Impington Village College's undoubted strengths lie somewhere other than in its buildings. The Cambridge comprehensive, opened as a school when war broke out in 1939 and now a Grade I listed building, is positively shabby in many places, with mossy gutters, scarred door frames and blistered paint. So when a visitor tells the staff assembled for morning briefing, in tones of great sincerity, that "if you visited my school, you would really know that you are in heaven here", laughter ripples through the room.
The visitor, Rose Izizinga, is headteacher of Makerere college in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. She is at Impington to shadow Jackie Kearns, the headteacher (known in this school as the "warden"), as part of a leadership programme organised by the British Council. And if her visit comes at a difficult time for Impington - facing a pound;750,000 budget shortfall for the current financial year - it at least provides a grimly different perspective on funding problems. Teachers at Makerere earn around pound;150 a month; even taking into consideration the lower cost of living there, it is too little, says Ms Izizinga. School accommodation is inadequate and class sizes are routinely 60 or 70 students.
The two heads start the second day of the two-day placement by talking about student lateness; in Cambridge the issue is traffic gridlock, which can occasionally delay the school buses. In Kampala, where day students must arrive at Makerere by 7.30am, lateness is a rainy season problem, with students coming on foot for up to five miles. "Some of the girls have chores to do at home before they set off," says Ms Izizinga. "You have to support them, otherwise you might make it too difficult for them to come to school at all."
In the absence of education welfare officers, the student council deals with all but the most intractable cases of lateness and absenteeism at Makerere. But Ms Kearns and Ms Izizinga quickly discover that they share more similarities than differences.
Both lead large institutions - 1,350 students at Impington and 1,525 at Makerere - in cities famous for their universities. Both are charged with managing large staff bodies, raising attainment and balancing a limited budget. "In the end, it's about managing people, crises, difficult situations, and all the time wanting the very best for your students," says Ms Kearns. "I didn't imagine before she came that I was somehow the holder of greater knowledge, and that proved to be the case. We are just equals together. We both have a lot of forbearance in us, and a lot of fight."
Still, staff at Impington have much to show their visitor, including an "international sixth form" where students speak 28 languages between them; the International Baccalaureate is well established here, with only one student in four opting for A-levels next autumn.
There is also a special needs sixth-form unit, the Pavilion. The presence of young people with physical and learning disabilities is, says head of sixth form Sandra Morton, "deeply humanising". Ms Izizinga is thoughtful as she takes hot chocolate and class-made gingerbread with the Pavilion students. In Uganda, they do not have this kind of provision, she explains, nor the physical access to the buildings. Parents are often reluctant to bring disabled children out of the house, and identification of learning difficulties is poor. Her education ministry has recently, for the first time, established a special needs department.
Moving on to the international sixth form, Ms Izizinga takes notes as Ms Morton explains the school's practice of extra after-school training for newly qualified teachers, of peer observation, departmental observation, and her own observation of lessons. "Everyone's door now needs to be open," she says, explaining how the Cambridge college has built a culture of reflective practice. But the Ugandan head seems just as interested in chatting to sixth-formers - about relationships with teachers, the student council, sex education and Aids awareness.
Around a dozen Makerere students lose parents each year, commonly to Aids, accidents or the guerrilla war in the north of the country. The school has a full-time counsellor. There is a problem in Makerere with girls underachieving, she tells the Impington sixth-formers. "There's a myth that girls aren't good enough to do certain things. And a lot of the burdens in the house are on their shoulders." Some, she says, miss school every month because there isn't enough money for sanitary towels.
In return, the Impington students tell her about the high teenage pregnancy rate in Britain, and how English schoolgirls can be vulnerable to eating disorders. "The 14 and 15-year-olds look so grown up here," Ms Izizinga tells them. "At our school, everyone has a regulation haircut. Wearing uniform keeps people in line."
The British Council has hosted 10 Ugandan heads, one official from the ministry of education and sports, and an education inspector from Kampala city council for a week of seminars and training at the National College for School Leadership and school placements. The programme has been tailor-made in accordance with the Ugandan education department's own agenda for school improvement and professional development. "This is a partnership project," says Judith Mullen of the British Council. "It's not the British Council doing things to people." She says that while local context is always important, leadership is international. "The core issues are 80 per cent common around the world."
The purpose of the programme with the Ugandan school leaders has been to "make myself redundant, as a trainer. I hope we have equipped the team to write their own development programme and deliver it. And they've formed links with mentors at the same time."
Ms Izizinga's overriding impression of Impington is of teachers'
professionalism and high degree of motivation. "Our teachers don't mind going to the classroom to teach," she says, "but after that they don't want to get involved."
She is taking home a lot from her brief visit. "I saw many things that were of value. For instance, the issue of ensuring that the school board (equivalent to the governing body) is properly empowered is something I will have to plan with the chair of the board. I felt reassured that I was thinking right in believing in the importance of a good professional development programme for staff, and I went away with some ideas of improving what we had started to put in place."
At a dinner held the night before the visitors depart for their own homes and schools, Regina Laboke, head of Our Lady of Good Counsel school in Wakiso district, makes other observations of the English system.
"In our country, we still command respect as teachers," she says. "But here I have heard of parents coming with lawyers to argue a disciplinary case.
Yours is a free education and parents and children take it for granted.
They have good facilities in school and children don't appreciate it. At home, parents will sell cows, they will sell everything to get education for their children."