Teaching is a human activity. Even in these days of mass online delivery, home-schooling and the inevitable drop in time spent in direct contact with our learners, the human element of being a teacher and responding to those we are charged with educating is a critical part of what makes education function. When trying to make national improvements, this human element is easy to overlook.
Equally, no two classrooms are the same. In fact, any teacher will tell you that no two hours in the same classroom are the same, even if teaching the same subject or the same group of learners. This context dependence is also something that is easy to forget. In an educational climate that is increasingly driven by a "this works" mindset, it is something we would all do well to remember. There may be a growing body of evidence relating to many aspects of teaching or leadership practice (including that targeted at further education, which for years has been comparatively under-researched) but, even armed with this knowledge, there will never be one single lever to pull or one technique to employ that will work for every class, every setting.
In simple terms, no one can stand in your classroom alongside you. Teaching is one of those activities that changes by being observed. It changes if being filmed, and it changes because of such simple things as the weather or bus timetables.
Why collaboration is vital for great CPD
So how do those of us charged with education improvement, such as the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), respond to this? Collaboration. Being in the privileged but also slightly distant position of trying to deliver better teaching in the sector, we may be able to provide high-quality and evidenced-based support, but unless we work in collaboration and partnership with as many teachers as possible, as many settings as possible, it is inevitable that continuing professional development (CPD) will lose its impact. This is particularly true when supporting a major change in practice – whether this be the impact of Covid-19 or the introduction of a new qualification such as T levels.
By trying, wherever possible, to bring the lived experience of teachers into CPD opportunities alongside evidence and research, by co-designing solutions wherever possible, we have a better chance of delivering support that will genuinely change something. No one likes being told what to do by someone who clearly doesn’t understand their circumstances properly, and teachers are no different. There may be substantial evidence of what makes CPD effective, and it is easy to develop training with this in mind, but without devising content that works for the real classroom, it will fall short.
For the ETF, this has been a longstanding cornerstone of our work – from our inception, we have worked, wherever possible, to give teachers the tools to make their own professional change, rather than prescribing it from afar. In the case of T levels, we are doing this, even in the face of unprecedented pressures on classrooms and providers, by working with our Centres for Professional and Technical Education (CTPEs) to co-design subject-specific CPD for each T level as it is launched. CPTE staff work in and lead the classrooms and workshops of the sector. Using expertise from within the sector (of which there is a vast reserve) makes sense.
They cannot see into other people’s classrooms either, but they are as close as we can get, because asking a currently practising teacher or leader to talk to other staff about ways to improve comes from a place of honesty and pragmatism that is so easily lost when an "outsider" steps in. When supporting staff and organisations to launch an ambitious and powerful new qualification, there is plenty of external information and guidance we can bring to bear, but we should translate this as effectively as possible into delivery and messages that resonate. If your adviser and guide is ‘real’ and not parachuted in on a national agenda, is someone who has already had to work out how to make things work in this new world, there is a much greater chance of moving the dial, and genuinely driving change in the sector.
There is, of course, a long way to go before T levels are embedded across the nation. There is also a long way to go for us all in making education as powerful and effective for every young person as we would hope it can and should be. However, remembering that none of us can see into each other’s classroom, that all teachers have an individual experience to share, and that only together can we meet these challenges – that will get us a lot closer to our goals.
Paul Kessell-Holland is national head of T-level design and higher-level education at the Education and Training Foundation.
This article is part of The ETF Thinks… campaign, which aims to stimulate thinking in the FE sector and share ideas nationally.