Teaching and Learning in Switzerland


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Ross McGill Switzerland March 2019

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In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account through which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday...
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How does high stakes accountability in England compare with international and independent schools?

On the 1st and 2nd of March 2019, I attended the Swiss Group of International Schools annual conference. I led a keynote alongside the renowned Professor Andy Hargreaves with an amazing *collection of educators. I also led a number of social media and teaching and learning workshops.

Working outside of your context…

Every school is doing the same, but the context in which it is located means those challenges will manifest itself in other forms.

My experiences of working in schools in Germany, Spain, Switzerland and UAE over the last year has triggered me to write this post after leading my first international keynote to a group of educators who predominantly work in the independent and international sector.

I am well-aware that working in a challenging school does not align with many teachers who work in another setting. I’ve been challenged for my views on English state school teaching before, but this does not mean we should deny one another of our experiences – even if they include some negative messages. It is not all rosy.

High-stakes accountability may be a foreign concept for you, but in these schools, teachers are monitored, scrutinised and graded as though working 60-hour-plus weeks for 32.5 hours’ pay is a privilege.

In England

Tim Paramour said in The Independent, “I’ve been the deputy head of a large primary school in inner London. The headteacher I work with is fantastic. We have a committed, talented team of staff and governors and the young people I teach are always entertaining. The pay is pretty good. I’ll soon be ready to apply for the top job at a school of my own. But I’m not going to.”

He is definitely not alone.

I felt the same too about headship in April 2016 – I knew within two years of it being the next step up that it wasn’t for me. Eighteen months later, it was ‘stay in a special measures school and face 70-hour weeks, the sack or apply for another deputy headship elsewhere? Perhaps headship?’

Nope. I chose to step out altogether. If you have never experienced your career and livelihood is under threat by arbitrary decisions, you fail to understand how high-stakes accountability drives good people away from English state schools.

I can forgive you if that’s never happened to you and it is hard to understand, and I really hope it doesn’t.

Imposter Syndrome?

This is why I openly speak out about high-stakes accountability and the damage it causes to teacher retention in England. We need to do more to talk about the toxic side of our education system so that we can eradicate it altogether. It is not helpful to shy away from the conversation. The teachers who choose to work in tougher schools, we need to acknowledge that they are as hard-working and doing exactly the same things as those who work in ‘outstanding’ or independent schools who share the same pressures, but are defined by labels. Every school requires improvement. Every teacher faces the same types of challenges in the classroom.

International Schools

Working within international education, accountability comes from termly summative tests and from parents who are paying fees. Some pressures also stem from formal examination grades and the need to demonstrate value for money to attract a good number of admissions. The same challenges exist in state schools to some degree, but I suspect there is much less pressure from parents.

However, time and time again I am surprised how ‘accountability on the individual teacher’ varies wildly.

For teachers working in independent or international settings, their contracts are often bi-annual and based on performance, with colleagues relocating their families only to discover it wasn’t what they expected or that they are not up to the job. Equally on the other side of the accountability coin, some are free to teach in a way that suits their teaching style and are left to get on with the job – some teachers have told me that they are never observed or have their marking and lesson plans checked. In some cases, schemes of work do not exist and of course, this isn’t the picture everywhere.

 

Professional development, peer observation and building learning communities based on values, not metrics are not British inventions! They are things that happen in Switzerland too … but are these goals acheiveable in challenging state schools?

Students enter from many backgrounds to attend an international school and it is very important to take this into account. For example, one of the school’s who I have worked for in Switzerland is based on top of a mountain in the Swiss Alps (see video). They have skiing timetable in their curriculum. Does your school offer skiing?

Context and balance matters …

The point I’m making here is the context matters. International schools attract a significant number of EAL students from around the world, and so do inner-city state schools in England, but because they are a fee-paying school and are based 1,300 metres above sea level, context matters, as well as the challenges this brings. In this example, the location of the school creates a real challenge for teachers in the classroom.

We are all more or less facing the same challenges and this is what I am writing about in my new book, published in September 2019.

What we need is a balance between both models of accountability. Some rigour, some autonomy and the freedom to find our way between both extremities so that teachers and schools can thrive within the challenges of working within their context.

This is our ultimate goal.

Sage on the stage?

Leading a keynote is very different from managing a small workshop with a group of teachers, particularly when the room includes over two or 300 people. Therefore, planning is critical. I hope to share my methodology for success (or not) in my new five-minute keynote plan (which you will be able to download on this website) which explains much of my thinking process. I’ve been meaning to publish this for many months.

Although I wasn’t nervous about speaking on stage to a large audience, I do you think on reflection it is easy to pitch a presentation incorrectly, purely because of the information that one uses from their experiences does not often correlate with that of others. Context matters, but it is vital we listen and learn from others who work in other settings and I am pleased I shared my experiences, no matter how uncomfortable they were to receive.

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Listen to those you disagree with …

It is vital we all listen to those who we may disagree with – we can learn so much from one another. This is why I speak openly about the damage of high-stakes accountability on our English state school teachers and why we are oozing great teachers from our profession. Our Ofsted and Department for Education officials would learn so much from our independent and international colleagues, as well as from our own colleagues in England who have experienced the sharp end of the wedge.

It was wonderful to meet and work alongside Professor Danny Brassell, as well as Dr. Kendall Zoller, Alison Schofield, Jennifer Wathall, Louise Penrice and many others.


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