Tags: Continuing Professional Development | CPD Coordinator | Headteacher | School Leadership & Management

Headteacher Anne Clarke reports on an international headteacher placement (IHP) to Akron, Ohio, which she facilitated on behalf of the British Council and the National College for School Leadership (NCSL).

When I was asked by the British Council to lead a group of headteachers in a visit to Akron, Ohio, I naturally wanted to respond in the affirmative, knowing what a valuable experience the international headteacher placement programme offers. I was especially interested when I knew that all of the ten headteachers taking part were from Yorkshire, where I work, as it is easier to forge links when participants are located within a particular geographical area. At least that has been my experience.

Finally, I learned that the University of Akron had requested the visit and that one of the UK participants was to be from Leeds Metropolitan University and was one of the outstanding practitioners on NCSL’s leadership programmes. This additional dynamic gave it the potential of being a ground-breaking experience on both sides of the Atlantic.

However, I realised that I had some serious homework to do as my knowledge of this particular area of the United States was scant. I had travelled to most of the major cities in the USA as a tourist, but I had never been to Ohio. It was time to broaden my horizons, so I scoured websites and searched the Rough Guide to further my knowledge of Ohio and, in particular, Akron. I soon discovered that Akron has much of interest to commend it:

Famous people
Akron is the birthplace of Lebron James, a world class Olympic basketball player. I was fortunate enough to visit the school where he was educated and some of our group actually went to Cleveland to see him play.

Rita Dove, who was the first African-American

poet laureate from 1993 to 1995, was born in Akron. Also born there were John Dean, who was legal counsel to US President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, and Chryssie Hynde, leader of 1980s rock band The Pretenders and animal rights activist.

‘Known as the rubber capital’, Akron developed as a centre for tyre production for Firestone and Goodyear, but nowadays nearly all manufacture takes place elsewhere and the buildings have been taken over by the growing polymer industry. It is also the home of the famous Quaker Oats porridge. In fact, the hotel that the group stayed in had been converted from the silos which had at one time stored the oats. It is worth a visit to Akron just to see this building. Another point of interest in its history is that Akron is where Dr Bob Smith founded Alcoholics Anonymous and it is possible to visit the house where it all started.

The University of Akron The University of Akron played host to our visit, having put in a bid to the British Council for the placement to happen. The university was in a good position to accommodate such an event as it has a strong reputation as a leader in the field of education, with the College of Education within the university having one of the largest and most distinguished public teacher education programmes in Ohio.

The college has gained state, national and international recognition for research and outreach activities in the areas of educational leadership and teacher preparation. The university serves over 24,000 students and, as well as being a cutting-edge institution for educational practice, is also a world leader in technology, including wireless technology, and polymer science. I felt very excited about going there and sure that such a forward-thinking institution was going to provide us with a fantastic experience.

‘A main focus of school improvement in Ohio is to narrow the gap between the higher and lower performing students’

The Ohio education system It is important to understand the education system in Ohio to appreciate the context within which the visit took place. A main focus of school improvement in Ohio is to narrow the gap between the higher and lower performing students. This will involve aligning teaching to standards; providing leadership which results in improvements in teaching; ensuring that students feel valued and achieve success; and working with parents and the community.

These themes were evident in the schools which we visited in Akron, but we also went to schools in the Stow, Wadsworth, Medina and Cuyahoga Falls districts. Within the Akron district there is a huge push to transform schools into ‘community learning centres’, so that outside of school hours the facilities can be used for after-school programmes, adult education, summer schools, and community activities. This is akin to our ‘extended schools’ initiative.

Aims of the placement
The University of Akron described the aims as follows:

‘The international study programme will afford school leaders an opportunity to share an enriching educational experience and examine leadership issues of significance within Ohio’s public schools. The aim of our programme is to provide an intensive and focused educational experience tailored to the needs of school leaders that will provide participants with an opportunity to shadow senior leaders, examine and learn from best practices, gain insight into regional, state and national educational issues in the United States, and explore core themes related to school improvement.’ The British Council directed us to concentrate on the following themes, ‘community, e-learning, and curriculum’. The participants were interested in the following: i) the focus of the visit, ie ‘community, e-learning, curriculum’ and further researching these topics and exploring them during the stay in Akron ii) comparing and contrasting the role of the principal in Ohio with that of the headteacher in the UK iii) any leadership programmes for headteachers that might exist in Ohio iv) learning about the education system in Ohio v) social inclusion, as some of the headteachers were involved with this work at their own schools and wanted to see practice in those of Ohio vi) any systems that schools had in place for monitoring academic progress and behaviour vii) citizenship viii) extended schools

ix) ‘healthy schools’ policies.

There was a desire to be as open-minded as possible and to glean as much information as we could about any examples of good practice that we saw, which we could bring back to our schools and communities. The wish to develop continued links was also strong.

The information gathered during the placement seems to divide into contrasts and similarities between the two educational systems of Ohio State and England. I have focused on three of each.

Leadership and management roles
I was struck by some major differences between the role of the Ohio principal and that of the English headteacher. In Ohio the system of ‘local management of schools’ (LMS) does not exist as we know it. The principals are in charge of the day-to-day management of their schools, but they do not manage a whole school budget, nor do they hire their own staff.

Above the principal there is a superintendent who has oversight of three or four schools and they manage the budget for this number of schools and they hire the staff. The principal may be involved, but the ultimate decision lies with the superintendent. It is reminiscent of the days before LMS when the LEA made such decisions, or in ‘today-speak’ the idea of an ‘executive head’ running more than one establishment. Also the principals have little security of tenure. They only have a contract for a year or two and then the contract can be terminated.

As I have found from previous IHPs I have been involved in, you have time to reflect not only on your own practice but also upon the situation within which you work. I am very grateful that as a headteacher, under the supervision of the governing body and LEA, I manage the school’s budget and am in a position to appoint staff to the school. I accept accountability, but I appreciate this greater autonomy.

I also appreciate security of tenure, as I think it would be difficult to develop a vision over a one or two year period. Certainly, it would be impossible to have a long-term strategic plan, such as heads in our schools have to develop.

‘The principals have little security of tenure. They only have a contract for a year or two and then the contract can be terminated’

The division of church and state As a headteacher, I have a responsibility for the spiritual development of the pupils within the school, for ensuring that religious education is delivered in line with the agreed syllabus and that there is a daily act of collective worship. In the United States in the public schools there is a strict division between state and church, so schools do not teach religion and principals are not allowed to lead acts of worship. I found this difficult to come to terms with, as it is so different from my experience. Obviously independent schools can operate with a religious bias, and I did visit a Roman Catholic independent school in Akron.

However, when touring the Akron district and local area on the Sunday morning I could not help but notice that all the local churches were full. They even had people on duty guiding cars in and out of the overcrowded car parks. Our hosts told us that everyone went to church on Sunday. We teach religion and yet our church population is declining. We visited an area where the teaching of religion is forbidden and yet the church population is burgeoning.

Size of schools We know that everything in the States is bigger, but when you are there and experience it, it is overwhelming. The schools we saw, by comparison with ours, are enormous. The one I visited in Cuyahoga Falls had a similar number of students to my own and yet I could have fitted my school, Benton Park, into it four times over. The corridors were generously wide, it had a theatre which seated two thousand people and a ‘small’ one which seated four hundred, a huge purpose-built canteen, spacious classrooms and sports facilities ‘to die for’.

The principal could not believe it when I said that our school hall was also used as the school canteen and drama classroom. I think he was going to dine out on that one for months! I could not help but feel that a lot of the discipline problems we experience could be reduced or even eliminated if we were not crowded together in buildings originally meant to house 800 students and now cramming in over 1,400. I am sure that this applies to other schools too.

Students and their concerns
Two of my colleagues and I had the pleasure of sharing ‘pizza and pop’ with the principal and the members of the school council at one of the schools we visited. I could have been at such a meeting in my own school, except for the refreshments. We were included in the discussions by a delightful group of articulate students, who wanted to air their views with the principal. The items up for discussion were dress code and the use of mobile phones and iPods in school. One should not be surprised that the concerns of young people in school are the same the world over!

Extended schools
One of the latest government initiatives is ‘extended schools’, where schools are encouraged to operate beyond the boundaries of the school day. At my school, for example, we have a three-part day whereby elements of the curriculum that we cannot fit into the traditional day are offered after school, for example triple science, Latin and a variety of ICT classes. We also offer a wide range of activities such as sport, drama and music, study sessions in a variety of subjects, homework club and access to a wide range of outside agencies.

In Akron they have the Akron After School (AAS) programme and we were fortunate to go the Mayor’s office to meet one of the principal organisers and founders of the programme to hear all about it. AAS is a city/school partnership that provides academic intervention and enrichment after-school programmes, just like we offer at Benton Park under the extended schools banner. It is based upon the belief that after-school hours are important for developing the young person’s academic, social and emotional capabilities.

It is also recognised that this is a time when young people are without parental supervision and need to be in safe and supportive environments. These aims fit in with the American No Child Left Behind legislation, for which we can read the English equivalent – Every Child Matters. The AAS programme currently provides an impressive 375 enrichment programmes a week in ten schools.

‘The items up for discussion were dress code and the use of mobile phones and iPods in school’

Accountability Our visit took place just a week before the Ohio Graduation Test (OGT), which is important as students obviously want to graduate. We saw students placed in special classes ‘cramming’ ready for the tests, and teachers ‘teaching to the test’. Test results are published, so parents can see which schools are performing best in the OGTs. This ‘name and shame’ culture resonates with our SATs/GCSEs and league tables. Schools are also graded as follows: – Excellent – Efficient – Improving – Academic watch

– Academic emergency.

This is similar to our Ofsted grades of: – Outstanding – Good – Satisfactory

– Inadequate.

An accountability model, based on tests, inspections, and published results, is therefore similar in both cultures. We have tried to make our system fairer with the PANDA, based upon contextual value-added data, and just as we left Akron we heard that Ohio State wanted to develop such a model.

Final words
We learned so much during our visit that it is difficult to cover it all. I have, therefore, tried to pick our main points. However, I need to mention that we saw lessons delivered and were able to compare pedagogy and curriculum with that in our own schools. We looked at ICT in the schools we visited, and explored the issue of ‘social inclusion’. We also had the chance to ask about leadership programmes and found out that there was training for new principals but a lack of training for long-serving ones. There was nothing like our Leadership Programmes for Serving Headteachers (LPSH).

The evaluation forms show that the heads felt that, on the whole, their objectives had been met. We will be able to share our experiences with members of our respective school communities, including pupils, staff, parents and governors.

We also feel strongly that we will maintain links and develop a worthwhile partnership between ourselves and our colleagues in Akron. We are already planning to host a return visit for them to the UK. We are also in the throes of setting up a web-cam link and plans are afoot to have students from the University of Akron doing their teaching training in a North Yorkshire school. We cannot thank the British Council and the NCSL enough for giving us this experience, nor our colleagues in Akron for being such generous hosts.

Programme Details

The philosophy behind the international headteacher placement programme is that headteachers have the opportunity to examine and reflect upon their leadership, values and practice in the light of that of other principals worldwide.
Applicants for an international headteacher placement must be serving headteachers with a minimum of three years’ experience in this role before they can be offered a placement, but it is possible to make an application in the third year. Headteachers will only be able to take part in the programme once as a participant.

Although the main focus of all visits is leadership, parallel themes are also explored: 14-19 curriculum; early years; leading rural schools; extended schools; federated schools; developing languages in primary schools; narrowing the achievement gap; personalised learning; the role of ICT in developing personalised learning; governance; distributed leadership and building capacity; leadership for sustainability; measuring impact and evaluation; integrated children’s centres; student leadership; sustaining environmental best practice.
Applicants state their own preferred theme from the list above on their application form, which can be downloaded from: www.britishcouncil.com

This article first appeared in Secondary Headship – May 2006

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