Is the Canadian Model Right for UK Schools? A Response

The Guardian recently published an article about the Alberta Education system being a possible model for UK schools.  I wanted to comment and respond, but after taking a few days to formulate my response the commenting was closed, so I have put my thoughts and the original article below:

  • My thoughts:

As a teacher that has worked in both Charter and Public schools in Alberta, and who now lives in the UK, I find this article fascinating, and a bit misleading. It seems to pin all of the good things happening in schools on a structure of choice in schools.

Alberta has a very strong public (state) education system. There is choice, diversity, and continued improvement. The system of school based budgeting does allow for flexibility and meets local needs. There is still a good measure of centralized control from the school boards which gives a good balance. The charter system is also publicly funded, on the same per pupil grant basis as any other public school. Charter schools are just independent public schools, with their own school board. I worked for the largest of these independent public schools and the self governance allowed them to take an approach to education that was unique and suited the students and families who choose to attend. Private schools are the third option, where tuition is charged. Interestingly I was most recently working in a public school board that was absorbing private schools in Calgary that were having funding difficulties. This model allows for choice and competition, and this is good but I don’t see this as most important strengths of the education system in Alberta.

The strengths of the public (and for that matter private – some great schools out there!) education were in the teachers, an adequate level of funding, small class sizes, a province wide growth oriented curriculum, a strong level of parental and cultural support for education, and an atmosphere of creativity, improvement, and growth. Teachers in Alberta are well paid, highly respected, and valued as professionals. There is monitoring and supervision, but not a constant hovering and evaluation. Teachers are expected to create and share professional growth plan suited to their needs and their students needs. Professional growth and training is seen a professional and ethical responsibility, not a mandated number of hours or certificates. It is about meeting needs not guidelines.  Alberta has excellent pre-service training with long on the job internships with teacher mentors.  I’ve been lucky enough to work with two different Universities, both the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and the University of Lethbridge.  I’ve been an undergraduate and graduate student, as well as a teacher mentor for a pre-service teacher.  In trying to lead another teacher and examine my own teaching I learned the most.  This model is powerful for both the new teacher and the ‘veteran’ teacher.

The economy is very strong in Alberta. They are a province rich in resources, strong thinkers, and positive growth. The positive times have meant strong support from parents and communities. People aren’t trying to lay blame or look for quick fixes because the times are good. They are looking to continue the growth into the future and continue to evolve and grow, not stay static. The recent Inspiring Education Document from Alberta Education ( shows these future directions. The economy has had its ups and downs with the recession, but an economy fuelled by rich oil resources is going to be able to fully fund a strong education system. The perpetual Conservative governments of Alberta haven’t been extravagant with education funding, even making cuts in the name of fiscal conservatism that have been harmful and too deep. They have done a few things very right. They funded making class sizes smaller – 13 students for early primary – 18 students for higher primary. These numbers aren’t strict caps, but an averaging formula based on local circumstance and community needs. There was also funding for 21st century classroom improvements including projectors, interactive white boards (that’s an entirely different debate), computers, and professional development in the use of these tools. Sustaining funding for both initiatives is a current problem.

Alberta (and other Canadian jurisdictions, I grew up in Saskatchewan) has a very strong curriculum.  It is very broad, and offers not only an Albertan, but a Canadian, and a global view.  The curriculum has knowledge, skill and attitude outcomes as well as guidance on the overall view, focus, purpose, and intention of the curriculum.  The curriculum is put into the hands of strong teachers, head teachers (principals), and it is delivered with creativity, passion, and dedication.

Alberta has a good system and a good model, but it’s the curriculum, the strong professional teachers, choices in funding, and public support that are worth examining, not just a choice of schools and programs.

  • The Original Article:

The Guardian, Tuesday 4 January 2011 Rhonda Evans

Is the Canadian model right for UK schools?

Michael Gove is holding up Alberta in Canada as a role-model for UK education. But is the schools secretary being a little too selective?

Britain’s recent further slide down the international education league tables of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has provided Michael Gove with an opportunity for political capital. This follows on from comments he made almost as soon as taking office, in which he highlighted the achievements of Alberta, Canada, which regularly scores more highly than any other English-speaking region in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings.

“In … Alberta, schools have been liberated, given the autonomy enjoyed by charter schools in the US,” said Gove in a speech to school leaders in June. “Headteachers control their own budgets, set their own ethos and shape their own environments. And the result – Alberta now has the best-performing state schools of any English speaking regions.”

The inference is that what British schools need is autonomy for heads (freeing them from local authority “control”), choice for parents and even more competition between schools.

Gove cites Angus MacBeath, former Edmonton schools superintendent, “who has achieved superb results by, in effect, making every school a charter school … Competition has driven improvement and the same virtuous dynamic has delivered better value for money.”

Having recently returned from making a documentary about the Albertan system, and having talked to MacBeath himself, among others, I can’t help coming to the conclusion that the schools secretary is being highly selective in his comments about Alberta so as to justify a further large dose of the free market, under the guise of rolling back the state and fitting snugly into Tory ideology.

To this end he has encouraged parents to set up their own schools with their own curriculums, and offered state schools the opportunity to become academies, so divesting them of their relationship with their local education authority. Many believe his underlying intention is to bolster the plethora of private companies who already make millions from the education budget and are waiting to take over the running of state schools, filling the void created by Gove.

I was in Alberta for two weeks, speaking to principals, teachers and parents, and interviewing staff from the provincial government (Alberta Education) and Edmonton Public School Board.

I found Albertan school leaders proud of their state education system. As Ron Bradley, principal of Ross Sheppard high school, told me: “We are public schools that offer choice. We’re as good as anyone else and we’re probably better than many, so if you want to come in as a private school, please come in, and we’ll compete with you and blow you out of the water. We welcome charter schools. We’ll just build a school beside them and put them out of business.”

Instead of seeking to further weaken and dismantle local authorities, Alberta’s education system is based on the belief that local school boards – the equivalent of LEAs – rather than private enterprise are best placed to respond to local needs. Though the curriculum and exam system are the same throughout the province, enabling province-wide comparisons of student and teacher achievement, Albertans believe that the needs of each school are best addressed within each district.

Principals have the freedom to shape the culture of their schools, but only within the remit of the district. Each principal is a team player, contracted to the district, and is moved around schools as the superintendent sees fit.

The idea that headteachers in Edmonton are totally autonomous is not true. Take the central core of any school’s budget, its teachers. In Edmonton, they have worked out what they regard to be an equitable way of distributing staff costs in which the district charges all schools a basic figure for any teacher. So, whether you are hiring a teacher with 25 years’ experience or just five months’, it’s the same cost per teacher. Compare that with heads in the UK, who have to make decisions on the basis of cost rather than educational needs.

Alberta’s success story began about 30 years ago, when then-fashionable free market advocates within the provincial government encouraged private and charter schools to set up. As in the US, there is no federal control of education in Canada; each province is responsible for its own education system. For the one third of children who live in rural areas, there is only their local school, much like in the UK. But within the urban areas of Edmonton and Calgary, there was pressure from the private sector, and politicians were offering to fund both private and state schools out of the public pot.

The response of Edmonton’s district superintendent at the time, Emery Dosdall, was to find out what parents wanted. As a result, Edmonton Public School Board introduced specialist programmes or options catering for every conceivable interest: sports, faith, language, certain trades, the international baccalaureate, you name it, they offered it.

This kept both the middle classes and the dollars within the state system, eliminating the demand for private schools, several of which closed down or became state schools. It also enabled the district to reinvigorate schools in formerly working-class areas, which were experiencing falling rolls. One of Edmonton’s most successful, Victoria School of the Arts, is situated in the downtown area. It was formerly undersubscribed; after reinventing itself as an arts specialist it is now hugely popular with the middle class across the city, but local children have priority.

Educationalists in Alberta believe choice creates “buy in” from parents and students. Visiting Pollard Meadows primary, one of nine across the city that offer both a mainstream, and more traditional, learning approach, I found the parents of both systems very happy with what they’d bought into. Whatever the programme, whether language, faith, science, or a teaching approach such as Cogito, where five-year-olds sit at desks and are taught in rows, all Albertan children are taught the same curriculum. There is no hiving-off of the so-called non-academic child into a vocational curriculum, since all these programmes come on top of, not instead of, the core curriculum.

These ideas increase the social mix. I met a 15-year-old who wanted to become a psychologist but who was taking the hair and beauty programme alongside students contemplating careers in the beauty sector. “It’s fun, I’m not very social, and this allows me to make new friends,” she told me. Her principal, Jean Stiles, explains: “In these options we want all our kids to be alongside one another. It builds the culture of our school.”

In fact, Alberta doesn’t stream or set children until they reach 16. When challenged about this, principals greeted me with incredulity. “Why would you want to make a kid feel bad about itself at such a young age?”, said Victoria Arts’ headteacher, John Beaton.

Although parental choice reinvigorated the state system, all principals agree that it opened up the system to competition. As Stiles says: “Every year in February, the gloves would come off and we’d be fighting each other for students and staff.”

The current superintendent, Edgar Schmidt, has made it his priority to address this. As a result, Edmonton principals get together once a month to share ideas and plan strategy. They form links with other school leaders in their own part of the city, and principals from what they term “have” schools support principals from “have not” schools.

At local level, the superintendent influences the culture and priorities of the district, and this crucial role is filled by only the best and brightest of former principals. Aspiring deputy and assistant heads are brought into the district office to work as assistant superintendents, so they can gain a district-wide perspective. Superintendents attend their own training college.

It’s hard not to detect a whiff of – dare one say it – socialism about the Edmonton system. But Gove has not pinpointed these characteristics.

MacBeath stresses that it has taken 30 years to put together an education system that leads the world, and he is deeply sceptical of politicians who propose a quick fix, particularly within a free market with ad hoc solutions. MacBeath told me he has been invited to the UK by Gove’s office to tell the secretary of state more about how he can replicate Alberta’s success. “I doubt whether I’ll be telling them what it is they want to hear,” he says.

“You have to have a brutal honesty about how badly you’re doing. So, the only way that you can change Britain is to start embarrassing people with the ugly truth. The ugly truth is the poorest are getting screwed. And guess what? Taxes are raised for all people, not just the middle class.”

Most people in Alberta knew exactly what was wrong with our system (overly influential private sector, too little middle-class buy-in to state schools, selection, streaming etc) – and their solutions are very different from Michael Gove’s.

4 thoughts on “Is the Canadian Model Right for UK Schools? A Response

  1. Hi
    Thought this was a fascinating article, very interesting to read your thoughts espcially seeing as you have first hand experience of it all. And I think at the moment we are doing too much grabbing at what seem like examples of good practices without looking at all the elements that have gone into making them good pratices. I agree with your last paragraph that its not just the model that makes the education good in Canada it’s all the other factors that combine as whole to make it good. I hope this has been taken into consideration by Mr Gove, we shall see…
    Thanks again for a good read,
    twitter: lj101

  2. Hi Jen… nice to hear you are in England … what are you up to … I m presently working in Germany on a 1 year exchange with the British Army working on Tech with schools … A colleague showed me this article on Friday. I share the many comments you made … it is interesting to see how politicians see the facts that they want to see … the reporter got it more correct … but he talks from the Edmonton point of view which is one board in 60 … many rural school boards have a different set of hurdles … I forwarded your comments on to others in our organization … thanks

  3. As a student in the US I find this article very interesting. I never would have thought to look at how schools and education systems in other countries operate. I really like a lot of the things about the Alberta education system, my favorite being the 13 and 18 student cap per class rooms. Almost all of my classes here in the US had more than 30 per classroom. I completely agree with you that it is the combination of everything that makes an education system better. You mentioned about Alberta’s education system that it offers not only an Albertan, but a Canadian, and a global view. The UK should set up an education system that is specific to the UK, with a global view and not just go for what seems to work somewhere else. I do think there were many great things about Alberta’s education system that all eduction systems should model after. Great read!

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