These are exciting times for education in Wales with so many new developments, and an opportunity to reconsider our priorities.  The new curriculum, the new professional standards, the new developments and expectations in terms of Initial Teacher Education and the principle of Schools as Learning Organisations are all exciting and agreed developments in Welsh education.  It is also good that we as practitioners have been included every step of the way in this development, and have had a central role in co-creating the future of education in Wales.

The National Academy for Educational Leadership is also central to this reform, with its mission of “Inspiring Leaders: Enriching Lives” and the aim of bringing clarity and coherence to educational leadership in Wales.

This year I’ve had the privilege of being one of the first twelve associates for the NAEL. One important element of the associates’ work is to respond to a Welsh Government commission, entitled:

How can leaders enable high-quality professional learning opportunities that improve well-being and achieve better outcomes for all?”

There are many aspects to this commission, but one is to research successful international education systems, including visiting one of those countries.

As part of this commission, I was fortunate enough to visit Finland recently, along with 4 other headteachers. This was a very valuable experience, in a country which has shone with its recent PISA performances. Having said this, there were some concerns that this performance could be declining, especially with the pupils at the peak of the ability range in their system.

There is a risk on a foreign visit to become too infatuated, and believe in the old proverb that the grass is always greener on the other side. But we must remember that every education system is the result of its society, its traditions and its own culture; independent, individual aspects from a successful foreign system cannot be transferred without considering the wider context.  Similarly, as we left our familiar surroundings for a short while, it was good to realise that we work in a worthy profession, in an enlightened country that is eager to further develop and reform in the interest of the children and young people of Wales.   It is also good to realise that not all the answers can be found abroad, that there are many positive aspects within our system, and that we should be shouting about this.

Therefore, I didn’t get all the answers during my visits to schools and educational institutions in Helsinki and Jyväskylä.  However, we were prompted, and a number of key questions arose for us as educational leaders in Wales to consider:

How can we regain respect and pride within the education profession in Wales in order for us to entice the most gifted students within our systems to want to become teachers?  We had a conversation with one headteacher who had received 250 applications for a general teaching post!

In attracting the best to the profession, how is it possible to ensure that they maintain their motivation and enthusiasm and enjoy a long and successful career within our education system?

How can we here in Wales ensure that the funding available within the education system reaches our schools effectively, so that headteachers don’t face the annual challenge of raising standards with dwindling financial resources?

How is it possible for us in Wales to ensure that the resources within the system are used to make a direct difference to the lives of individual children? The PISA results in Finland strongly suggest that they have managed to successfully close the gap between the weakest and strongest in their schools.  When we saw the support services available to schools in Finland, you could understand why.  We saw medium-sized schools with an educational psychologist, a school nurse and social worker serving them more or less full time.

How can Wales change the education culture to ensure that we are driven by professional responsibility rather than accountability? The trust within the education system in Finland was incredible –perhaps there was too much – with the inspectorate having been abolished in the 1990s. Lack of competition was evident between their institutions, and it was nice to see that they weren’t familiar with the perpetual British conversation about “successful schools” and “failing schools”.

I’ve already emphasised that I did not find the answers. However, there is some clear truth in their working principle of responsibility rather than accountability. Today, we have the opportunity to revisit this in Wales.  I instinctively feel that the system in Wales would improve if the accountability arrangements stopped scrutinising individual institutions, and worked constructively and collaboratively with catchment areas or wider areas instead.  This would lighten the tremendous pressure within the system, create a strong collaborative ethos and develop the key principle of co-ownership of our education system.

As I said, the answers to our concerns are not in Finland or any other individual system – but we cannot ignore some of the messages from a system with clearly strong outcomes. And by outcomes, of course I don’t mean the narrow measure of the examination performance of 16-year olds.  During my brief visit, I generally saw happy learners, with healthy attitudes and bodies, being respectful and succeeding in their education.  Somehow, there was less pressure on their whole system – less pressure on the teachers and educational leaders, and less pressure on the learners themselves.  In 2018, this is something we cannot ignore. And as a cyclist, the hundreds of bikes outside the school in Jyväskylä also demonstrated that it is possible to prepare the citizens of the future for a more sustainable way of life.  Similarly, I didn’t see any formal uniform, but I did observe respectful learners at ease when learning.  I’m not suggesting that getting rid of school uniforms is the answer either, just reflecting and considering priorities.

Thank you Finland – not for giving us the answers on a plate – but for reminding a headteacher from Wales of the privilege and responsibility of his job, also for reminding him how fortunate we are in Wales, but also for encouraging him to think afresh about answers to some of our challenges! Kiitos Suomi.

Gwyn Tudur, NAEL Associate and headteacher of Ysgol Tryfan