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February 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 5

Report from ASCD's Executive Council / A Visit to London: What ASCD Members Learned

A recent trip to England found ASCD's Executive Council reflecting about national curriculums, site-based management, inclusion, and similar challenges faced by educators around the globe.

Members of the ASCD Executive Council spent November 9, 1995 visiting schools in London, England, in connection with our fall business meeting there. This was the fourth consecutive fall meeting that the Executive Council has held outside the continental United States.
To demonstrate ASCD's commitment to internationalization and our desire to become better informed about education in other nations, Council members voted in 1992 to hold the fall meeting in Munich, Germany. The 1993 Council met in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and in 1994 we met in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. At each meeting Council members have visited schools and engaged in planned discussions with affiliate members and other local educators.
In teams of two or three, ASCD's Executive Council members spent an enlightening day visiting 10 different schools in London. Despite some interesting contrasts between education in the United States and the United Kingdom, we found that our counterparts there share many of the concerns of educators in North America. The topics that provoked the most discussion between the largely American visitors and our British hosts were U.K.'s national curriculum, established in 1988, and new governance arrangements that delegate many responsibilities to individual schools.
After gathering for a debriefing session after the visits, we held late afternoon meetings with teachers and future teachers at Goldsmiths College, University of London, where Gwyn Edwards, president of the U.K. ASCD affiliate, is a tutor. We devoted the next day to a series of presentations and discussions on character education, or values education, as it is known in the United Kingdom. Then, on Saturday and Sunday, November 11–12, we held our regular ASCD business meeting. Following is a report on our tour of schools in London.

A Medley of Schools

The United Kingdom has a wide variety of types of schools, including religious schools, which receive about 85 percent of their funding from government sources; and independent schools (also known as public schools), which in some cases set aside a fixed number of places for students to attend at government expense.
Some schools serve a broad array of students, while others cater to particular populations. The schools we visited, for example, included Blackheath High School, an independent school for girls serving the top 5 percent of students, nearly all of whom go on to universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. Some of us went to Blackheath Bluecoat, a nearby secondary school affiliated with the Church of England, which accepts up to half its students from other than Church of England families. Other Council members visited state schools like Myatt Garden Primary, where one visitor observed that “a committed staff with painfully limited resources offers a complex curriculum to predominantly disadvantaged students.”
In some schools, such as Blackheath Bluecoat, students wore uniforms, male teachers wore coats and ties, and students addressed them as “sir.” At Edmund Waller Primary School, on the other hand, teachers and students dressed informally and were on a first-name basis.
We did not see examples of two new types of schools that the present Conservative national government established in recent years. One such type is grant-maintained schools, so called because they operate with financial grants from the central government. Grant-maintained schools are similar in some ways to charter schools in the United States, in that they have opted out from control of their Local Education Authorities (LEAs), which are somewhat like school districts in the United States. City Technology Colleges, the other new type of school, offer a technologically oriented education to students aged 11-18; they, too, are not controlled by LEAs.

A Glimpse of Urban Schools

All the schools we visited were in London and, thus, had the characteristics of urban schools in other countries. Most buildings were old, often spanning more than 100 years. Most student populations were either largely minority or highly diverse. For example, most students at Lucas Vale Primary were black; at Swanlea, a government secondary school, 80 percent of pupils were minority, many from Bangladesh. Students at Myatt Gordon Primary School spoke 22 different languages.
Despite the urban setting, the students' positive attitude and behavior impressed us. Even in low-income areas, students were polite and friendly, not as belligerent as in some American schools. Visitors to Deptford Green—a comprehensive secondary school with a racially diverse student population in an economically deprived area—said they saw none of the discipline problems found in some U.S. urban schools.
We saw indications that in some schools teachers have worked effectively to prevent ethnic and racial animosity. At Sydenham, a girls' secondary school with quite a diverse population, signs were posted promoting diversity and partnership as strengths of the school. At Myatt Garden Primary School, a teacher led students in discussing how to treat a new student coming into their classroom.

Greater Local Control

Because school-based decision making is a topic of interest in the United States, Executive Council members were intrigued by school governance changes introduced in the United Kingdom in recent years that delegate many responsibilities to individual schools. Some of these new arrangements are clearly intended to reduce the political and pedagogical influence of Local Education Authorities.
More of the funding now goes directly to schools, with less retained by LEAs to provide support services. Thus, schools have somewhat more discretion over how to spend money, but budget responsibility can be a burden as well as an opportunity. Most head teachers in the United Kingdom teach some classes, so they have less time for administration than do U.S. principals. Blackheath Bluecoat has responded by designating one of its two deputy heads as a full-time administrator, who acts as the school's business manager. The other deputy tends to curriculum and instruction but also teaches several classes. Heads in U.K. schools are expected not only to teach and deal with staff issues but also to tend to community relations and public information, an increasingly important function.
Because they must compete for students in the education marketplace, British schools “advertise” to prospective students and parents with glossy brochures and open houses. Government officials have deliberately provoked this competition, claiming that it will make schools more responsive and efficient. Most educators we talked with, however—even those from schools that are fully subscribed and regarded as successful—contend that the time and money spent on recruitment could be used for more worthy purposes.
Their doubts are magnified by schools' financial circumstances. As noted, most are in old buildings; they are also poorly maintained and badly in need of basic repairs. Teachers at Lucas Vale Primary, for example, told of leaking roofs and windows being blown out in relatively mild windstorms. (We noted with admiration, however, that teachers did not dwell on these concerns but instead showed courage and determination to help their students succeed in spite of the obstacles.)
Compared with most schools in North America, schools in the United Kingdom have very limited instructional materials, supplies, and equipment, and their financial situation seems to be getting worse. We were struck, for example, by the scarcity of up-to-date computers and other technological equipment. Thus, although schools have added responsibilities, they do not, so far as we could see, seem to be getting the resources needed to achieve those responsibilities adequately.
The problem is aggravated by the fact that a few key functions—including curriculum and teacher salaries—are not decentralized. Teachers in all types of schools are paid according to a single schedule. When the national government recently granted a pay raise of 7.5 percent, schools not under LEA control had to find the money from funds assigned to them. Schools with a large number of experienced, well-qualified teachers had to cut budgets designated for other purposes.

Pros and Cons of a National Curriculum

The other major function not delegated to schools is curriculum. In 1988 the Conservative government moved to create a single national curriculum for all schools that would serve as the basis for school-leaving examinations. The result—produced in the years following 1988 and thoroughly revised in early 1995—is a subject-based curriculum, which in some subjects is highly content-specific. Proud of their progressive tradition, many educators despise the new curriculum and the relative rigidity it has spawned. Teachers with whom we talked blamed it and its documentation (in the form of lesson plans and other records) for their “enormous workload.”
Other educators, though, expressed grudging acceptance or even endorsed the national curriculum. Although the curriculum requires teaching of much “irrelevant” knowledge (such as glaciation in Wales in a geography course), they appreciate the much-needed structure and sequence that it has brought to some subjects, such as English. They also told us that the curriculum has actually encouraged minor modernization of teaching methods in some classrooms. For example, the curriculum requires paired learning and small-group discussion in English classes, emphasizes oral training in foreign language, and treats home economics, crafts, art, and related courses as aspects of a broad curriculum area known as technology.
Another positive effect of the national curriculum may have been to raise expectations for achievement by disadvantaged and special-needs students. British educators told us that in the past, some special-needs children were nurtured by teachers but not expected to learn much. Now, all students are expected to meet established attainment targets, unless their plans are amended to specify less ambitious but still challenging goals. Executive Council members who scanned curriculum documents commented that, although the difficulty level appeared somewhat higher, they otherwise were similar to curriculum frameworks adopted by states and districts in the United States.
A major source of resentment toward the national curriculum has been the accompanying assessment tasks. Trying to avoid overreliance on conventional paper-and-pencil tests, educators who oversee the curriculum's implementation have devised imaginative activities, which teachers of science, mathematics, and English are required to administer and score. (Development of such tasks paralleled the growing interest in performance assessment among educators in other parts of the world, including the United States.) Apparently, however, designers of these tasks did not fully anticipate the reactions of teachers, who complained that they were unrealistic and poorly designed. Classsroom teachers, they told us, did not have the time and other resources to administer and score these tasks.
In 1993–94, considerable controversy arose when many teachers, with union support, refused to administer the tasks. Although the tasks have now been simplified somewhat, teachers at Swanlea, a new state secondary school, remain dissatisfied with the assessment process.

Open Teaching Persists, Inclusion Makes Headway

Teachers in the United Kingdom were formerly recognized worldwide for their student-centered approach. In the 1960s and early '70s, American educators flocked to Great Britain to observe innovative teaching, especially of young children, known as the open classroom. Of course, many teachers continued to use traditional methods, such as lecturing and recitation, characteristic of schools everywhere.
During our visits, we saw some examples of open teaching. At Edmund Waller Primary School, for example, half the pupils in a second-year class made bread, while the other half worked separately in three small groups. In our meeting with a first-year teacher, however, we listened to her frustration at the heavy workload that she felt prevented her from using a learner-centered approach—which she had learned about in her preservice education and believed in deeply.
Some experienced educators we talked with were troubled by the retrogression that they believe characterizes current U.K. education. They attribute the return of more traditional practices to introduction of the national curriculum; an emphasis on mastery of content knowledge; and political opposition to progressive methods, which in the United Kingdom are associated with a liberal political point of view.
As in the United States, some schools included students with physical and mental disabilities in regular classes. A support teacher often accompanied such children to help the classroom teacher adapt methods and materials for them. Unlike in the United States, however, most support teachers had no specialized preservice training in how to teach disabled students; rather, they had learned on the job or in brief workshops.
As in the United States, inclusion is considered a desirable goal, but many children with handicaps continue to attend special schools. For example, some Council members visited Brent Knoll, a small school (of 150 students) for students with special educational needs, including two classes of autistic children, ages 4–16.

Some Things Are the Same Everywhere

One thing educators like to do when they visit schools is talk with children. In our conversations, we were sometimes chagrined to find specific aspects of U.S. culture that British young people, like their peers around the world, admire. Told we were from America, they wanted to talk Power Rangers, Disneyland, and rap music. A group of students in an exclusive prep school told us their favorite American program on the telly is Ricki Lake, a tabloid talk show of questionable taste. In fact, British students reminded us very much of our own students back home.
We concluded that despite some specific differences, educators in the United Kingdom and in the United States—and elsewhere for that matter—face some of the same challenges, including governance, funding, and public understanding. Beyond that, we also share a commitment to making a difference in the lives of children. Indeed, our visit to London strengthened our sense of being part of an international community of professionals committed to making the world a better place through teaching and learning.

Charles Patterson has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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