British public opinion is not always conscious of how unique the UK education system actually is, so it is important that those of us leading international schools abroad speak up and share our vantage point. As headmaster of The British School of Barcelona, I am indeed proud of our Britishness as this obviously no longer has any jingoistic connotations of a bygone age but points instead to a set of specific professional and personal values defining what we do and how we go about doing it.
Non-British families are first attracted to British schools because an education in English can represent a passport to top international universities and enhanced career prospects. However, much work has been done in recent years by advocates of the British education system overseas to brand our schools more effectively and make it clear to existing and prospective parents that 'buying British' is a lot more than a simple linguistic choice.
As a British school, the quality of teaching and learning is at the heart of what we do and raising standards is our principal obsession. This means making it possible for children to achieve their full potential, whether we are talking about special needs pupils requiring particular help or gifted and talented students with exceptional academic ability who must be stretched and challenged. As heads, we are always asking ourselves questions such as: How successful are our teachers? Do they use appropriate questioning techniques in class? To what extent do they set differentiated objectives to make sure each child is performing at the right level? Do they manage to engage pupils actively in the process of learning? How do we know that assessment is used to improve understanding?
Encouragingly, the answer to these questions is clear to heads in British schools as teachers are accountable to us through our rigourous performance management systems. Thanks to regular lesson observations and book trawls, for example, we can get a clear picture of the quality of teaching and learning in a particular group. And continuous training, in addition to bringing teachers up to date on new developments, are used to target improvement areas which have previously been identified through performance management. This is so important that some schools actually have a Deputy or Assistant Head for Teaching and Learning whose sole job is to drive up standards day in, day out, by giving feedback on lessons to make them outstanding.
British schools are not isolated communities and heads can easily benchmark performance against national standards, through their performance in both inspections and examinations. Admittedly, public exams can at times be the target of criticism, but they are invaluable in that they provide a common point of reference for all schools. This, which might seem obvious to many, is not the case in other education systems lacking nationwide exams or benchmarking of any sort.
Robust inspections also keep us on our toes, and an international school is regularly scrutinised by the Department for Education and Ofsted under the British Schools Overseas Scheme. Inspection reports, which are transparent and publicly available, analyse how we measure up against UK standards and to what extent our British status is present in our ethos, curriculum, teaching and pastoral care.
In addition to good standards of learning, my other main obsession is to make sure my school never becomes an exam factory where statistics are more important than people. Children's educational experience should be a continuum which starts when they come in through the gate and does not stop until the bell rings at the end of the day. School clubs, playground behaviour, lunches and uniforms are as important to us as mathematics, as we wish to offer an all-round education preparing pupils for life. We have an obligation to provide a safe environment and deliver aspects of PSHE, but what I am trying to say goes well beyond this. I am referring to our holistic view of education in the British system whereby co-curricular activities (from art to music, drama, sport and community service) are there because they can tremendously enrich a child's experience and contribute to the attainment of a more fulfilled and fulfilling life.
In order to have an overview of what happens beyond the classroom, I have recently appointed an Assistant Head for the Enrichment Programme in my school, as I believe that this is part and parcel of a good British education. Without an overall narrative for the non-academic side of the school (assemblies, sessions with personal tutors, clubs and sports, prizes, trips, exchanges, leadership schemes and charity work), I would be letting down the community as I would not be trying my hardest to get the best out of every child.
It is clear to anyone involved in the delivery of British education to pupils outside of the British Isles that we have an education system of which we can be proud. Enrolling onto the British education system means entering a highly professional education system based on the praiseworthy aspiration that every child should achieve all-round excellence both inside and outside the classroom. The label 'British' is as important a seal of quality to us as an appellation d'origine contrôlée is to fine wines, and one which carries much weight in the world of education.