In-service isn't working

I suppose the surprise is that it took me so long to realise it - in-service doesn't work. We had been sitting round a hotel table, 10 of us, about Pounds 250,000 worth of educational payroll, and no one was speaking. Some shuffled their hotel-provided notepads and sharp pencils. Others stretched for the Ashbourne Spring water, or the jug of orange juice, or searched earnestly among their papers.

No undergraduate tutorial group could have been more awkward. A bit like the first meeting of a jury from disparate backgrounds - only no one had the courage to say here (as I once heard at Glasgow sheriff court): "Ah hope we'll no' be long - ah've arranged tae meet ma sister at Arnott's at 3.30."

The occasion this time was an in-service seminar on the management of Higher Still and our problem was that we had been allocated a "workshop session". This phrase is clearly a euphemism for a gap in the programme, a time when the organisers ask groups of people, with no structure, no leader, no targets, to solve impossible educational issues in the 40 minutes before a plenary session where platitudes can be voiced ("I hear where you're coming from") and questions left unanswered.

On one level, out-of-school in-service is seductive. There is the hope that you'll learn something - whether or not you are expected to cascade it on your return to school; even a "light sandwich lunch" seems exotic compared to the Cox's pippin and pot noodle of the typical staffroom. The recent suggestion that in-service training should be provided during the holidays (stop pushing at the back there), because the effect on pupils of absent staff is judged to be educationally detrimental, causes a wry smile. This new course will be "high quality", thereby implying that what we have faced until now is somewhat less than kosher.

I want to love Higher Still, I really do, but this most recent laughable attempt to discuss issues of real substance was more about telling political masters that the "Greatest Consultation Exercise the World Has Ever Seen" was continuing, than about admitting that the whole project is running on empty.

Not that in-service providers have an easy job. I remember the talk to principal teachers of English about the importance of audio-visual stimuli where the slides were upside down and the nervous Seamill speaker who tried at the start to ingratiate himself to the same bolshie group by saying he had heard they were a difficult audience - the advice given to him had been to park at the top of the hill for a quick getaway. Hardly had the dutiful titter died down, when a growl was heard from the back of the room: "I hope your engine's running."

If all the PAT nights, INSET days and external courses were laid end to end would they come to more than a collection of frustrations, headaches and missed opportunities? Had all that time been allocated to classroom or school priorities it would surely have advanced pupils' education more effectively than servicing other people's agendas. An address by an inspirational speaker, or even teacher secondments, would revive a workforce tired by experience more than in-service courses that have no greater preparation than the worst "door-handle" lesson.

Perhaps the heidies who left at lunch-time had the right idea. One said: "I've had enough of meetings where I sit around talking to my chums." The real question may be, did they all return to their schools in the afternoon? But, that's another story.

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