Tom Bennett: 'If you want to keep your staff, set their CPD free'

5th June 2015 at 16:09

Setting staff free with educational vouchers

We talk a lot about life-long learning. And we talk a lot about valuing staff. So why is it that in many schools, training means sitting in Inset days and twilight sessions, weeping into sugar paper and imagining what level of injury you would reasonably endure in order to be stretchered out of another session on teaching and learning dodges, or the Joy of Stats? How many more hours of our lives will be spent watching Shift Happens and Ken Robinson's RSA animated TED talk?

With the rise of performance-related pay, performance-management interviews have acquired a new and spiky intent, as anodyne non-goals are accrued, ignored and hastily justified as deadlines approach. In other words, we often say we value staff, and then we spend the rest of the year treating them like cogs in a clock, as replaceable as a mop head and as important as ear wax.

This week I came across three projects that offered a similar, radical solution to staff retention and employee development simultaneously. And I think they're marvellous, and every school should do it if they can: education vouchers for staff. I ran a researchED for primary teachers yesterday at the London Connected Learning Centre, and met, among others, Kate Atkins of Rosendale Primary School. Kate does something that I've never seen done in such a structured way: she ring-fences a day a week for staff to conduct research, using Pupil Premium money to do so (it's a fairly large school, so it accrues).

Can you imagine? That kind of reboot of CPD takes will and nerve. Staff can direct their own training and engagement with research in a variety of ways. It sure beats the hell out of staring at a consultant who was last in a school in the 1980s, all the while fantasising about the fire alarm going off.

I also spent a day this week with the Army (it's for a thing), where I discovered something extraordinary. Recruits are given an entitlement to a cash value that can be redeemed against training, which accrues year on year, and increases as time passes. And here's the thing: it can be used for anything educational – it doesn't have to be vocational or concerned with disassembling Kalashnikovs. It can be a PhD in Renaissance literature. It can be a Master’s in mime. Can you imagine?

It is reminiscent of the scheme that the car company Ford run. Since the 1980s they've allocated 0.3 per cent of their staff budget to paying for external development – and they have to use it for non-work related training or learning. To quote TES deputy editor Ed Dorrell: “The indirect benefits of this enlightened approach, Ford’s top people have learned, include improved productivity, reduced absenteeism, significantly lower workforce agitation and increased interest in professional training. Most importantly, the key conclusion they have drawn is that ‘learning leaks’.”

I think of these three approaches and I think, “Schools should do that.” I've written before about how, years ago, I was allowed sabbatical time by my head to spend a term as a teacher-fellow at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, where I wrote a paper on something that had very little to do with my classes or my role. But it was the greatest tonic, reboot and relaunch I could have had. It was career-saving. The Church of England also allows its weary clerics a sabbatical every few years, on the grounds that the shepherd needs to put down the crook occasionally if they're going to be effective.

Teaching is one of the greatest jobs in the world, but it is also one of the most ossifying. You can feel the sawdust creep through your veins, no matter how much you love the kids – or perhaps even more so because you do. Add inspection, administration and absurd expectations, and it's no wonder we lose thousands every year to less stressful jobs, such as juggling chainsaws or running with bulls.

But picture this: allow staff to accrue education vouchers. Wages matter, of course, but pay by itself isn't a solution to turnover if staff are unhappy. Research has shown that people would rather be a little poorer, as long as they were happy. It would give teachers an incentive to stay, and give them a sense of building towards something valuable. Something to look forward to: the invigorating, intoxicating draught of learning, which you never regret. It's like going to the gym; you moan and writhe before you go, but you never say, “I wish I hadn't gone”. The school gets staff who are happier, who are more fulfilled as people, and they get to be autonomous agents of their own destiny, building their own set of particular skills.

Sure, it means that the school loses a little control over what their staff learn. But if they believe in their potential, surely a tad less control might be just what they need? It has to beat another leaden, ghastly session on how to build learning muscles or something equally awful.

Anyone want to give this a go?