Chris Fenton discusses the benefits of working towards the International School Award, and how it can be used to build teamwork in improving schools and impact professional development

As an inner-city headteacher in an area of quite severe socio-economic deprivation, I found that our school often qualified for a great deal of initiative led ‘new money’ and focus groups. Naturally, I ensured we at least bid for, and often achieved, many of the grants, bursaries and opportunities available to us. This was principally why I was very interested in attending the meetings held by the British Council to explore how more schools could be encouraged to introduce an international dimension into the curriculum in line with the aspirations of the DfES international strategy ‘Putting the World into World-Class Education’.

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The gauntlet laid down by Mr Clarke was that by 2010, every school in England would have an international partnership and be working towards the DfES International School Award (ISA), the kitemark for schools who had integrated an international dimension into the curriculum and ethos of the school. Alongside this intention were the following objectives:

  • Equipping children and adults for life in a global society and work in a global economy: by promoting global citizenship in the curriculum; twinning all schools with schools overseas via the DfES Global Gateway website; implementing the national language strategy so that all children at Key Stage 2 study languages; encouraging greater opportunities for further and higher education students to study and work abroad; and working within Europe towards greater comparability of qualifications.
  • Engaging with our international partners to achieve their education goals and ours: by, for example, working with our EU partners to make the EU the world’s most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy; and sharing our expertise and resources to contribute to the improvement of education and children’s services in the developing world, particularly in Africa.
  • Maximising the contribution of our education and training sector and university research to overseas trade and inward investment: building on the £10bn contribution that the sector already makes to the UK economy, by establishing the country as an international leader in the use of ICT for education; promoting the role of universities as international hubs for learning and research; and encouraging education and training providers to work internationally in partnership with business.

Integrating internationalism into the curriculum The British Council was eager to develop the DfES ISA and the DfES Global Gateway as the main mechanisms for persuading all schools, not just the elite few, to integrate internationalism in the curriculum in line with the expectations of the new government initiative. My first introduction to this was the briefing for Manchester schools in November 2004 when I and a variety of school leaders from all key stages were invited to a presentation by John Rolfe of the British Council who was leading on rolling out the new ideas to schools. On completion of the presentation I approached John and his colleague John Pinch, a DfES ISA panel member, to discuss if they would be interested in using our school as a yard stick to test their ideas. We had recently emerged from LEA enforced special measures and gone on to achieve a good Diocese and Ofsted inspection report. The school had been through some dark times with me and a colleague drafted in from the LEA’s school improvement team to make some much needed improvements. With the challenge of establishing a solid basis for improvement behind us and the challenge of building on our successes ahead, the British Council and I saw an opportunity for the DfES ISA to act as a joint means of achieving our aims and I was seconded on to the focus group set up to help develop the British Council’s thinking. Our intentions were to lessen the burden on schools in achieving the award by setting up a three-part process; effectively a foundation, intermediate and full status approach. Registration and initial electronic contact with a school abroad formed the basis of the foundation stage and the ongoing process of extended communication, joint curricular targets, teaching and ultimately visits would lead schools on to the intermediate stage with full status and confirmation of the award being achieved through an ongoing and planned commitment to the development of an international curriculum. Like any effective strategy for improvement, internationalism needed to become a fully integrated mainstay of the curriculum and not just a ‘bolt-on’ to be touched upon sporadically. Originally, the ISA required a fee which excluded many schools from its opportunities. The new scheme, however, was free and ultimately only required commitment and planning for schools to progress. The concept of internationalism is embedded in the changing nature of education and the shrinking of the globe through the internet. Children are becoming significantly more aware of different cultures. As professionals, it is our responsibility to help children to celebrate culture, explore our differences and use new technology to enable communication, ultimately leading to understanding. From a professional viewpoint it also provides opportunities for us to learn from the challenges and successes of others in our field. After a few weeks, I was invited to a focus group meeting at the British Council’s London headquarters at Spring Gardens. Just off the Strand and a stone’s throw from Trafalgar Square, the building is inviting and the reception instantly recognisable as a celebratory centre of world culture. We were a group of 10, a mixture of senior teachers, headteachers and LEA representatives. We were split into two groups, each led by members of the DfES ISA panel. Our remit was to look at the mechanisms of each level of the ISA and break them down into progressive benchmarks that, while rigorous (the award wasn’t going to be a tokenistic gesture or merely a box ticked), weren’t burdensome to schools and colleges.

Implementing initiatives successfully
My principal concern was to ensure that the DfES ISA was introduced slowly and consistently. Too many great ideas fail because they are taken up too quickly without any time for reflection. Often schools increase their workload unnecessarily by embracing initiatives too fast, latching them on to already ambitious school improvement plans and creating pressures on staff that only lead to disaffection. I’ve fallen into this trap myself, when under the extreme pressure of intense change management.

Other key concerns voiced included:

  • How parents could be involved and whether one of the benchmarks ought to include parental or home/school involvement.
  • Whether the award could indeed fit into the whole-school curriculum and if the links in some areas were tenuous.
  • How language barriers could be challenged and whether this would limit the geography of school twinning.
  • Whether the concept was relevant to all schools and if not how this could be overcome.

The meetings were formal but friendly with sessions lasting two hours at a time. We were very well looked after and had the opportunity to mix with a variety of professionals who had differing standpoints regarding the DfES ISA and indeed education itself. Like most consultation exercises, initially we were all very protective of our institutions and suspicious of others. Education is funny like that: we are so involved in nurturing our schools that it is difficult to imagine there are others with the same issues, stresses and strains around the country. In many ways, at the beginning we were ‘fighting our corners’, but as the two days drew on and due to the way the British Council listened to us, challenged us to think laterally and valued our opinions, we grew as a group and began to think collectively, seeing the award as an holistic opportunity. Personally, I saw the DfES ISA as a vehicle for building teamwork in improving schools and schools in challenging circumstances. The award is unusual and by its nature can be threatening to schools caught up in the pressures of their day-to-day routine, yet I was confident that the consultation process had addressed this and by ardently recommending that the ISA be rolled out at the school’s pace rather than the British Council’s, I believed that more would get involved to the benefit of staff and children. Professionally, I benefited greatly. Not only was I challenged to think about a national programme, but, just to be involved raised my understanding of the education sector immeasurably. I felt valued and recognised. I appreciated the opportunity and was surprised to learn how valuable our school’s experiences were to the British Council. Looking back I think the experience made me a more reflective professional because I saw our school in the national context. It helped me to understand that our daily experiences had relevance beyond the community we served. After discussing the award with staff and governors, we decided to embark on the programme. I asked for volunteers who might be interested in starting us off rather than appointing teachers, as I felt this would maintain the spirit of professional development growing in the school and serve as a benchmark for a whole-school approach. Our enthusiastic Year 5 teacher in his second year took on the challenge and as I left the following term to begin a new headship, he had consulted with other schools in our regeneration area of Manchester and a consortium of interested parties were working together to achieve Foundation status. As is often the case, infectious enthusiasm led to others such as TAs and parents showing interest and an internationalism team was created naturally. The award has continued to go from strength to strength since its emergence in 2004. The government targets are still relevant and, since its launch, more than 3,000 schools nationwide have achieved full ISA Status with a further 700 applying for full accreditation this year. Countless other schools across Britain are at either the Foundation or Intermediate stage and the international agenda appears to be firmly establishing itself in school policies. As the ISA is supported and funded by the DCSF it is surveyed by Ofsted who have commented positively on the impact the award is having but have called for schools to evaluate the impact internationalism is having on pupils’ understanding of the global concept. As it is a relatively new idea within education, however, its very presence within the frameworks of school development shows a commitment and understanding of the needs of teachers to educate children about the multi-cultural communities they are a part of. I am pleased to have played a part in the development of the award and its worldwide success and firmly recommend to schools that haven’t already, to start working with the British Council in achieving it. It gives an international slant to the curriculum as well as broadening teamwork and giving enormous opportunity for professional development and travel.

Chris Fenton is an educational consultant and freelance educational writer

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