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It's good to talk

After a survey that highlighted several weaknesses in in-service training, Anat Arkin looks at solutions that involve teachers in their own appraisal and development.

Teachers' professional development is set for a shake-up following a survey by the MORI polling organisation found that most in-service training is ad hoc, with no real checks on its effectiveness in raising standards or how it links to school and personal development or teachers' appraisal.

The Teacher Training Agency, which commissioned the survey, has identified a series of national priorities, including the training of headteachers and middle managers. The agency is also planning national standards to help schools set professional targets for teachers at key stages of their careers and to review, with the Office for Standards in Education, existing arrangements for teacher appraisal.

The agency insists that in introducing this new framework, it is not trying to impose a single way forward. But according to Hugh Lawlor, head of the agency's professional development and research team, some schools need to do more to link staff progression to their efforts to improve pupils' learning.

"If you start from the school development priorities - and within those there will be staff development priorities - and then make the link to appraisal targets, you have the beginnings of a coherent professional development strategy," he says. "But if you are not clear about the starting point, you can get ad hockery."

The TTA is planning to introduce "needs assessments" to help schools ensure teachers get appropriate training. In theory, teacher appraisal already provides the opportunity to identify individual needs. But the MORI survey found sharp disagreement between teachers and heads over the extent to which this was happening. While 63 per cent of heads and Inset coordinators said training was linked to appraisal outcomes, only 12 per cent of teachers thought this was the case. Hugh Lawlor believes these differences may reflect the fact that links are often made by heads or staff development coordinators rather than the teachers themselves.

This top-down approach is not the best way of motivating teachers to learn. A 199495 study of in-service training by the staff development unit of Devon County Council concluded that programmes are most likely to have an impact when they are drawn up by more than one member of staff, there is widespread staff commitment to them and those taking part are involved in planning their own learning experiences.

One Devon school that has taken these conclusions on board is St Thomas High School in Exeter, which has just introduced a new appraisal system designed to help teachers assess their own performance. A staff development profile gives them the tools to carry out this self evaluation. "It is based on the belief that the best learning, perhaps the only learning, comes about when people are motivated to improve, when they see the need for change," says staff coordinator Rick Jolley.

However, staff at St Thomas do not design their own training programmes without reference to the school's priorities. Individuals' strategies are drawn up only after their training needs have been examined in the light of the school's overall staff development plan and departmental targets. "We are moving towards what we feel is a fairly coherent approach and one where we balance identification of need at the grassroots level with the identification of need at a higher level," says Rick Jolley.

He points out there is more to staff development than attending courses. "It could be working alongside a colleague in a team teaching situation... chairing meetings or joining the PTA. It could be virtually anything that takes place in school that will extend people's skills and experience."

Research by John Harland and Kay Kinder of the National Foundation for Educational Research suggests that no one form of provision is necessarily better than others and that an eclectic approach is best. But whatever form it takes, staff progression needs to be sustained for some time to be effective.

"Most research, ours included, shows that one-off, quick-fire solutions tend to have little impact on classroom practice," says Mr Harland, who heads the NFER's northern office. The foundation's long-term studies of in-service training in primary schools in Calderdale and secondary schools in Kirklees indicate that many staff development programmes fail to have a lasting impact because there is not enough follow-up support.

"We are often quite good at stimulating awareness and developing skills and knowledge outside the classroom," says Mr Harland. "But the weakest point. .. is in providing opportunities for support when teachers come to implement what they have learnt."

With in-service training budgets largely delegated to schools and many local education authorities no longer able to employ large teams of advisory teachers, it is now up to schools to provide much of this support. This means establishing an open culture where teachers do not feel threatened by colleagues watching them teach.

David Brody, head of Prince Albert primary school in Birmingham, sees a close link between a culture of this kind and management's willingness to delegate. His school divides its 780 pupils into four "phases" or pairs of year groups, giving each phase its own budget and using meetings to involve staff in decision-making.

"Because teachers feel they are valued and are able to make decisions, they can feel more confident about looking at their own development needs, which are then broken down into the school's requirements and their own personal requirements," he says. He sees no tension between the two. And the scheme seems to work as four of Prince Albert's 35 teachers already have MAs and at least six others are working towards higher degrees.

Brislington School, a large comprehensive in Bristol, uses a similar strategy to resolve the potential conflict between its own needs and those of individual teachers. Until a couple of years ago, the school relied largely on external courses which were not tailored to the school's requirements and, because they were usually held in school time, tended to be disruptive and expensive in travel and cover costs. Brislington therefore started running its own courses on-site after school, opening them to teachers from neighbouring schools to raise extra revenue.

The courses are taught by a range of people, including lecturers from the University of the West of England and the school's own teaching and non-teaching staff. A stress management course, for example, was run by a member of the support staff who was a qualified reflexologist and aromatherapist. All are paid the same fee.

"It's important that people are paid," says deputy head Diane Fidler. "In the past people would just be asked to run a session. But now we have it on a very business-like basis, which means that I have quality control. I stipulate what I want the inputs and outcomes to be and I monitor the session. That's important because if people are going to stay after school for courses, the courses need to be of good quality."

The programme links into a modular structure accredited by the University of the West of England. So in return for giving up their time, teachers can collect units towards a range of qualifications. And more than 25 per cent have chosen to do so. Other members of staff, though not working towards a higher qualification, are also taking part in the modular programme, which recently won a National Training Award.

Brislington school is about to take part in a research project with the University into the impact of in-service training on pupils' learning. Measuring this impact is probably the most difficult aspect of any professional development programme, and the MORI survey found that few schools have systematic methods. Those that have are usually schools that manage to integrate in-service training into their overall development planning.

In Birmingham, where chief education officer Tim Brighouse views staff development as one of the pillars in his much-vaunted school improvement programme, Shenley Court school ran a management course for women a few years ago. Almost all the women who took part went on get promotions either at Shenley or other schools, so the course was obviously a success.

But the impact of staff development is often less clear cut. Ruth Harker, Shenley Court's deputy head, says the school's varied staff progression activities have helped raise pupils' attendance and academic performance, as well as encouraging teachers to try out new ideas.

But she adds: "I don't know if these improvements are purely the result of development activities. I think they are probably also the result of a kind of climate where the school is trying to move forward and where staff know they are a part of that."

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