In the book Cleverlands, Lucy Crehan writes about her experience of visiting five high performing education systems. Her travels take her to Finland, Singapore, Japan, China and Canada. It is widely acknowledged that those countries perform well on the international stage, as measured by PISA and have many strengths. So for Lucy to comment that Canada, out of all the countries she has visited, is where she would send her own children, is high praise indeed.
So, what is happening in Canadian schools that led Lucy to that conclusion? The answer is of course in the book (which I highly recommend reading)…however ,I may be able to shed some light on a few aspects of the Canadian system which I believe are worthy of note.
I had the opportunity to visit Ottawa with the National Academy for Educational Leadership for a week in January 2020 in order to find out more about how they promote their bilingual education system, ensuring that the use of French is not only protected but grows and develops within this vast country. During the many meetings that took place during the week I also focused on leadership – specifically getting an understanding about what their leaders do and how they are supported and developed.
Canada is made up of 13 different provinces and each province runs its own education system. I visited the national capital Ottawa, which is the second largest city in Ontario (behind Montreal). Whilst different provinces have similar approaches, each province is able to make decisions and operate systems that are specific to their own needs. They are able to respond to their localised context which, given the size of Canada, the second largest country in the world, is a must.
So what does educational leadership look like in Ontario?
In Ottawa there are four school boards who support, co-ordinate and develop the provision within their schools, which may be French, English, Catholic or public. The school boards are responsible for the education within their school; they appoint leaders, offer professional development, provide resources and hold schools to account regarding their performance. School superintendents are allocated to a number of schools and work in partnership with the principles within those schools, looking at standards, pedagogy etc.
So, what makes this system distinct and what can we learn from it?
During my time in Ottawa I spoke to a number of school principals and met with representatives from two school boards. I made several interesting observations.
One of the ways school boards do this is by ‘buffering’ principles from unnecessary distractions, allowing them to focus fully on improving outcomes for learning. One principle I spoke to explained that he had no dealings with school maintenance or health and safety, explaining that those tasks are dealt with centrally by school board staff. This allowed him to focus on maximizing the achievement and well-being of all the children in his care. As someone who spent all of Sunday last weekend in my school as the fire alarms were set off by a faulty boiler, I do feel rather envious about this.
As Academy Associates we have been brought together to realise the vision of “Inspiring leaders and enriching lives” and aim to bring clarity and coherence to educational leadership in Wales. The experiences from our time in Ottawa will undoubtedly help to further strengthen our work with leaders and enable us to ensure that we are all best placed to realise the National Mission.
Dr Suzanne Sarjeant, Academy Associate and Headteacher Pencoed Primary School