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Hit and miss is par for the course

Continuing professional development. Sounds rather grand, doesn't it? When I was a class teacher, it was called "going on a course". And "learning differentiation for positive outcome"? Well, that was called "Charlie won't be able to do the hard bit so give him something a bit easier".

But although education contains far too much jargon these days, CPD is actually very important. Teachers need to keep in touch with what's happening in education, if only to challenge some of the zanier philosophies, and my staff often come back from courses with good, useful ideas.

Certainly, I think the quality of courses has improved enormously, but there is always the exception. I remember attending a turgid session on the Primary Strategy which made me want to take my own life. But a course on "safer recruitment" was fascinating - if only because I hadn't realised there are 28 defined stages in the process of appointing a teacher, and that's before you get them CRB checked. And all this time, I'd been appointing teachers because they showed passion about education, related well to children and had bright, lively personalities. Silly me.

Because I've been in education for ever, I can remember attending some highly questionable courses, including a three-day affair usefully titled "Raising literacy standards in your classroom; a hands-on practical guide".

Hands-on it certainly was. On day one we were split into groups, given copies of a famous poem, and told we had two hours to dramatise it. Then each group entertained the others. On day two, the groups were given a portable tape recorder and dispatched to the local woods. Our mission was to record the sounds of nature and write a short play with sound effects to entertain us. On day three, everybody had to write a short autobiography, and then read it out to entertain ... well, you get the idea. As I caught the train home, I realised the consultant had earned his fee for doing virtually nothing, the activities were basic things we'd do with children anyway, and we'd learned little that would raise standards of literacy.

Sometimes, courses were simply bizarre. A colleague reminded me of the two-day courses held in the 1990s on BAT training. Not the creatures that emit a loud squeak, you understand (although I suspect much squeaking was done about the quality of the course), but Behaviour Attitude Training. The idea was that some children behaved badly in class because communication between teacher and child was too negative.

Well, that's not an unlikely premise, but teachers attending the course were shocked to find the suited gentleman leading it - who had never been a teacher - accusing them of being negative virtually all the time. Teachers, he'd say, simply didn't realise how negative they were. To prove it, he handed out click counters so that everybody could go away and record how many negative things they said in one week. When the group reconvened, results were shared, graphs drawn, assumptions made and a BAT certificate awarded.

But sometimes a course leader did work incredibly hard. As a young teacher, I attended a three-day maths event. From 8.30am on the first day to 6pm on the third, we experimented with every mathematical concept and had a wonderful time. On the second day, a teacher gently mentioned that it was lunchtime, only to hear our dedicated and charismatic leader say: "Oh, let's carry on for a bit. There's so much we haven't done." Eventually, she gave us just enough time to grab a sandwich, but we didn't mind as we'd gathered enough exciting material for an entire term.

And that's what I call real professional development.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, South London. Email:

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