Providing continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities within school walls can have huge benefits, says headteacher Neil Berry
As a result of many bad experiences in the past, many schools have taken the decision to provide CPD as an ‘in-house’ activity. This is a trend that I am strongly in favour of for a variety of reasons. Of course there are some occasions when it is necessary to go to an external provider for things like examination syllabus changes, advice on moderation or specialist advice on an aspect of law or management. However, these should only count for a limited number of in-service (Inset) sessions during a year.
The great advantage in a school using its own staff is the credibility factor. At my school we came to the conclusion long ago that most of the expertise that we need on issues such as teaching and learning, assessment for learning, lesson observation, managing challenging pupils, managing difficult staff, professional development interviews, already existed within our staff. All we needed to do was provide the opportunity for members to share their expertise.
In the beginning this was novel but now it is not only perceived as the expectation, but also the entitlement of staff as part of their professional development to deliver such sessions to their colleagues.
In the case of the work that has been done in our school on engagement in learning, we could see from the data that we collected that some students were far more successful in some curriculum areas than others and we explored the reasons for this. The senior leadership team and heads of faculty observed lessons and discovered at first hand what techniques and effective practice existed in the school and then decided how it should be shared with the rest of the staff.
A very powerful way of doing this is by filming an outstanding teacher in operation with some challenging students, or some high-attaining students, and recording what worked, or what didn’t work. The focus could be anything, but the beauty of this simple technique was described by a colleague thus: ‘The effect of seeing our children being taught by one of our colleagues had a very powerful effect on me. I had considered one of the children in the group as almost unteachable but when I saw the way that she had responded to my colleague I saw what was possible.’
This simple idea, which is now far more common in schools than it was 10 years ago when we first used it, has several benefits. For the teacher who is delivering the exemplar lesson this represents an affirmation of good practice and the great satisfaction of having shared it with colleagues. Indeed, the first time that this was used the teacher was delighted and surprised to receive a hearty round of applause from her colleagues for both bravery and being an excellent teacher. She said after this that it was the first time that she had received professional affirmation and she was thrilled.
The audience, even the most cynical colleagues, could not fail to be impressed with this demonstration of professionalism. Having seen what is possible and achievable certainly goes a long way to raise the expectations of everyone concerned. What is good for the school must be good for everyone in it and the students involved in the filming enjoyed watching themselves. Of course, the film clips could be cut and pasted and used on the interactive whiteboard in a whole range of ways to support learning.
Peer observation is another way of providing CPD in house. As well as routine SLT or departmental Ofsted-style observations, staff are encouraged to agree a plan and observe each other. The more this is done the easier it gets and once it becomes part of the school culture it becomes a positive and valuable experience.
It is crucial that it is sharply focused so that both parties get the best possible experience out of it. The colleague being observed will ask for a particular aspect of their lesson to be looked at by their colleague, for example how he/she deals with potentially disruptive boys, quiet girls, or whoever, to ensure that they are fully engaged.
This should be done in a mutually supportive way with the observed teacher expecting constructive criticism (not necessarily negative) from the colleague. Sometimes this paired way of observation can lead by mutual agreement to joint planning and resource development which in an ideal world could lead to less work for each individual teacher.
If done well, dissemination of good practice through thoughtfully structured Inset is a very rewarding experience for all concerned. Role-play sessions, using some disruptive students from the school, is good way of demonstrating a variety of techniques for social control. It is better, of course, to select some of the naughty students who excel at drama for a really good result.
By swapping roles, using an observer and having open-ended questioning sessions it is easy for the students to advise staff on ‘what winds them up’. Of course, the other side of the coin is that the students gain an understanding of how difficult it can be for the teacher if they secure less than full cooperation from the group.
This can be done with a whole staff divided into groups and rotated, or as an interactive workshop session in a day containing other school-focused activities. I usually find that such sessions are well received, especially if other parts of the Inset day are on less active topics, such as the use of data to inform teaching.
School development plan
The driver for all CPD activities in the school should be the school development plan (SDP) and the self-evaluation form (SEF). Schools differ in the way that these documents are compiled, but most schools I know prefer a collaborative approach involving a range of people in collating the information with one person in particular taking responsibility for the coordination.
Once the areas for development have been outlined, it is up to the CPD coordinator, Inset committee or whoever is in charge to make it happen. I would urge at this point to always ensure that the Inset proposed provides value for money. Just because it is in house does not mean that it is free – just think of the staffing costs for that day. Even if you have a particularly talented member of staff who you know will provide something that will be well received, tempting though it may be, remember your day must stem from your identified needs.
It is obvious that a good CPD programme will lead to a more skilled teaching force, a happier workforce and a strategic approach to school improvement. It is possible to open discussions with higher education providers to accredit the work that is done in school so that it may count towards a higher degree qualification. Many staff at the school where I am currently headteacher have taken the opportunity to use what they have learned in school Inset sessions to springboard onto a taught MA or MBA programme.
As part of our ongoing professional development commitment to our staff we pay for the cost of all academic qualifications, providing they can of course be justified in terms of our own school development. We ask that staff who take up this opportunity remain with us for two years after they complete their studies. The effect of this is that we are involved in a variety of research projects which benefit all concerned. Everyone who has been involved in this scheme has remained, except one who was promoted to a post in another school and who undertook to repay the tuition fees involved.
This idea fits well into our belief of the effectiveness of school-based Inset as the use of the external provider in the case of higher degrees forms a tangible interface with not only our CPD but with our practice.
We are all professionally challenged not only by the students and their parents but by the plethora of centrally driven demands from a whole range of external agencies – Ofsted, DCSF, Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, examination boards and curriculum authorities. CPD is necessary as part of an overarching school improvement process to ensure that the teacher’s core function, ie to teach effectively, is carried out to the best of their ability.
Education has become a far more dynamic field and the changes and imperatives that emerge from this dynamism filter down into the classroom in a way that would have been unimaginable when I first started to teach in 1969. It is rare to find colleagues now who will tell you that they have not been on any Inset opportunity for decades because they can’t do their job properly if they don’t ‘up-skill’ themselves. After all, no one would dream of knowingly visiting a doctor who had not bothered to understand the latest medical techniques, or engage a lawyer who was not familiar with current legislation.
You will have realised from what I have already said that I believe that there are massive advantages to providing most Inset in house. If this idea is new to your school, don’t be too ambitious when you start. I am a great believer in the maxim, ‘start small, think big’. For your first sessions use staff that you know can be relied on to deliver something which is a priority for your school.
I have not mentioned the savings which result if external courses are reduced to the minimum. These are considerable and of course they can be utilised in other ways, such as residential Inset sessions, which are always popular with my staff. Residential Inset is where new initiatives are born and where the strategy is thought out.
Sometimes we have groups of between 25 and 30 staff involved but usually it is 12 to 20. We usually work for about eight hours in total over Friday evenings and Saturdays, with social time built in on Friday night when we have finished and lunchtime on Saturday.
As with all Inset, we expect an evaluation to be produced by every participant and we take seriously what has been said. We are not often disappointed with their comments about the effectiveness of the work that they have done. The results of the evaluation are published and any issues that needed to be addressed are incorporated into the next relevant session.
We don’t call Inset ‘Baker days’ as some schools used to. This is because we want to control the agenda, not leave it in the hands of someone from the outside, whoever they may be.