Why we need to rethink professional development in FE

Professional development should be owned by the teachers, rather than middle and senior leaders, argues Dr Tricia Odell

Dr Tricia Odell

Why it's time to rethink CPD in FE colleges

At a time when we desperately need to keep hold of our teaching staff, recent studies seem to suggest that some FE institutions are having real problems in retaining them, particularly those in the early stages of their career. 

Findings from the Department for Education college staff survey show that 27 per cent of those who left their main college did so within a year of starting work there. Almost a fifth (19 per cent) had left before completing three years’ service in their organisation. The research reported that 52 per cent of teachers who had left the FE sector said that more professional development opportunities would have encouraged them to stay in their role. 

Perhaps this last finding is not so surprising, given that, on average, the number of hours that FE teachers spend on CPD is woefully low – 38 hours per year -– according to the Education and Training Foundation’s latest FE Workforce Data for England report

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Can we retain our FE teachers simply by offering more CPD or must we also think about offering an alternative model of professional development?

CPD: A different approach to professional development 

Continual government FE policy initiatives over the past three decades have led to the development of organisational cultures where senior leaders are expected to prioritise financial and market performance over teaching and learning. Ball argues that these initiatives have led to an increase in surveillance and a requirement to produce performative data, resulting in tensions between managers and teaching staff. In some cases this has led to a divisive, competitive environment, underpinned by a lack of trust in our teachers.

Interestingly, an unexpected consequence of the past few months has been that teachers have had a unique opportunity to spend time collaborating and reflecting with colleagues, sharing practice and developing further skills to meet these additional challenges. A recent article suggests that this may be a "glimpse of a more sustainable and enriching teaching profession" with leaders discovering "a new voice and new priorities" that include giving more attention to staff wellbeing, as well as a reconsideration of the micro-management approach so often prevalent in our educational institutions.

This collaborative way of developing practice contrasts sharply with the traditional "expert to novice" model of professional development that usually involves attending external events or staff training days. Practitioners often come away from these type of "best practice" events brimming with fresh ideas, but the problem with this approach is that once back in the workplace, teachers often do not have the time needed to be able to try out new strategies and, consequently, there may be little change in practice. 

First proposed by Michael Fielding, Joint Practice Development differs from conventional CPD methods in three ways, in that teachers are:

  • Empowered to take ownership of their professional development, identifying areas of their practice they wish to improve.
  • Provided with time and space to improve their practice, enabling them to share, discuss and reflect on their practice with others.
  • Able to experiment with alternative strategies and take risks without fear of being judged.

Collaborative CPD

There is an emerging evidence base that this collaborative professional development approach can provide a highly effective model for FE teachers to work together to improve their practice. Recent research indicates a desire and enthusiasm for collaborative professional development approaches by teachers, middle and senior leaders where there has historically been a dependency on top-down approaches. These studies indicate that if leaders provide an environment for teachers to engage with one another in an atmosphere of trust, practitioners will be motivated to improve their practice and this, in turn, has a knock-on effect on their learners’ attitude to learning. 

At the heart of the approach is the notion that lasting changes in practice occur when teachers work together in communities of practice with peers, observing one another’s teaching and critically reflecting on the effect of new pedagogical strategies on learners. This model of sustained collaborative teacher enquiry promotes the development of a coaching culture and encourages teachers to take risks without fear of being judged.

Central to the implementation of this alternative way of working is a reconceptualisation of peer observations, where these less formal observations are accepted as a valid and legitimate way of improving practice by senior leaders and are regarded as a starting point for professional discussion, rather than a means to form judgements. 

To what extent does this shift from individualisation to an engagement in a professional learning community impact on teachers’ sense of wellbeing? How can any changes in practice brought about through a JPD approach impact on learners’ experiences in the longer term? These are questions worthy of future research. What the existing research seems to be telling us is that doing more of the same is not working. 

If we want teachers motivated to stay in the profession, then leaders need to adopt an alternative approach to professional development and now may just be the time to take on this challenge.

Dr Tricia Odell is an associate of the ETF.

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Dr Tricia Odell

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