The view from abroad: Scots head of Italian school on what makes for good education

It’s been quite a journey for John Lawson. He was headteacher of Blackfriars primary in Glasgow’s Gorbals, spent a year as interim principal of Rothesay joint campus on Bute, and also took part in a number of international projects.

But in 2015 he got the opportunity to move to Italy to join the only English-speaking school in Sardinia. And now from the Chatterbox School in Cagliari, where he’s headteacher, he can offer a positive and insightful perspective on education back home.

So how did the journey begin? “As a headteacher in Glasgow, I took part in a Comenius school exchange project in Sweden, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. After that, a health project in Kenya. These made me realise how different education systems are in other countries and made me reconsider what I did as a teacher.

“As a Quality Improvement Officer (QIO) in Scotland, I was heavily involved in the Malawi Leaders of Learning Project and visited Malawi four times. So I wanted something new from which to learn and was offered a one-year secondment in Italy, which has now resulted in me moving from Glasgow.

“I decided to do this as I realised I was missing being in a school. The QIO job was becoming more and more desk and PC-bound. The steep rise number of schools and subjects we had to cover meant that I was becoming further and further away from the joy of building strong relationships and interacting with young people. My reasons for wanting to be a teacher in the first place seemed diluted.

“Sardinia was an obvious choice for me as my aunt has lived in the north since being in her 20s. So although I had not ever visited the capital, Cagliari, I knew about the beaches, the food, the people and the wine!”

How did John’s involvement in the Chatterbox School come about? “It was something I had heard about in researching international English schools. The school was set up by a group of English-speaking mums who basically, couldn’t find what they were looking for, for their own children.

“So the immersion in English has always been the goal. That and bringing together the best of both the Italian and UK systems. There is a great sense of living life to the full here. They are so hard-working and such good fun. It truly is a supportive and rejuvenating environment in which to work.

“The pupils and families are adorable…so positive and tolerant of my Scottish accent. The whole experience is a steep learning curve. Cultural and social differences are fascinating.

“Sometimes my Scottish directness has proven to be a little unsettling for the Italians, used to everything being couched in flowery preambles and formal language. Yet my Scottish reserve is shocked by other discussions to which I am merely an observer. These seem loud, passionate, animated and almost hysterical. But two minutes later, everyone is friends again.”

Chatterbox is the only English school in Sardinia to be recognised by the Italian Ministry of Education. Children can attend from the age of three months old through pre-school and primary, and tutoring is now being offered at secondary level.

Has John noticed any major differences between Scotland and Italy’s education systems?The merging of the best of both education systems is fascinating and makes me reconsider what we deliver in Scotland with a far better critical eye.

“The standard of maths and language, whether Italian or English, is far more challenging here. Pupil study is far more expected, reminding the learner of their own responsibility. There is a stronger effort-ethos expected from the pupils. While Italians may be criticised for over-indulging their bambini, there is still a push to get on with the learning.

“When we add in the experiential, active, skills-based style from the UK, it’s a powerful combination. The children still learn facts and have an excellent general knowledge, but we also do not just teach to the next test and report on a child with a score. The pupils also respond well to pupil-consulted learning, taking into account their interests and ideas. We include the chance to play, have responsibilities and experiment in the upper classes too.”

What about cultural differences between the two systems? “The affection which is allowed to be shown here between children and staff is something that has taken me a while to understand.

“To me, it’s something missing in nurturing children in Scotland. It’s not ever done in an inappropriate way and seems very human and natural. If a child is upset, they are comforted. Some pupils give a mini-hug to their teacher on the way past. Others hold the teacher’s hand when they speak to them.

“I was really surprised when a mother insisted her child kissed me goodbye after meeting them in the street. But to them, it’s a sign of respect. Everyone does a double-kiss here on meeting or saying goodbye. Men, women, kids…even dogs. In fact, apparently some parents complain if someone does not treat their child more like a member of the family.”

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