While the focus of the autumn term for the ASCL President is very much the information and regional conferences around the country, the focus of the spring term is without doubt ASCL Annual Conference, this year held in Birmingham two weeks ago. It was the culmination of a huge amount of planning and preparation along with the splendid conference team at ASCL HQ, and, I have to say, it gave me a huge amount of satisfaction to see it come together. I surprised myself at just how many people I seemed to know and bump into during the course of the two days, but then I have been ‘on the circuit’ for some time now. I hope other participants sensed the upbeat tone that I picked up, despite the challenges – certainly many commented on it to me.
After spending a day writing a hundred-odd thank yous to the many people involved in making annual conference a success, I set off at the end of last week to Finland to attend the twice-yearly meeting of ESHA, the European School Heads’ Association. Because of the high cost of hotels in Helsinki, the decision had been taken to hold the two days of meetings aboard a ship that plies between Helsinki and Stockholm every day. Or every night, rather, because the crossings are essentially 12 hours overnight. Not being, like some of my predecessor presidents, cruising veterans, this was a novelty for me. The ship was like a grand version of a cross channel ferry (remember those?) – basically a floating shopping centre with slot machines everywhere and a conference facility at one end. The food however was excellent, including the smoked reindeer for breakfast.
Meeting school leaders from across Europe reminds us how diverse the continent is. Most countries have nothing like the autonomy we enjoy (if that is the right word) in England. An exception is the Netherlands, where the history of the education system means that schools have almost complete independence, even more than in England. Along with Switzerland and Poland, the Netherlands is regarded as a rising star in European schooling, while Finland appears to be plateauing in the latest results, a fact which some Finnish principals are not entirely displeased about. It seems that the Finnish government has been difficult to engage on the issues schools want to raise while Finland has been at the top of the PISA league table. Now there is just a hint that that position might not last forever, the Finnish government has become markedly more open to dialogue.
In most countries, especially in southern Europe and the Balkans, but also in Germany and most Nordic countries, there is constant reference back to the ‘ministry’, even for matters of administrative detail, and what it will and won’t allow. Most school principals, for example, have no say at all in which teachers they get, as they are simply allocated by the ‘ministry’, and in many countries, because teachers have an official, protected status akin to civil servants, it is almost impossible to remove them, however ineffective they are.
Some countries have approaches shaped by their recent history. In Italy, for example, because of the manipulation of the education during the Fascist period, teachers’ complete classroom autonomy is enshrined in the Italian constitution, and lesson observation by a school principal is not permitted, neither is it permissible to challenge a teacher on their outcomes, however poor. And in Spain, bizarrely from our perspective, principals are elected by the school staff. Spain is doing rather badly in PISA.
Another difference is that in many countries associations of school principals are very small and weak by comparison with an association such as ASCL. Many have nowhere near the number of members that we do – even in Italy, with a similar population to the UK, the ANP, ASCL’s equivalent, has only 5,000 members, compared with ASCL’s 18,000.
Implications are several-fold. Trans-European conversations are difficult for reasons that go beyond the obvious language problems. In fact, school leaders are not talking the same language in a much deeper sense because the contexts in which they work are so radically different. Secondly, there is enormous interest in England and what is happening here. This is often a mixture of admiration for our boldness and envy of the extent of our powers as individual school leaders, but with anxiety strongly mixed in, especially when Ofsted is mentioned. I could not name the school inspection service in any other European country, but almost all school leaders across Europe know of Ofsted by name. While many governments in Europe see national testing and inspection as the way potentially to improve standards, there is much anxiety on the part of school leaders about both.
A House of Lords report was published last week about the ‘soft power’ of the UK. I reflected on this during the ESHA meeting. If you interpret ‘soft power’ as real interest in what is happening here – because of our size, the fact it’s all in English, the holistic character of the best in English education, and its innovativeness – then we really do have significant ‘soft power’ in education. Perhaps we need to become a little more assertive internationally about this.