Specialists attending study visits typically learn a lot about each other’s education and training systems and policy solutions. But how useful is that knowledge when they return home? Can such an experience actually affect policy and practice within a regional or local school system? Rune Knutsen, Education Advisor for the city of Stavanger, shares his story of how a study visit and follow-up seminar helped his department introduce policy changes.
How did you come to participate in a study visit?
Knutsen: I’m a school administrator in the city of Stavanger, an advisor to the Head of Education. Before becoming an advisor I had served 13 years as headmaster; before that I’d been a special needs teacher.
After working with quality assurance, and after developing our own quality system in Stavanger, I felt a bit restless. I wondered if there was also something more I could add. So I started looking around, mainly to Sweden, and the UK. Then my boss happened to send me the study visits catalogue, which immediately attracted my interest as there were many visits on quality assurance. I filled the application then and there, thinking this is just what I need. The issues I face can’t be that different from those of people from other European countries.
What was the actual visit like? Did it meet your expectations?
Knutsen: The actual visit was overwhelming! I had been a bit nervous, wondering what the attitude would be, who I’d meet, etc. But as it turned out, we were all dealing with the same issues, the same challenges, and everybody was very open and willing to learn and to talk about their systems. It was quite intense, we were together from 8 in the morning to 10 at night – I was exhausted every day but it was so interesting! It was also a bit confusing to get so much information at once about several different systems - not just about our host city, Hamburg. Add to that the fact that some of us were speaking English for the first time in a professional capacity…well, my brain worked very hard during those days!
Did the experience of the study visit lead to changes in your own work?
Knutsen: What got my attention in Hamburg was that they don’t observe teachers, they observe teaching in schools. Of course we don't operate on the same scale in Stavanger, but getting to know the Hamburg quality assurance system made me realise that we had not been very good at observing how teaching was actually done in the classroom. We needed to make changes.
So when I got back home, I made several presentations, including of course to my boss, the head of education, and to colleagues representing the other ten large cities in our network. They were very eager to hear what I had to say – I could hardly answer all their detailed questions! As a result, almost at once three of them applied to attend a study visit on subjects of interest to them. That makes four out of ten!
At that time, our department was about to draw plans of action concerning assessment, i.e. how headmasters give feedback to teachers, and vice versa. Our suggestions, which were inspired by the ideas I brought from the study visit, were approved already last year by the town council. Of course it takes two to three years to really see results.
What we did was change the headmaster’s task. Until now, our headmasters never actually entered the classroom to observe the teachers. But the Hamburg experience showed me that this is the direction we should take. We don’t want headmasters to sit in their offices and read e-mails, we want them guiding the teacher. We now have a training programme for teachers who want to become headmasters. This incorporates what I learned at the study visit on how to become a learning organisation.
Looking back, how would you evaluate your study visit experience today?
Knutsen: Well, I came away with a strong feeling that we are only a small country at the top of the world, dealing with problems that are common to everyone. We need to learn from each other! Perhaps we can’t all change in the same ways, or adopt the same methods, but we can always find ways of adapting good ideas to our own systems. It’s dangerous not to change.
A lot of participants in the study visit were enthusiastic but feared that it would be impossible to implement changes: ‘we can’t do this in our country/our system’. I must recognise that if my boss hadn’t been so positive, it would have been hard to introduce these changes. With her support, and with the strong team approach we’ve now built in Stavanger, we managed to make meaningful changes and improve our schools.
Rune Knutsen took part in the Study Visit "Improving quality: internal and external evaluation in autonomous school" in Hamburg (December 2010) and the follow-up seminar "Improving quality in schools and VET institutions", in Bonn (February 2011).
Background: Coordinated by Cedefop, Study Visits for education and training specialists are part of the Lifelong Learning programme (2007-2013). They represent the bringing together of the Arion study visits for general education (launched 1976) with Cedefop’s study visits on vocational education and training (launched 1985).
To participate in the next round of study visits (March to June 2013), submit your application by 12 October.