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Inset days on the superhighway

Training must be sustained and collaborative to have any benefit. Janet Murray reports on the Connect network

The emphasis on continuing professional development is growing, so education professionals are increasingly keen to find ways to share effective CPD practice.

The General Teaching Council's electronic Connect network enables headteachers and CPD leaders from schools across the UK to form links and share good practice. A termly e-newsletter, online discussion forum and a series of events help Connect members stay in touch.

Elizabeth Gowing, professional networks manager at the GTC, believes sharing knowledge and expertise - both in and between schools - can be far more effective than traditional training courses. "It's nice for teachers to feel invested in and have a day or two away from the school environment," she says.

"But our research shows that unless courses are followed up once the teacher returns to school, they are not particularly effective. And then there's the cost of supply cover, travel and the inconvenience to the teacher, who has to set and mark work to cover their absence.

"Training has more impact if it's sustained and collaborative. Both peer observation and conversations about learning are far more effective, as both parties benefit."

It was the publication in 2003 of the GTC's teachers professional learning framework - a map of CPD opportunities that can be created within the school context - that sparked the idea of forming the Connect network.

"The leaflet included a faxback form for teachers to request more information about CPD activities," explains Ms Gowing. "Legend has it, there were so many requests the fax machine jammed! We realised we needed to develop more CPD support and do this with teachers, rather than to them."

The online discussion began in January 2004, when the GTC held a series of events for CPD leaders in every government region in the UK to review the council's peer observation leaflet. Prior to the event, delegates were invited to introduce themselves on the Connect online discussion forum.

Borrowing the format of BBC 2's TV dating show, Would Like to Meet, they listed what they had to offer potential "partners" in terms of expertise, along with contact details, so interest could be registered before and after the event.

The project has clearly been a success; in just 15 months, membership has grown to almost 6,000, representing one in five schools. As a result of feedback from CPD leaders, members of the Connect network now also receive a monthly email detailing an "idea that worked", submitted by a fellow practitioner.

Members have also been inspired to develop their own development activities. Rosemary Shuttlewood, a maths teacher and head of CPD at Wellingborough school, an independent day school for three to 18-year-olds in Northamptonshire, has started a special library, stocked with books on issues that concern teachers, such as behaviour management and workload.

She has also introduced a termly CPD newsletter, which contains news about forthcoming courses and reviews of courses staff have attended.

"It's important for teachers to reflect and share what they've gained from courses," she explains. "But sometimes they're so bogged down they can't see the wood for the trees. I'm trying to make that process as easy as possible."

The next step is to encourage member schools to set up local networks in their regions. Cynthia Francis, deputy head at Norbury Manor high school for girls in north Croydon, south London, has set up a network of CPD leaders from other south London boroughs, including Lambeth, Southwark and Merton to share ideas and good practice. The network, set up in January, has met twice and agenda items have included how different schools make use of their five in-service training days, and the possibility of setting up school-based masters degrees.

"It's interesting to see what others are doing in terms of CPD," says Ms Francis. "There's so much good practice out there that can be shared, instead of teachers constantly 'reinventing the wheel'. Members have also exchanged email addresses and ideas are being shared outside meetings."

Continuing professional development leadership offers particular challenges for small schools - traditionally defined as those with less than 100 students. Such schools may have a small staff, be located in remote areas and have a "teaching" head, which can make it difficult for staff to attend courses. To meet the needs of these schools, the General Teaching Council has set up the small schools network with the aim of linking groups of schools that are close, geographically and philosophically, to share good CPD practice.

Although still in the early stages, the response has been overwhelming. The first small schools event, held in London in April, was oversubscribed, so a similar event was being held in Birmingham this month.

Project leader Chris Foster says: "Our research suggests that members need an initial face-to-face meeting, but in the long-term, we hope they'll be sharing information daily, via email and video conferencing."

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