Study trip perks up principal

REFRESHED: Peter Brooks.
REFRESHED: Peter Brooks.

A Palmerston North school principal is brimming with bright ideas after a three-month sabbatical working with school leaders in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Lucy Townend talks to Freyberg High School's Peter Brooks about his time abroad. 

As Peter Brooks lounges on the leather couch in his office, with framed pictures of exotic places adorning the walls, there's no doubt the long-serving principal is well rested.

He returned to Freyberg High School in Palmerston North recently after a three-month trip overseas, rewinding, reflecting and doing research as part of his sabbatical.

About 40 leaders from state or state-integrated secondary schools are sent for a 10-week furlough every year by the Ministry of Education and Brooks was shoulder-tapped to go this year.

Along with the more serious side of things, he also had the chance to stay in a cottage in the Cotswolds, England, visited family and, on his way home, wandered the beaches in Phuket where he wrote a 17-page report on his sabbatical.

"It's half doing research and half rejuvenating for the next five years for the stressful principal's job," Brooks says. "Which is why it's nice to go where I did and have a bit of a holiday on one side, and then on the other side, it enabled me to look at some of the top schools in the United Kingdom."

Brooks has been at the helm of the co-educational secondary school for six years and has spent more than three decades in the education sector.

He's visited schools in New Zealand and Australia before to meet with school leaders to chat about their secrets to conquering the classroom, but this was his first time quizzing heads of international high schools.

The trip was a chance to see first-hand what top quality secondary schools in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales were doing.

"I've been teaching now for God knows how long, maybe 35 years, but it's nothing like what it was like when I started," Brooks says.

"My overall reasons for doing this sabbatical was because teaching is changing dramatically and rapidly.

"The way it's being done isn't going to work any more, because society's changing so much in terms of what our needs are; the idea of someone just sitting didactically in front of you and students being given information is becoming irrelevant.

"Teachers have got to become quite different in the way they do things."

He picked schools of similar composition to Freyberg; co-educational, student numbers nearing 1000 and schools that scored well in the UK's Ofsted system - the Office for Standards in Education, which inspects schools' services and performance.

Brooks spent time with principals at Corsham School in Wiltshire, England, Lakes School in Cumbria, England, Dublin High School in Ireland, Boroughmuir High School in Edinburgh, Scotland and Cardiff High School in Wales.

They were faculties which held the titles such as "the best state secondary school in Scotland", "the top co-educational state comprehensive in England", "the top school in Ireland" and "the highest achieving state school in Wales".

He also spent time with the director of Satrinonthaburi School in Bangkok, Thailand and attended a university teachers' conference in Newcastle, England for SEDA, Staff and Educational Development Association in UK higher education.

The conferences focused on tactile teaching in a developing digital world, responding to technology challenges in the classroom and preparing pupils for tertiary study.

From comparing the sabbatical reports from principals in the past seven years, Brooks says there are trends that can be noted as to what's "in vogue" for educators to look at.

Eight key concepts kept cropping up:

1. Professional development and student engagement.

2. Leadership, management and governance.

3. Curriculum designs.

4. ICT initiatives.

5. Culture, values and gender issues.

6.Transitioning and pathways.

7. Maori and Pasifika education.

8. Overseas education systems.

In 2007, almost 25 per cent of principals on sabbatical looked at overseas models of education, but since then the trend has steered towards ways of improving student engagement, introducing technology and focusing on priority learners.

Academic literature points to "the changing face of education" and the need to have leaders who can drive and manage the shift the teaching sector is undergoing.

Schools' views seemed to align, with the emphasis moving towards "educational leadership" and a "future focused curriculum".

"You hear those people on talkback radio who say ‘if you just get kids to sit there and read more and write more you'll be fine', but it doesn't work like that," Brooks says.

Teaching is complex and keeping students engaged can be challenging. If students are coming to a place where they want to be, and they're involved in sport and cultural activities, learning can follow.

When Brooks started his tenure at the top of Freyberg, the Ministry of Education had recently launched its Best Evidence Thesis.

The thesis had five leadership dimensions - establishing goals, strategic resourcing, evaluating teachers and the curriculum, promoting professional development and ensuring a supportive environment.

The system was well considered by Brooks during his time in Britain and used as a basis for his sabbatical research.

"I wanted to see what was happening in those schools, what was different and I wanted to link that with Best Evidence Thesis, which has been a big thing in New Zealand, and seeing what the key factors were with leadership and changing education in the UK."

He spent a day in each school with principals, talking to staff and students about their perception of creating successful schools.

Brooks found various schools had various methods, with some adaptable to New Zealanders' nature, and others not.

Some schools' principals spend a lot of time out of their office, checking on students and teachers in class, with jobs typically done by leadership teams picked up instead by ancillary staff.

A number of schools kept staff meetings to a minimum and sent out notices by email.

They made sure student achievements were noted regularly.

Classrooms and corridors boasted students' work and resembled the inside of a brightly-coloured Kiwi primary school classroom.

There were also glossy, professional publications sent home to parents.

Schools had business managers to look after finances and buildings, but Kiwi schools had more autonomy, with our British counterparts often having to answer to national and regional level government representatives.

"The playing field keeps changing [for them] as the education football keeps getting thrown around by politicians who have their own agenda," Brooks says.

In a nutshell, the important points were about making schools a place students wanted to come, encouraging professional development for staff, embracing modern technologies in the classroom and at home, and better use of results-driven data and celebrating a school's creativity, innovation and success.

Staff development is regarded as the dimension that impacts on student learning the most, Brooks says. "What makes the biggest difference is leaders being involved in the professional development of their staff and that's exactly what I found in those top schools, they make that their priority.

"Upskilling teachers, providing time for professional development and recognising pedagogy has got to change was at the heart of what schools do."

The use of data was also a big thing.

Schools in the UK had rigorous performance management systems which were strongly data-driven.

"We're way, way behind that in New Zealand; we're still using end result tests as some sort of measure of quality of the difference between schools, which is a complete nonsense," Brooks says.

The league-table approach doesn't properly take account of where students were when they arrived and then their progress.

"There's better testing of schools in the United Kingdom from when children arrive at school and then what they're reporting is the progress.

"You may have a student who comes in with a reading age of 10 and leaves with NCEA level 1 and that's a much better achievement than a kid who came in with a reading age of 16 and achieved level 1.

"Our New Zealand stats at the moment don't give you any reading of that, which is ridiculous."

The UK system breaks it down by teacher and uses data to compare educators' impact on students.

"It really shows value-added . . . and there's then development plans for those teachers who are less skilful, and development plans for those who are to coach the others."

There was also a shift to focusing on student and staff wellbeing in schools, with the relationship between the two being helped along by support services, pastoral processes and links to outside agencies. "Mindfulness" was becoming a buzzword.

From Brooks' experience, he says there's a raft of new ideas which could work well at Freyberg, but he laughs when he says they won't all be tried out straight away.

"The staff hate principals going on sabbatical," he says. "They go, ‘Oh no, you're going to come back with all these new ideas you're all of a sudden going to impose'."

There will be a mixture of "incremental innovations" and some more "disruptive innovations", which Brooks promises will benefit the school in the long run.

In the end, Brooks says educators still make the biggest difference in a school; it's about the people and not the programmes.

"I feel really passionate about being back and inspired by the fact that we're in New Zealand and, apart from the fact there's a few little hiccups, we've got a really strong education system which everyone is jealous of overseas.

"I'm looking forward to the challenge of the next five years."

Manawatu Standard