A world of ideas

Theresa May gets why FE matters - we must ensure her successor does, too, writes David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges

I was in New Zealand when I had one of my best ideas for improving learning at my school. In 2007, I was at the International Confederation of Principals in Auckland, listening to Sir Ken Robinson, the creativity man. It wasn't anything in particular that he said. Rather, his inspirational talk set my mind running. I'm not sure I heard all of his session - I was scribbling too furiously as my own, barely connected, concept grew.

What the idea was doesn't matter. But the experience poses an important question: do you really have to travel to the other side of the world to have a good idea?

Of course not. But it's true that I've never had my best ideas in school - it's just too busy. Both the joy and the frustration of school leadership stem from the fact that your day never goes according to plan. You're constantly interrupted by the stream of people and issues arriving at your door or on your computer screen. Accordingly, I always advise newly appointed school leaders to "get out more".

It's not obligatory to travel abroad for new ideas, but it helps. When rubbing shoulders with educators from other systems, cultures or traditions, you are struck first by the differences. But, invariably, over a few days you discover that you share infinitely more hopes and fears, aspirations and frustrations. From that interaction, you can start to develop your own ideas; solutions appropriate to your setting.

International benchmarking has its dangers. We are plagued by policymakers deciding that, for example, Finland's high level of attainment means it has all the answers for other education systems. Clearly it has many, but you cannot transplant one country's approach wholesale into another. Sadly, politicians try to do just that: their heavy-handed, cherry-picking and imposed "solutions" give international comparison a bad name.

For teachers and school leaders, however, there's no such danger. Generally, the best ideas that we develop for our schools are part stolen, part adapted. The successful approach at the school 10 miles down the road won't quite suit us, but we like the basic premise. So we borrow the concept, mould it to our particular context and make it work for us. If we look internationally, we find more inspiration from which to borrow, adapt and create anew.

Opportunities abound to attend conferences overseas or to study abroad, so volunteer and ask your school governors to fund it. The experience is encouraging, too: when we compare notes with people from other systems, we often find that we're not doing so badly.

I'll come clean. The great idea I had in New Zealand was one I never saw through. Instead, against expectation, I got a new job. Perhaps that trip was the catalyst; I don't know. But I'm certain that the international dimension has helped both me and the schools I've led. Think about it - and get out more.

Dr Bernard Trafford is head of the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.

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