#5 Notes and queries – International Benchmarking study tour

We’re on our way back to the UK. Having visited many schools, of many denominations, and having met many ministers and state officials, we have collected our notes and perceptions below.
Pairs took responsibility to report back their views in discrete areas. What you will read below may be open to contention; if so, please leave a comment. Our study tour was not exhaustive and these notes can only represent our experiences.
Assessment and accountability:

• Pupils are streamed in Primary 6 and then a national exam, the Primary School Leaving. Examination (PSLE), is used to assess pupils’ suitability for secondary education.

• 3 routes possible leading to GCE ‘O’ level: Express (4 years), Normal (Academic) and Normal. (Technical) – both 5 years.

• Some institutions choose not to enter students for ‘O’ levels but prepare them for ‘A’ levels only.

• Teacher accountability is via the EPMS – Enhanced Performance Management System – quite similar to our appraisal system.

• Student feedback on teacher performance is used in many institutions as opposed to formal lesson observations which are less common.


• The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) is used across Australia (usually in May) for years 3, 5, 7 and 9 and is overseen by each school.

• NAPLAN assesses skills in four areas – reading, writing, SPG and numeracy.

• In Victoria, assessment is via The Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) on successful completion of secondary education – usually in years 11 and 12 (UK – years 12 and 13) but can be started in year 10 (50% of students)

• The VCE is internationally recognised and provides pathways to employment and further study at university, TAFE (Technical and Further Education)

• The VCAL (Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning) is a hands-on option for year 11 and 12 students.

• The Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) – 99.95 down to zero is used to rate students and judge schools.

• ATAR is based on an average of the raw exam mark and a moderated school assessment (extensive statistical moderation takes place which has strict implications for schools to get their rank order correct)

• ATAR scores are adjusted depending on the degree of difficulty of a subject, e.g. scores in further maths may be adjusted by +25 compared to ordinary maths.

• Accountability in New South Wales (NSW) is for all via Teacher Assessment Review Schedule (TARS).

• Accountability in Victoria will increase, given that Principals perceive only 70% of staff (including Principals) will progress up their salary scale.

• Formal lesson observations of staff are not the norm and it appears that observing prospective teachers as part of the recruitment process is never used and maybe not be allowed!

• Staff produce a ‘portfolio’ of evidence each year in some schools.

Summary Thoughts

In Singapore, there is a serious move away from high stakes testing (under control of MoE) and a much greater emphasis on creativity (an acknowledgement here that much could be learned from the UK).

The Secretary of State for Victoria, Richard Bolt, stated that one of the main challenges facing Victorian Principals was the shifting of literacy and numeracy results. He also said that the 70% figure of staff progressing up their scale was not set in stone, as was the general perception.

A huge challenge in NSW is in terms of closing the gap on the engagement and performance of indigenous students – currently deemed a national disgrace that they are neglected in some areas.

There is no equivalent accountability system in Australia to the UK’s Ofsted but the non-
Government sector in NSW (50% of schools) have board inspections once per year who look at curriculum delivery, standards etc.


  1. To what extent does the UK’s testing regime, performance league tables and accountability framework stifle some of the innovative practice and creativity which we witnessed on this study tour?
  2. Is there much to celebrate with UK policy direction albeit with some incorporation of lessons learned from this tour and other similar studies?
Curriculum design (Primary) 

An essential ingredient in curriculum provision in all the schools visited in Singapore and Australia has been a key set of values which underpin the curriculum model. These have been displayed proudly in the entrance hall of all the schools visited and then have been used as visual aids within the classrooms. In the best schools these visual aids have had photos or pictures depicting activities or actions which exemplify the concept.

Whilst a new curriculum has recently been introduced in Australia it would probably be fair to surmise that this has not been at the request of schools who on the whole seem to believe that it is restrictive. However, schools are looking at how to adopt the new curriculum without losing the integrity of their current provision.

Several schools offer integrated lessons finding links between subjects and teaching them in a holistic way. Where this appeared to be working successfully students could demonstrate independent learning and could show progress towards specific learning outcomes. However, if the rigour of the learning was not integral the lessons lost focus and became fun activities with limited learning outcomes.

Learning outdoors featured in all contexts. Sometimes in the form of gardening – either growing food or keeping the site tidy and other times developing outdoor activities such as cycling, fishing and looking after animals.

Many schools were creatively utilising the abundant space to provide key learning areas such as designated areas for building shelters and covered areas for large scale performances.

There was much evidence of parental support – making lunches, gardening, running creative writing workshops and reading which provided schools with additional adults to work alongside pupils in many different contexts.


  1. Can we learn from a more relaxed approach and allow pupils more freedom and opportunities to take risks?
  2. How can we maximise our sites to support and enhance our curriculum provision?

Curriculum Design (Secondary)


• High level focus on being internationally successful in all aspects of education

• Very strong ethos and values underpin curriculum choices including very broad extra curricular or vision. Character, citizenship and values Education for life underpins curriculum

Frnakston mission


• In addition to core subjects of English, maths and science, Humanities Programme highly valued and specialises in international studies at global level – exchange of ideas at top level.

• Student leadership is part of the curriculum and involvement in global youth forum and projects with oversea universities e.g. Harvard University – Yale – Berkeley – Stanford – and Cornell.

• Integrated curriculum Programme – skip the GCSE level element and make straight to A Levels or IB

• Perceived need to address creativity in the curriculum – a new focus to counter the emphasis on literacy, numeracy, science.

Australia: Victoria and New South Wales

• No external high stakes tests until Year 12 (the equivalent of UK Year 13) although regular Year 3,5,7,9 national NAPLAN tests in literacy and numeracy.

• Freedom from GCSE equivalent means that Australians have the equivalent of Key stages 3 & 4 to develop interests and skills beyond the constraints of formal assessment. System of electives gives Curriculum breadth in years 9 and 10.

• Strong ethos and values

• Most schools have a laptop scheme for most students, government funded, but as the scheme comes to an end the new system is BYOD (bring your own device) most schools visited had heavy student usage of laptops etc for individual student use.

• Core subjects are English, maths, science and Languages. Electives system sometimes used very imaginatively across year groups to allow for greater choices. Electives, sometimes as any as 60 on offer, include aviation, teenagers and the law, environmental geography, handball games, life saving, architecture etc

• Observed enthusiastic active learning in various electives such as in aviation elective which included computer flight simulations, theoretical understanding on flight, model helicopter and plane manipulation and control and off site real small aircraft flying in a Cessna.

• Heavy emphasis on personal ICT including large number of IPads, with most schools having state or privately funded funded laptops. Strong focus on digital literacy and e-safety, using in many schools student laptop or e-learning leaders. Use of ICT across the curriculum incorporated innovative activities such as in science, students used anime cartoons to explain the Doppler Effect. Edmodo application used widely by teachers to share curriculum with classes, monitor, collect assessments and set homeworks or communicate. One school developed its own apps. such as @ppreciate, designed to consider negative body images.

At the most innovative school learning capture methods used to make short video instructional clips which students can individually use to inform and learn, when they need that learning. Students becoming content creators, uploading to YouTube, story reading and creating information presentation with voice overs etc.

• Innovative Hands on Learning programme to engage vulnerable or disaffected students in practical learning on site such as construction, gardening etc

• Outdoor education much more prevalent in curriculum, with camps built into the year curriculum programmes and in many schools agriculture also part of core studies. Sport also a very strong feature in all schools. Music, drama and creative arts also strongly placed within curriculum.

• VCE /VET in Victoria and HSC in New South Wales, are year 12 state examinations system studied over years 11 and 12 with considerable breadth of topics studies and weighting of units, variations include vocational topics such as plumbing, furniture making etc and academic subjects including languages eg Japanese, maths, sciences etc

• On line distance curriculum learning development is being used, particularly at Bendigo Senior School, to support rural schools struggling to get teachers in front of class especially with smaller subjects. Programmes include activities, instruction, assessment and marking. Use of webcam support in Bendigo to support individual students. State and federal funding to support teachers’ development time.

• Use of Moodle prevalent in most schools

• Strong focus on creativity recognised in schools and mention of Sir Ken Robinson’s work

• Perceived need by teachers to seek new methodologies that are problem solving and creative.

Felt that 21st problems can’t have 20th century answers. Interesting thinking about maths by state education system- feeling maths still base on Industrial Age when it now needs to be more problem solving.

Summary thoughts:

Singapore regards its people as its only natural resource and in that respect it’s education reflects that philosophy of growing young leaders and contributors to world economy. Its education and curriculum are sharply focused on values and being an active citizen of the world. Teaching and learning is highly valued and nationally supported with professional development.

Australian education seems to have much more flexibility in terms of the curriculum at least in years 9 and 10 with their system of electives and lack of formal terminal examinations at 16. However, Australian teachers tend to see the curriculum especially, with the incoming new national curriculum as non flexible and content heavy. In one school in particular there was evidence of very different thinking around curriculum planning which was really exciting and innovative. Using personal ICT access widely and unusual learning environments to allow for “Just in Time” learning this school has developed a culture of problem solving, individualised and team learning which allows the curriculum to underpin but not control the learning experiences.

Questions to consider:

  1. Is the heavy use of ICT by students making a significant difference in Learning outcomes?
  2. Is the system of electives helpful in engendering students enthusiasm for learning
  3. Is the new Australian national curriculum going to add or hinder development
  4. Given the position of Australia in international tests, why is there such disparity in the system, with poor attendance levels overall, increasing disparity between academic success and employment and access to higher education for socially disadvantaged students as against more affluent students?
Continual Professional Development


Evidence of a strong centralised CPD mechanism in Singapore.

Training for all levels through the Institute for Education.

Heads of Departments had the opportunity to undertake a 3 month research sabbatical. Internal school structures support the work in school whilst senior leaders engaged in this.

Prior to taking up a headship position, newly appointed Headteachers have a 3-month training preparation programme.

Vision and aims are based on strategic long-term investment on teaching and leadership necessary for the belief that people (and education) is the main capital for the future. Controlled centrally under tight structures and systems.

Cultural attitude is based on central tenets of:

Nothing is left to chance & Failure is not an option

Singapore is attempting to pull away from embedded culture of high stakes testing. They acknowledge the need to move towards skills for the future, e.g. adaptability, resilience and creativity. That the current testing structure does not support this shift and, due to successful world wide rankings, they feel that they may well be victims of their own successes. Educational research is developed in a strong partnership between the institute and schools.


Victoria – large networks of school to school support based mainly on sharing of good practice through organized events. Schools organized at local district level. E.g. Geelong – 25 schools.

NSW centralised budget of $34m targeted at professional development

NSW Developing general teaching and leadership standards

CPD entitlement currently for NQTs: 2 hours a week

Recently QTs: 1 hour a week

Impression is that the central government supplies CPD funds to individual schools who then use this to develop own systems. The collaborative picture is through the large school network structure. E.g. district level training events (as Victoria).

DfE moving from a programmed approach to funding to devolution to schools underpinning the new direction of bottom up systems rather than bureaucratic, top-down systems.

NSW doctorate programme accessible for any Principal – centrally held.NSW new central structure is 4 Executive Directors (4 strands) supporting 65 Directors who each support 34 Principals. This supports professional development of directors and Principals as well as being the main delivery model for accountability for systems and standards.

NSW structure of 5 Days for CPD (same as UK system). National partnership for secondary principles association – provide support and training and courses across the state. e.g. Moss Vale received $28 thousand for CPD.

Did not see any evidence of a coordinated approach to what makes a good lesson? Although there were indications of this coming from federal government.

Summary Thoughts

Main priority (NSW) is in developing teachers and leaders

Singapore – Research, Leadership development at all levels- skills based curriculum (soft skills for hard times) but a change on culture is needed.

Outstanding practice was seen more in the flexible teaching and learning approaches. This was heavily linked to in-school CPD programmes and a shift in culture of collaborative learning and responsibility for each other at a professional level.

Questions to consider

  1. Are there plans for a national framework for CPD against the new teaching and learning standards and accountability at all levels e.g. NQT/RQT and Higher Level but what about those between? If there are national standards then there would need to be a national framework for CPD which would be quality assured against the new standards.
  2. How could the Private sector support the development of publicly funded local schools? A lot of International work was evident.
  3. Are there plans for a more federated (hard) approach to school-to-school partnerships? Developing outstanding schools’ responsibilities for supporting schools in need of development.
  4. Is there a move for more research based inquiry in Australia, as seen in Singapore? If so, how will this be supported?
The ever- increasing emphasis on the quality of school governance in the UK is in stark comparison to schools in Australia. Whilst Ofsted’s most recent framework includes references to ‘stringent accountability,’ for holding school leaders to account, it appears to be significantly less so at national level in Australia; rather, governance of schools is largely decided by individual schools.
Discussions with principals raises questions about the roles and responsibilities of governors – both individually and collectively – and the impact of their involvement with schools.  Whilst undoubtedly school leaders are granted greater autonomy for decision-making at local level there appears to be no definitive guidance or requirement, or standardisation regarding governor selection or recruitment. Expectations for quality assurance of governors are negligible, which contrasts sharply with requirements of governors in UK schools who face significant pressure to discharge or fulfil their roles and responsibilities, including holding school leaders heavily to account. In Singapore schools, models of governance the appointment of School Councils which operate in a similar way to company directors.
Such variation between schools,both within Australia in addition to the contrast between UK schools, poses a range of questions:
  1. What is the process of selection and recruitment for governors of  Australian schools in which governing bodies are in place?
  2. To what extent are governors held responsible for the strategic direction of their school in relation to achievement and standards in schools, performance management and financial management?
  3. What systems are in place to quality assure the effectiveness of governing bodies? Is there evidence of a systematic approach to self-evaluation, or audit to identify or analyse their strengths and capacity to support and challenge school leaders?
  4. How do governors remain up-to-date with developments or initiatives in education to support them in their role?
These fundamental questions would ignite an interesting debate on the whole concept of governance, both within the UK and Australia. The dichotomy between expectations at national level is evident; it appears to be the case that, even where governing bodies are established, there are no formal arrangements, systems or procedures in place to measure their quality or effectiveness.

E learning:


With only visiting one independent and one state school, evidential usage was limited. Technology was only seen as a presentation tool.


Correlation between Technology and PISA tables – Any?

What value do the children put on the technology? Enabler or creative tool?

Australia – Victoria

Starting the Australian section of our tour at Wesley College the students moved between classes with their laptops and it was clear that they were in constant usage. However, with our limited time in the classroom, we were unable to see how the technology was being utilised by the students and staff.

At University High School some of the students were using laptops, mainly in personal spaces.


At Frankston High School, we saw how technology had truly become the driver in engagement and creativity from both staff and students, whilst at Bendigo Senior School we viewed their VOLN as a great example of using technology to include children in remote areas.


  1. How can best practice in technology be promoted to ensure that technology has a more rounded impact within the State?
  2. What value do the children put on the technology? Enabler or creative too?

Australia – Sydney

As we moved to NSW our visits to Moss Vale High School and Chevalier Catholic College, technology was clearly visible in its usage, without getting evidential support on how it was embedded. At Merryvale High School, the Laptop Leaders scheme was used to support students and staff alike. The school’s relationships with technology companies such as Microsoft and Adobe were key to how they utilised their IT. The driving force for its usage was, undoubtedly, through the efforts of Alice, Head of IT. The panel of Principals that followed at the school illustrated the diversity between how technology was utilised within the schools. As the tour came to a conclusion at Northern Beaches Christian School, we came across a school unlike any visited where spaces and open learning is developed to produce a high standard of independent learning. The technology is vital and laptops were in constant use in every area of the learning. Teacher was the facilitator, with almost universal use of the Learning Platform. All students had their own device (BYOD) with the ability to use school devices where software is proprietary. Twitter extensively used as a teacher contact tool.


  1. How can best practice in technology be promoted to ensure that technology has a more rounded impact within the State?
  2. What impact has the introduction of 1:1 had? Is there any research to substantiate conclusions?


As we now reflect on the evidence that we have seen and heard about, our visit has shown that the technology challenges in Australia reflect those in the UK. We have pockets of excellence combined with pockets of missed opportunities. Similar to the UK it takes someone within a school that has the vision to incorporate it as just another utility, like gas, water and electricity, that serves teachers and students to improve how they work, communicate, collaborate and achieve.

What we have seen with the DER programme is a great chance that has allowed schools to fast track this vision. As the programme is finishing, some of those schools we have visited have used it to establish some wonderful practice. Others are not as far down the line in the journey and will have the challenge to sustain the momentum.

With the conclusion of the DER programme, schools, where the technologyremains key, will move to a BYOD programme. We saw one of the schools that has already gone down this route have Wi-Fi infrastructure issues where student machines could not get connected.

From a device point of view we saw many staff with tablet devices but the overwhelming viewpoint from the student was that a traditional notebook allowed them to be more creative alongside the ability to use a keyboard.

Significantly one school, Frankston, has gone the route of convertible devices that take away the need for two separate devices.


Student leadership 

A focus on the involvement of students within and beyond their schools


  • Students come across as confident and happy.
  • Building self confidence to develop social capital is evident
  • They are able to converse well with adults.
  • Students take interest in their roots and the history of their school.
  • Students are encouraged to look beyond their school community for example involvement in schools less fortunate.
  • They take pride in their school.
  • There are student roles and responsibilities for extra curricular activities – sport, music, the arts, student mentoring.
  • School captains are involved in meet and greet activities and act as tour guides.
  • Opportunities to develop organisational skills are provided through student led activities. An example of this was seen by students taking on the role of student principal for a day.
  • In one school, a module in the curriculum explicitly taught about leadership. In another school, students were emerging as teachers for students who want to know how to use their laptops.
  • School councils appear to be embedded within school life.


Ken OBEFrankston


Student leadership has a value dimension – student leadership appears to be more style driven rather substance focused.

Questions to consider

  1. Are students involved in leading learning?
  2. Is there something to be learnt around explicitly teaching about leadership?
  3. Are there opportunities for student voice to have a wider influence beyond their school?


Quality Assurance and Self Evaluation 


In all of the three jurisdictions we visited their view of what QA and self assessment was so different to ours that at times it felt like trying to compare apples with pears.

The external motivator of Ofsted in the UK has made QA a fundamental part of how we work. Without Ofsted, the three jurisdictions viewed classroom observation and self evaluation in different ways.

As both Singapore and Australia figure higher than the UK in PISA, increasing QA was not seen as a priority to drive up standards although schools differed in viewing classroom observations as a tool for professional development and growth.


There is an area wide superintendent who oversees and is accountable for the progress and tests scores against national levels of 13 schools in a district.

Student interviews and surveys are also part of the culture.


Every 4 years government schools experience a review, with 6 months notice.

There is no externally published report.

Reactions to lesson observations and QA was mixed in all the schools, with Frankston having a professional development model which encouraged staff collaboration, time and support to observe each other. In other schools, both fee paying and government this was less defined and generally not usual practice.

The new national standards and new appraisal model had very differing reactions from Principals, some seeing it as a mechanism for fostering growth and development in practitioners whereas others felt the bureaucratic burden and possible link to pay, too disruptive and challenging to justify the gains. The standing in Pisa tended to underline this.

In University High highly developed student-teacher surveys meant that teachers had regular feedback on how students viewed the learning in their subject and could identify strengths and weaknesses.


New South Wales

No external formal review process is in place.

Government schools write and publish school annual reports and include a focused subject review.

Newly appointed Directors take responsibility to work with, mentor and support Principals and meet formally 4 times per year.

Principals in govt schools did not think lesson observations would be possible in the present political situation, and there was a variation of views as to whether this would improve outcomes.

In NBCS they use lesson observations as a recruitment tool. Close and collaborative work means up front accountability is part of the team teaching process.


Quality of Teaching & Learning

Schools in Singapore were delivering a student centric, values driven education by developing more experiential learning through three essential skills:

  1. Problem solving
  2. Research skills
  3. Communication & expression of ideas

This was exemplified by students applying their knowledge and skills to solve extended practical problems for example, in one school this was demonstrated through science and citizenship

T & L was particularly ‘value drive’ in Singapore, and a strong ethos was also evident in Australia at both Frankston High School and Northern Beaches Christian School.

The use of technology was more prevalent in Australian schools with some very impressive use of digital devices used to enhance teaching and learning in both primary and secondary schools. Online learning packages at Northern Beaches Christian School such as PETE (Primary Education through E-learning) were excellent resources devised by the teaching staff.

In primary schools there was a strong emphasis on the teaching of reading. The literacy focus was less well developed at secondary. However, in NSW the Great Teaching, Inspired Learning programme has recently been introduced and received with enthusiasm by all stakeholders but it is too early to assess the impact of this high profile teaching and learning initiative.

Generally primary schools had an expectation that teachers were required to plan lessons in a systematic manner whereas this was less frequently observed in secondary schools, although Frankston High did have a common lesson planning structure. This reflected a more strategic approach to developing pedagogy generally across the school.

Team teaching with large groups in flexible learning environments was a key feature at NBHS. The Zone was an inspirational area where 11 and 12 year old students were allowed to work completely independently with teachers acting more as facilitators. All students also had their own digital devices to support their learning.

The quality of teaching in vocational programmes and specialist areas such as music, performing arts was enhanced by the deployment of specialist staff who may not be qualified teachers. Examples of this were observed on the vocational courses at Bendigo High School, Hands On course at Frankston High School and the wide variety of performing arts programmes seen in many of the primary schools. Teaching and learning was at its best in those schools which focused on building strong relationships between staff and students and where praise was embedded into the culture of the school.

Conversations with students and staff implied that there was no formal marking and assessment policy and therefore it was difficult for us to judge how much progress students were making in their learning.

Some questions to reflect upon:

1. With so much reliance on 1 : 1 digital devices how do teachers ensure that all students are challenged in their learning and how is progress in lessons gauged?

2. With no Teaching and Learning Policies how do school leaders assess the quality of teaching and learning for all groups of students  in order to identify best practice and also to support teachers to aspire to deliver high quality lessons?