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Room to improve

No reasonable request for training is turned down at the Howard school in Kent, reports Steve Hook

From newcomers trying to make their voices heard in the classroom to aspiring heads seeking new management skills, all teachers know they can never stop learning. Which is why staff at the Howard school, in the Medway town of Rainham in Kent, are given every encouragement to bolster their knowledge and boost their career prospects.

At this all-boys' school, the philosophy of constant improvement is at the heart of the continuing professional development programme. No request for a training course is turned down if the teacher and his or her line-manager can demonstrate that it is needed to improve performance or to help career development. Most of the school's 108 teachers have been away for training at some point over the last year.

"Teachers are natural learners, and we are always trying to improve our understanding. That's why we try to make sure we meet every genuine need for training," says geography teacher Julie Grant, the Howard's staff development co-ordinator.

Nevertheless, staff do have to show how a course will help them "do their job better or develop in the direction they want to go".

They have to explain what they expect to gain from a course, says Ms Grant. "For example, one of our teachers applied to do a deputy head's course. The head agreed he was deputy material - it was a realistic career direction."

The school's laudable aspirations are, however, constrained by time and money. The annual CPD budget was halved, to pound;40,000, when the school lost its grant-maintained status last year. This means only two teachers at a time can be released for courses, which usually last a day and are held in London.

Business studies teacher Sue Carver says: "I would like to do a course, but I have to think about when I will have the time. You might be the best-trained, most up-to-date teacher in the school, but if you're not in front of your class, you're no use to anyone."

Julie Grant admits the quality of available courses is variable, so the school keeps a blacklist of providers that have consistently failed to impress.

But there is more to CPD than identifying training needs and ticking boxes. Contact with colleagues from other schools can be as valuable as the courses themselves. In fact, most teachers say this contact is the most valuable aspect of any course - especially if the teacher has unique responsibilities and no peers to turn to on campus.

All Howard staff attend the five annual "Baker" days. Two or three of these will probably focus on whole-school issues with the rest more likely to deal with subject-related issues.

School-based work also includes sessions for deartment and year heads on predicting key stage 3 performance and using key stage 3 data to predict GCSE results.

Other aids to improvement include a trainer, who visits the school regularly to prepare teachers to assess the school's GNVQ courses; a level 4 NVQ course in school administration run for support staff; a management consultant who comes in regularly to work with the head, deputy and senior teachers; and shadowing placements that allow teachers looking for promotion to learn from the examples of more senior colleagues.

The principle of growth through contact with professional peers applies equally to the school's programme for NQTs. New staff are alloted a "buddy" as well as a mentor, providing a lifeline for those with problems they would rather not discuss at an official level.

"There may be something they've made a right mess of that they don't want to admit to me, as their mentor, and they would would rather talk about to someone who doesn't have authority over them," says Julie Grant.

"It happens to all of us at some time. All I care about - whatever it is that has happened - is that they can talk to someone, learn from it and move on."

The Howard is also eager to ensure teacher development doesn't run into the sidings when NQTs finish their induction years and find themselves without mentoring support. So the school keeps the NQT training programme open for second-year teachers to dip back into whenever they need.

IT teacher Sue Wilson has taken advantage of this to train in voice-projection, a skill she sees as especially useful for a woman in a class full of boys. "Breathing techniques allow you to make a bigger sound without shouting," she says.

The CPD programme was also responsible for a one-year exchange with a school in Australia. Jo Gibson, who teaches English and media studies and is the school's literacy co-ordinator, came back from the trip with more than a suntan. The Australian approach to literacy emphasises essay-writing technique, even in subjects other than English, a cross-curricular approach that has inspired Ms Gibson to think anew.

Richard Green, one of the school's seven NQTs, teaches art and design. He says contact with colleagues from other schools has helped him develop strategies for behaviour management in a school where male hormones thrive and creativity can be seen as girly.

"Some of the lads tend to be a bit macho and that can be a problem here because there are no girls to calm things down," he says.

"I have to be careful. From talking to other people, I have learned to deal with potentially confrontational situations before they get out of hand. And that's a good idea because often I'm the smallest person in the classroom."

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