The trips have been devised under the new regime of the Scottish Continuing International Professional Development programme - and they are certainly no holiday.
Karen Prophet's suitcase may be unpacked and her jet lag a distant memory, but her study visit to Ontario during the October break is far from over. She knew before she went that her obligations would involve a lot more than chatting to colleagues. Over the next nine months, on top of her day-to-day responsibilities as headteacher of Firrhill High in Edinburgh, she must write two major reports that will be posted on the Learning and Teaching Scotland website, make numerous presentations at school, local authority and national level, actively contribute to a learning community formed by participants and make sure she implements what she has learnt within her school.
"This was not a foreign trip; it was a study visit," insists Kay Livingston, professor of research, policy and practice at Glasgow University, who is on a five-year secondment to lead international education at LTS. Part of Professor Livingston's remit is to oversee the new SCIPD study trips regime, born in December last year.
"There is a big difference," she continues. "It is not just about motivation. We are trying to change the mindset, so that it is seen as part of a teacher's professional development. There is preparation before going, reflection on returning and a proactive approach to ensuring that change is embedded in practice."
The new approach to study trips is the result of a decision last December by the then Scottish Executive that LTS should take forward the new programme for international education, with the majority of funding for overseas trips brought under its auspices.
Part of the thinking was fuelled by the recognition that certain regions were more proactive in putting teachers forward for such visits. The education department was determined that greater equity in accessing and participating in the programme existed from the beginning. This, it hopes, may lead to more teachers taking up international opportunities (see last week's TESS).
But there was also a realisation that these trips must have more of an impact on the rest of the profession. "We needed to streamline the landscape rather than teachers having to seek funding from different bodies. SCIPD provides teachers with the necessary information to take forward visits, but it also ensures that every visit is embedded within the curriculum and within teachers' professional development," says Professor Livingston.
Linked to Ambitious, Excellent Schools, the new structure has been designed to allow the Government to benchmark Scotland against international standards, particularly through the work of OECD, to bring about further improvement in performance. From now on, Scotland will measure itself against countries of a similar size and socio-economic status. Those countries (and provinces) are Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, the Flemish community of Belgium, Ireland, and, on a more global scale, Australia, Canada (Ontario) and New Zealand.
Other countries in the sights of LTS's international education department and the Government are Estonia, Lithuania, France, South Africa (Cape Town), Uganda, India, Germany (Bavaria), Kenya, the United States and Poland.
Meanwhile, SCIPD will still consider individual applications for study visits to other countries but applicants will need to justify the choice of destination. Links with China will remain the responsibility of the British Council Scotland, while links with Malawi will continue to be facilitated separately by Link Community Development and the League for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers.
Ms Prophet agrees her trip was no soft option. The week-long investigation of leadership in the Canadian province was so intense there was little time while there to take stock of all that the 15 headteachers and aspiring heads witnessed. They had to post back the resources they collected because they would have exceeded their baggage limit. But a month after her return, she is still burning with enthusiasm and determination that the experience will affect not only her teaching, but teaching across Scotland.
"We have to lobby to make the Government listen to us. We have to talk to people we know. I'll be talking to Tim Simmons (head of the Scottish Government's international education team), who is one of our parents, and one of our group is the sister-in-law of Fiona Hyslop. We also have to talk to the profession and to the organisations and associations," says Ms Prophet. "I'd like to see Fiona Hyslop going out there, to Ontario."
A similar steely determination emanates from the teachers who went at the same time on a study visit to the New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz, to look at mentoring and coaching. "I would like to see Scotland establish a similar centre to support our new teachers," says Ainsley Burns, headteacher at Inverlochy Primary in Fort William. "My group are meeting in December to see how we can take this forward."
Both trips had similar formats, if different agendas. All the participants met for a one-day conference in Glasgow prior to the visit.
"We spent the morning going over housekeeping, discussing the logistics of taking groups abroad," explains Bob Cook, retired director of education at West Dumbartonshire and facilitator on the Ontario trip. "In the afternoon, we split into our respective groups to discuss what we wanted to get out of it."
Every teacher had listed his or her educational priorities in their application; what they thought would best improve their own understanding and practice. During the afternoon session, they collated these priorities into a wish list. Mr Cook then forwarded his group's list to the Brant Haldimand Norfolk Catholic District School Board, the education board hosting their visit.
Ontario provided a good comparison with Scotland, despite being twice the size in terms of population. It gave the participants an opportunity to look at the similarities and the differences, but also to see a system in change. Ten years ago, Ontario's education system was in the doldrums compared with other provinces in Canada. There was poor achievement, a high drop-out rate, and a wide gap between the highest and lowest-achieving students. So a Royal Commission was set up, resulting in a report For the Love of Learning. From there, five commissions were established, the two most important being the numeracy and literacy secretariats for primary and secondary. Their remits were improvement and closing the gap.
"It is amazing what they have done. They have had educators involved at the highest level of decision-making. Everyone in Scotland has read Michael Fullan and there he is, advising the ministry for education," says Ms Prophet. "Leading the secretariat for secondary schools is Avis Glaze, an academic who has been involved in initiating the Student Success Programme, developing leadership among teachers, setting up the Education Quality and Accountability Office and the Ontario Focused Intervention Partnership, and she still finds time to contribute to research papers.
"When the ministry makes changes, the teachers there know they can trust them, because all of what they do is founded in research, not politics."
However, not all aspects of the Ontario system impressed the visitors. In Canada, education is devolved to boards which are responsible for running the schools, appointing all staff and managing school budgets. Headteachers are moved every five years.
"It was interesting to see how the initial reaction of the teachers changed as the week progressed," says Mr Cook. "Ontario has a centralist system with much control remaining with the boards, and I don't think there are many headteachers in Scotland who would accept that. But some of our group could see benefits."
Mrs Burns says: "I believe we need to establish more support for newly qualified teachers, but headteachers may not be the best people to deliver it. We have a dual role at the moment, where we must be supporter but also judge, and that is difficult. I think probationers need to have independent, dedicated mentors."
Both sets of participants will continue to meet to drive forward their agendas through presentations, online forums, report writing and meetings, while Professor Livingston plans to feed the findings and suggestions of all those involved in both trips back to Learning and Teaching Scotland and the Government. As an academic sitting in the heart of LTS she could be the Avis Glaze of Scottish education. She certainly intends to use any influence she has, to drive forward positive change.
To support this, further SCIPD study visits are being organised. Before the end of the financial year in 2008, Professor Livingston intends more teachers to go out on fact-finding missions to: Singapore to look at its Master Teacher programme, which is similar to Scotland's Chartered Teacher programme; Sweden to investigate eco schools and sustainable development; and the Netherlands to find out its approach to transition.
One thing is certain - none of the trips will be a holiday.
LTS and Scottish Government themes for study visits
Approaches to assessmentAssessment is for Learning
Early years to P3
Development of vocational skills
Secondary education to employmenttraining
Curriculum areas: science, mathematics, including numeracy, language including literacy, social subjects, expressive arts, technologies, religious and moral education, health, wellbeing and education for personal and social development
Cross-curricular work, for example: creativity, sustainable development, enterprise, citizenship
Leadership and the management of change
Recognition of wider achievement
Consulting with young people