“Odyous of olde been comparisonis, And of comparisonis engendyrd is haterede.” So wrote John Lydgate in around 1440 in his ‘Debate between the horse, goose and sheep’.
By contrast, I believe we have a lot to learn and gain from making comparisons, not least comparisons between ourselves in Britain and our international neighbours. Considerable ink has been spilled by educational leaders about the value of, and insights to be gained from, consideration of the outcomes of international educational tests. At the forefront of this has been the rank ordering of jurisdictions based upon the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is a worldwide study by the OECD. England’s positon in these has been stagnating, driving policy makers, rightly in my view, to prioritise educational improvement and reform. However, initially some policy makers’ response was a knee jerk: Finland was doing well, so go copy Finland. What more astute thinkers recognized, however, is that superficial comparison and unthinking adoption of policy, out of context, is not enough to engender improvement. Finland is a very small jurisdiction, and the educational policy which drove its success in the PISA rankings in the 2000s actually dated from the late 70s. Since topping PISA in 2000 for reading and in 2003 for maths, Finland has begun to slip in the rankings. Educational strategy and policy needs to continuously evolve, and it takes time before you can really measure its effects.
So in the context of making international educational comparisons, it was a huge privilege for me to lead the overseas leg of Bennett’s exchange with our Italian partner school Liceo Sophie Scholl, to Trento in Northern Italy at half term. Our party of 16 students was blessed with sunny weather and had a huge amount to thank our warm and generous hosts for: we walked in the Dolomites, sailed up the Grand Canal in Venice and posed for photos before Juliet’s balcony on Valentine’s Day in Verona.
The Liceo Sophie Scholl is a specialist language school, where students study almost all of their lessons in languages other than Italian; so history lessons in French are the norm. Consequently, most of our student hosts were pretty fluent in English, French and German. Like many British people abroad, when faced by the capacity of foreigners to speak English with facility, we were at one and the same moment reassured, intimidated, and a little bit embarrassed by what can feel like a one-way street of communication. Attending lessons conducted in both French and German, the Bennett students were impressed by the ease with which their partners conversed in yet another tongue. We have much to learn about the way in which languages are learned in this internationalist context.
This all said, the experience in fact proved to be a powerful one for all involved, both British and Italian, in developing new knowledge, communication and understanding. Far from being odious, the opportunity to compare themselves to their Italian counterparts made our Bennett students reflect upon their own learning, identifying the strength of their sciences and maths. In many of the party it engendered a deep desire to improve further in their languages. Nor should our Bennett party simply be written off as less effective linguists; in fact, the party contained three members who are bilingual, and we all made some steps forward in learning Italian.
In talking to the headteacher and teachers from Sophie Scholl, one stark fact about Italian public schools leapt out at me, by way of contrast with Bennett. I was told that it is pretty normal for less than half of the teaching staff to have permanent contracts. Most of the remaining teachers can expect to be moved annually from school to school within the region at the whim of government, with less than a fortnight’s notice at the end of August each year. The consequences of this for school leadership are in my view pretty devastating. There is almost no opportunity to develop a staff which is in a position to contribute to the distinctive ethos of a school and ready to engage in this. Training and developing teachers cannot easily be sustained, as teachers move from school to school, adapting to different contexts. Each school has little incentive to invest significantly in teachers as professionals in order to develop further their pedagogical knowledge. From my perspective, one great virtue of recent educational reform in England has been to invest trust in school leaders, giving us autonomy in most matters relating to teacher selection, deployment, training and retention. At Bennett we have used this to develop a staff who are confident in their work and who each contribute powerfully to the distinctive identity of this school. I should of course say that I met teachers at Sophie Scholl who make exactly this kind of contribution there, but in their case the education system stands in their way as an obstacle.
One highlight of our visit for me, organised by the incomparable Tamara Boscia, the lead Italian teacher in the exchange, was the opportunity to don snow-shoes and ascend through the snow in the Dolomites to a height of some 2500m. We were led by Lorenzo, an Italian mountain leader of great wit, charm and physical prowess. What for us was an arduous adventure, was clearly a walk in the park for Lorenzo. Yet, as we took our lunch, he expounded with great animation on his respect for the fortitude and prowess of British mountaineers and adventurers. He pointed out that many of the most challenging ascents in the Alps had been pioneered by the British. With this in our minds the group were invited to choose whether to continue our ascent up a steep ridge covered in snow, or to elect to stay where we had taken our lunch, waiting for the more intrepid to return. I was delighted when the vast majority of our Bennett students seized the opportunity to continue. For some it was a real challenge, which called on every ounce of their tenacity. Many referred to their Duke of Edinburgh Award experiences as the basis for their determination to get to the top. As you can see from the image below. The ascent was well worthwhile, not least for the view it afforded us. All in all, an incomparable experience!