Alberta - a high achieving but very different vision for schools

Fiona Millar's picture
One of the international examples that Michael Gove likes to use in support of his policies is the state of Alberta in Canada - the highest performing English speaking region in the world when it comes to education.

However the policies of the province of Alberta aren't quite as Mr Gove likes to suggest, as these two films, 'Lessons from Alberta'   Autonomy, Choice and Competition and Collaboration, Professionalism and Accountability, clearly show. The films were made for Teachers TV by journalist Rhonda Evans and I would recommend setting aside 45 minutes to watch them both.

In Alberta, the state education authorities set out clearly to give parents choice, but in a very different context to that being created by the government here. For a start, they take a bullish pride in the excellence of their state funded and managed provision. Their slogan is 'Go Public!'. As one official says: 'If anyone tries to open a charter or private school here, we will open a school next door, show we can do it better and close the private school down'.

Secondly choice  is combined with zero selection. All children go to their local schools and if places are still available parents from further away can apply. At the end of the second film, the State Supervisor talks about how he has visitors from all over the world flocking to Alberta to see how they achieve such great results. However he notes that all these 'visiting' countries have one feature in common, which is that they segregate their children from a very early age, either through selection into different institutions, or by setting and streaming within schools. There is no such segregation in Alberta until post 16, and the state is seeking to eradicate it there too.

Choice in Alberta also means choice within institutions, as well as between schools. So there is a basic broad curriculum entitlement for all schools with added features in some and high status for non academic , more practical courses. In one scene we see a high achieving student, with plans to study psychology at university, relishing the chance to learn hairdressing.

Choice is also linked to a strong culture of collaboration, rather than competition, between schools. This was instigated by the region's head teachers who have ' tenure' but move between institutions regularly so they don't get attached to one particular school and have a common interest in the achievements of all.  Schools results are aggregated for public consumption, although individual schools' results are also available. Most funding is devolved to schools, rather like it is here, but the local authority retains around 10% for central services, much more than many local authorities here would dare to keep.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is a 'laser like focus' on teaching and learning, strong teacher accountability, long probationary periods through in which teachers must prove themselves, but heavy investment in training, development and support which is centrally co-ordinated by the local heads and officials working together.

Watch the films and you will see why we are in this country moving in completely the opposite direction - towards more institutional autonomy, more covert selection of pupils,  a weakening role of local authorities, and a narrowing of the curriculum in individual institutions.

There is cause to be optimistic though because the Alberta model does provide evidence to support a powerful alternative arguments, for choice and excellence in local schools backed up by collaboration, not competition, no selection and a strong role for local authorities, not in running schools but ensuring the system works fairly for all and that the quality of teaching remains high.

I will be interviewing Rhonda Evans on March 5 at this conference and hope to learn even more about an education system that we could all aspire to.
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Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 18/02/2011 - 10:02

I’ve watched the first film and it’s illuminating. It begins with a quote from Mr Gove saying competition drives improvement but ends with an observation which demolishes his opinion: competition reduces collaboration; competition is a distraction from teaching.

All students follow a mandated curriculum (no opting out for selected schools). Choice is catered for by allowing different programmes within a school: formal, informal, academic, vocational. No system is perceived as superior to another: there is no academic/vocational divide. There is flexibility so students can move easily from programme to programme. There is no “sort and select” between students but a recognition that all have strengths and weaknesses.

It was refreshing to see such confidence in public education – so different from the years of teacher bashing witnessed here. Even Mr Gove’s reforms are founded on the premise that UK state education is failing. Mr Gove claims that he has travelled the world searching for the best in education systems – but he neglects to study the actual evidence. He regards himself as being at the vanguard of a global educational reform movement but fails to see that there is no-one behind him. High-performing countries are moving in the opposite direction.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 18/02/2011 - 11:47

Interesting second film particularly about assessment and accountability. Assessment in Alberta’s schools is on-going and geared to the curriculum studied. Teachers are called to account if results don’t reach 50%. Mr Gove is very keen on accountability – he wants to take on board the Alberta model. However, what Mr Gove doesn’t make explicit is that all classes in Alberta are mixed ability. That means each class has a full distribution of ability. Teachers can be expected, therefore, to achieve 50%. However, in the UK, ability levels are not distributed equally between schools, yet all schools are expected to achieve the same standard irrespective of intake.

The film ended with a comment that Governments should not be afraid to censure schools if working class children aren’t achieving. “The poorest are getting screwed” was the message. Mr Gove has seized on this to justify his policy of competition. However, the film made it quite clear that mixed ability teaching was the key to Alberta’ success.

Ben Taylor's picture
Fri, 18/02/2011 - 19:51

Very interesting but I don't think this comparison is valid without looking at the whole structure of Alberta schools, which includes the right to choose from many different kinds of schools including: state, faith, charter, home and private schools.

And some of the private schools meeting a certain standard are part state funded!

Notice that the principals challenge charter schools to open near them and they will beat them by being better. They do not seek to remove the right of charter schools to operate.

You may have a point about selection but are you prepared to support the principle of choice that comes with that? Are you prepared to let parents choose any school as the price for no selection?

I don't think you are right about a narrowed curriculum, there is a core one in Alberta which encompasses English, maths, science, social studies, ICT, physical education and career and life management (alike to PSE). This is comparable to the "Gove bacc" (which is 5 GCSEs). There are options outside the core in Alberta just as there are in GCSE.

So what these videos show is how the state schools organise, they have a structure to make themselves work which involves collaboration. Fair enough.

But if the parents or the children don't like what they see they can leave the state sector and go to charter, faith, private or even home schooling. So you should ask about all that when you see Rhonda in order to give a proper representation, and point out that the coalition reforms are not as radical as what exists in Alberta.

Money follows the kid in Alberta.
Kid follows the money in Local Schools Network.

Fiona Millar's picture
Sat, 19/02/2011 - 11:35


Just two corrections to your comment;

1. Parents in England already have the right to choose any school they wish - that was enshrined in the 1988 Education Act and I don't think any of us would seriously suggest repealing that. The reasons choice doesn't work for many is because there is so much selection in the system, in particular selection by faith and academic ability. This means schools choose children rather than the other way round.

2. Money follows the child in England. Schools receive a sum of money per pupil so their funding depends on the numbers on roll ,which is one reason why we have a concern about the creation of surplus places in some local authority areas, a policy that will lead to reductions in income for other local schools.

If we were to ally these two existing features in our system with NO selection at all and more collaboration, rather competition, between schools alongside a focus on high quality teaching, we could start to emulate Alberta's success.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 19/02/2011 - 10:54

I don't think anyone suggested that the core curriculum in Alberta is "narrowed". It is "mandated" and, as Ben Taylor says, it is a core curriculum.

There were other school choices available in Alberta BUT it was made quite clear that there is no cherry-picking of the best students. That is far from the case in the UK where schools are judged on the quality of their intake. A CEP briefing about Academies concluded that:

"If it [the Government] follows the expression of interest route to awarding Academy status to schools, the new coalition government's policy on Academy Schools is not, like the previous government's policy, targeted on schools with more disadvantaged pupils. The serious worry that follows is that this will exacerbate already existing educational inequalities."

So, we have Alberta providing educational equality, while the UK moves towards more educational inequality and segregation of students.

Ben Taylor's picture
Sun, 20/02/2011 - 12:37

Fiona the choice comparison between England and Alberta is just not equivalent.

Here the relevant UK legislation in Section 9, Education Act 1996 which allows parental choice is nowhere near as comprehensive and strong as in the Alberta system. I can't find an easy summary to the Albert Schools Act, but there does not appear to be any 'get out' clause for the Alberta authorities, unlike the English local authorities who can ignore parental choice when they deem it not compatible with 'provision of efficient instruction and training and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure'.

When a parent chooses in Alberta that is it, the choice happens and the money flows to the provider, which I say again includes also home schooling and even private schooling. The money does not follow children in the same way in England, since the parental choice is conditional. If I am wrong on this please let me know with the relevant sources.

Also you are focusing on the collaboration that exists in the state sector in Alberta but ignoring the fact of the alternatives outside that such as charter, faith, private, home and even mixed modes, so there is a competitive system. The competition is what is making the schools succeed since a child not being at a school according to parental choice is the ultimate accountability.

It might be possible to have no selection in a system of complete choice because any parent can essentially create the school they want if it is not available. Would you support choice as it exists in Alberta?

It's tough for schools that lose income, but this is a problem for the people running and managing the schools such as the teachers. It is not a problem that should mean parents lose choice. It's up to the teachers to make their schools attractive as in Alberta. Please don't tell me this is just a protectionist argument for the existing schools workforce paid for by disregarding the choice of parents.

Jayne Kennedy's picture
Sun, 20/02/2011 - 15:13

Ben, I find your comment in the last paragraph very telling. It is not just tough for the schools that lose income and 'the problem for the people running and managing the schools such as teachers' - after all they can leave and get other jobs if they so choose. It is however, tough, for those children still at those schools. Shame on you.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 20/02/2011 - 15:39

It is indeed tough for schools to lose income and, yes, it is a problem for the people running and managing the schools. In England, if a school in unpopular because it is at the bottom of the local league tables, because its intake is skewed towards the bottom end, because other schools cream off the academic pupils, then this results in falling numbers. Teachers are made redundant to make the books balance. If they are nearing retirement, then they take early retirement and expertise is lost.

This happened every year in the school in which I taught. The teachers who were made redundant were good teachers - apart from the odd bit of supply teaching, none worked in teaching again. In many cases their subject specialism was dropped from the school's curriculum, thereby exacerbating the spiral of decline because the school couldn't offer the same range of subjects as other schools.

As far as parental choice is concerned, it is only possible to offer a wide range of school choice in a large city. In towns and rural areas this is not possible. So there has to be compromise.

Ben Taylor's picture
Sun, 20/02/2011 - 18:53

I do not want teachers to lose their jobs or children to suffer in failing schools. The point of the system in Alberta is the children don't have to stay in any school. They can leave just like the teachers.

And if I had to choose whether to choose between teachers and children when it comes to the price to be paid for allowing choice I will back the child. Children are on the whole dependents lacking the capacity of adults so it is just. I could say shame on you for forcing children to remain in schools they don't want to be in.

Fiona Millar's picture
Sun, 20/02/2011 - 19:30

There is nothing to stop pupils leaving English schools whenever they want.

Shane Rae's picture
Wed, 23/02/2011 - 12:35

I used to teach in the Alberta school system before moving to the UK. I also am a product of the Canadian School/University system (although much of my career has been spent teaching here in the UK).

This is perhaps a complete diversion from the discussion here (all main points have really been covered) but there are a few points I'd like to put out there:

1. Canada has no States, naughty Fiona. We're very proud of our Provinces and how they differ from our neighbours to the south. ;-)

2. It has taken Alberta several generations to develop its current education system. However, you do not need to go very far back in the history of this province to find very dark and horrifying stories of failure-especially where the schooling of Native Canadians are concerned.

3. Alberta, along with all of the examples that Gove is hailing as uber success stories share one distinct difference from the UK system which Gove/Gibb never seem to pay tribute to. That is the cultural difference where PARENTS play a fundamental role in the education of their children. There is an overarching understanding that PARENTS are responsible for the education of their children and that schools/teachers will support/guide/lead where appropriate but there is no doubt that the work done in school is supported in the home. There is very much a culture in the UK that a child's education starts and ends when they cross the threshold of the school door. This, IMHO, is where we are letting the children down and this is why Gove's Pupil Premium us utterly misdirected-but I digress. Ask any Canadian parent whose is responsible for their child's education is and they will say it is they themselves. Ask the same of a British parent and they will say 'Miss xxxx'. That, is a hard nut to crack.

4. Gove's notion that you can look at all the 'top performing' systems (even though he has that wrong i.e. TIMSS) and cherry pick the best ideas and merge them together to form an incredibly successful 'Frankenstein' system is naive beyond words.

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 23/02/2011 - 13:25

Parental support at home is hugely important. We do have quite a bit of evidence of that over here - Desforges etc and as I am sure you will know many schools, especially primaries, have looked at innovative ways of supporting parents to support their children.
We need to do much more of that. It doesn't necessarily have to cost much money but for some schools demands a cultural shift on the part of heads and teachers as well as parents, who often want to help their children but don't always know how.
Will change state to province right now!

Shane Rae's picture
Wed, 23/02/2011 - 13:55

Was a very gentle nudge about provinces Fiona :)

Even in your comment I can see a hesitancy to nail colours to mast and say 'yes, it's the responsibility of the parent'. You're absolutely right however, there is need for a wholesale cultural shift but not on the part of schools, on the part of families. School have been placed in their position as leaders of our children's education by default.

Remember when Oates said 'Family learning and early literacy are essential elements of Finnish society' and '...strong emphasis on discussion and support to pupils in the home'?

Gove has addressed this with an Age 6 reading (phonics) test and Pupil Premium funding directed to the schools. This is a crystalline example of how misplaced his ideas are.

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 23/02/2011 - 15:46

I think one of the problems we have in England is some parents who worry too much about their childrens' education, an anxiety that is increased by the generally negative publicity schools get, and can sometimes make life difficult for their children and for their schools. Then there are other parents who don't engage enough. I have seen both groups in my 20 years as a parent and school governor trying to raise attainment in a primary school with a challenging intake. I think it would be quite wrong to allow schools to abdicate responsibility for offering a good, well rounded education though . I assume this isn't what you mean, and it certainly doesn't appear to be the case that the teachers and heads in that excellent Canadian province(!) feel they should not be held to account for their side of what must be a partnership?

Shane Rae's picture
Wed, 23/02/2011 - 16:46

Yes, you have hit the nail in your last sentence. it is 100% a partnership, with parent holding 'controlling interest'. I'm not for a moment suggesting anyone should abdicate responsibility, quite the contrary. I suppose what I'm saying is that schools already accept theirs but it's time parents step up and do the same.

It's a no-brainer that where you find parents teaching their children how to read, you find children who excel. The problem is that too few people see that they have a responsibility to play a BIG part in the education of their child.

If there is a problem it is that many parents simply are not equipped (for any number of reasons) to meet their responsibility-so you end up (for example) with stats that show children from deprived backgrounds are not doing as well as children who are 'better off'.

So Gove thinks the way to deal with this is give the SCHOOL money for each FSM child-when the school isn't under-resourced, the problem is obviously at home. This money would be better spent on fixing the social problems of the family-that are preventing the parents from playing a bigger part in the education of their children.

I'm just trying to illustrate that where other cultures are succeeding, you will find more solid 'partnerships' between home and school.

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 23/02/2011 - 17:22

Yes I do completely agree with that but, even though the pupil premium is mostly going to simply make up for real terms cuts in school budgets, schools can use extra income to fund family learning, parenting support etc and I have seen examples of where this can really make a difference. However not all heads believe this is a good use of their resources. Many schools still keep parents at arms length. I still know of schools where parents aren't even allowed in the playground in the morning, although often their intakes are such that the home school partnership is less important.

Shane Rae's picture
Thu, 24/02/2011 - 09:09

Fiona, we're definitely singing from the same sheet. You're referring to the exact problem I am talking about but don't be too quick to place the blame with Heads/schools. It's the Goverment's SATs/Raiseonline culture that has made them protective of their role as sole or main educators-their fear of statistics being used against them. A teacher's paranoia to send homework home for fear that the parent will teach them a different strategy for long division than the one they have been prescribed to teach (and which will be scored on The Test). As we've agreed, we need a holistic shift in the nature of the partnership.

Gove dreams of finding that one strategy or scheme that will catapult UK schools to the top of the pile-and this is undoubtedly that goose/golden egg.

When we pour over the documents-The Importance of Teaching, Rowntree studies, Statistical First Releases, DoE Business Plan, The Case for Change, McKinsey papers, etc... there is not one word about how they intend to redress the balance that has been lost in this partnership. Why? Because it's a nut too terrifyingly hard for Gove to crack-and he simply can't do it within the scope of his portfolio. But, until he turns his attention to this issue he is merely playing at improving things in our schools.

Wendy Seffern's picture
Sat, 30/04/2011 - 03:07

Alberta is a province, not a state.

John's picture
Thu, 29/09/2011 - 07:58

I agree with what the superintendent said in one of the videos. A sense of urgency is key. I never realized we were doing so much better than everyone else, because I was raised to believe what we had was not good enough, and we should always strive for more. We always had a sense of urgency to become better; but when I talk to family members in the UK, they still think, to this day, that their educational system is the best in the world, and that Canada is subpar! Isn't that funny? Not only is there no sense of urgency, many Brits still think their system is superior. They don't have an internal drive to succeed because no one admits to how badly they are doing. "Things are just fine" is what will kill your system.

I grew up wishing I had a better education, wishing things were harder, wishing I knew more. Now I know why, it wasn't because we sucked, but because we wanted to be better than where we were, and no one hid that from us.

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