A debate we can't dodge

17th March 2000 at 00:00
Professional development is on the agenda again. Or is it? Despite a Government paper on the issue, nobody seems to recognise how important it is for the health of British teaching, laments Bob Moon

WHY is the Government consultation paper, Professional development: support for learning and teaching, sparking so little debate? It is hard to think of an issue more important to the medium and long-term success of school reform. As The TES editor wrote last New Year's Eve: "Whatever the third millennium holds, it is teachers that we will depend on."

And yet, other agendas crowd the debate. Performance-related pay still dominates staffroom discussion. Ownership of the debate is also confused. There may be a plan for the respective roles of the Department for Education and Employment and the General Teaching Council, but that remains unclear. The teacher unions, initially alarmed by a slimmer, earlier draft (reported in The TES, January 7), are holding their fire.

It is nearly 30 years since the last national debate on professional development. The fabled James Committee set out ambitious proposals for a national framework of in-service education.

Margaret Thatcher, as the Education Secretary, invited the committee to the Dorchester, thanked them for their efforts, and the proposals were quietly shelved. So was the debate. We ought to do better this time.

There is much to be commended in the consultation paper. High-quality professional development requiring time to set objectives and reflect is recognised as a key element. Good to have reflection back in the teacher education lexicon. The gross inequalities of access to support across the profession is recognised in one of 10 principles set out as an introduction. The report usefully summarises some good ideas that could be incorporated into a revitalised national programme: professional bursaries, development portfolios, peer networks and international exchanges are just a few examples.

There are, however, some big gaps. Let me focus on just three.

First is the lack of any modelling of what high-quality professional development might look like. This is implicit in some of the examples given but, despite the research to which the paper tries to point, you gain very little feel for what teachers might actually be doing in the more focused forms of professional development it proposes.

After nearly a decade of experience, for example, we still have the limp question: how can in-service training days be used effectively and imaginatively in schools?

This problem is most apparent in the discussion of information and communcation technology. We need a bolder vision than that set out here - one that goes beyond the rather limited offering in current versions of the virtual teacher centre. Translating reform policies into professional agenda has been one of the weaker aspects of Government policy. It shows here.

Second, the issue of entitlement and resources is ducked. None of the five key elements or 10 principles established at the outset mentions entitlement. It is only raised later in a question sure to raise most teachers' hackles: Do you think there would be benefits to establishing an entitlement to professional development alongside a contractual obligation?

Given everything that the Government is demanding from teachers, surely this is the moment for a less grudging commitment to entitlement? That will mean coming clean on resources and priorities. Of course entitlements mean contractual obligations. Whoever suggested otherwise?

Third, and most importantly, the paper is weak on values. References to standards and quality are no substitute for setting out the fundamental reasons why professional development is so important.

Other countries have faced this challenge. In Scotland, extensive consultation found teacher attitudes that defined their role well beyond the classroom. A commitment to fairness, collaboration, promotion of pupil achievement and the community in and outside the school are just three examples. And we could look further afield. South Africa is driving professional development reform through an agreed set of socio-political and pedagogical values; democracy, liberty, equality, justice and peace for the former, relevance, learner-centredness, professionalism, co-operation and collegiality and innovation for the latter. Not a bad list for any country.

The problem, of course, particularly for this Government, is that any debate about purpose and values would uncover some of the divisions about philosophies of education; divisions that David Blunkett has so skilfully papered over. Professional development, however, presents an opportunity to establish a policy framework that sidesteps the tiring rhetorics of the traditionalists and their opponents, in genuinely seeking out some radical new ground.

All the evidence about effective schools indicates the importance of building shared understandings. With Government taking so many powers into its own hands, the importance of doing this on a national scale is essential if the best of the reform progress achieved so far is to be sustained.

Bob Moon is professor of education at the Open University (r.e.moon@open.ac.uk).

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