to adapt and improve it to the Scottish context or, indeed, use it as a platform to develop new and even better approaches.

Perhaps no more justification for the visit is needed than this quote from Richard Elmore: "Privacy of practice produces isolation, and isolation is the enemy of improvement."

Graham Thomson is director of the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration

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