A school in Kent recently made headlines when it took its staff on a one-day excursion to France on a professional development day. In some schools, the days are used to erect wall displays, or prepare for open evenings. One Midlands comprehensive uses three of its five days for "departmental work", which boils down to catching up with the backlog of administration or the moderation of exam work.
National studies of professional development have also been fiercely critical of the way schools approach the process. One study for the Teacher Training Agency by the polling organisati on MORI found that few schools systematically evaluated their professional development activities.Anthea Millett, chief executive of the TTA, identified a need for a "systematic approach to continuing professional development" and the current development of TTA-sponsored professional qualifications for teachers is a response to the needs identified in the MORI poll.
But many schools do take these in-service days seriously. The George Dixon School in Birmingham is a comprehensive within a challenging catchment area. The school opted out to escape what it saw as Birmingham's "disastrous" underfunding of education. As a grant-maintained school, it may now have more resources, but the problems it faces are still those of any multi-ethnic, inner-city school.
Professional development at George Dixon is co-ordinated by deputy head Eueth Forrester, who says the school uses all five of its Baker Days for training. A whole- school audit identifies training needs and a staff development committee prioritises the programme in line with the school's development plan.
Albert Earle, head of PE, feels that training days are important because of the changes that have taken place in schools: "I started in 1969, and the teaching I was doing then bears little relationship to the teaching I am doing now."
The school is working towards Investors in People status, which has in itself been a focus for change. Says Eueth Forrester: "Each job description has been rewritten with a requirement to identify training needs associated with that job description." Issues covered in professional development have included stress, classroom management, development planning, internal communication and child protection policy.
One session was also attended by ancillary and secretarial staff, an indication of the whole-school approach to development identified as important by the Office for Standards in Education. Non-teaching staff are not normally paid for Baker Days, so their training adds to the overall costs. But there are some issues - child protection, for example - where their involvement is vital.
At The Wakeman School in Shrewsbury, professional development is handled by assistant head Karen Moore. Head Peter Traves argues: "The key issue of education in-service training is how to make teaching better in classrooms by sharing good practice."
The process starts with a senior management day off the premises where the strategic planning for the next year is mapped out. Karen Moore explains: "We decide what the whole-school priorities are going to be." Priorities are identified by individual departments and through appraisal.
"A lot of people were saying they needed middle-managem ent training, but this is incredibly expensive to do on a one-off basis, so we set up a programme of our own."
Although part of a typical INSET day at The Wakeman involves staff working with colleagues in departments, Peter Traves makes it clear that "catching up" is not allowed. "Departments have to submit a programme of what they plan to do."
Both Karen Moore and Peter Traves feel it is important for the success of the day that senior management gave it high status. And Peter Traves says the head should be visibly involved.
The Wakeman sometimes uses its middle managers to deliver INSET, a practice that raises profiles among the staff and acts as staff development in its own right.
Outside speakers are a thorny problem for INSET co-ordinators. Most training days are programmed at similar times and address issues faced by many schools. The result is a log-jam of demand for known speakers.
Ted Wragg receives more than 100 invitations each month from schools, most of which he has to decline. "About once a month I may be able to sneak out of the building," he says.
Speakers charge up to #163;500 a day, so it is important for schools to ensure that they are getting value for money. Karen Moore only books a speaker after personal recommendation, a view shared by other INSET co-ordinators.
Peter Traves says most schools have properly planned development day programmes, but adds: "I don't think it should be left totally to them. It's a golden opportunity to share good practice. "