Cutting back on CPD will be a false economy

13th March 2009 at 00:00

The current financial situation is bound to have an impact on education and other public services. This involves some hard decisions about budget cuts for authorities (TESS, February 20), but it also forces us to think about what really matters in education.

One of the targets for economies has been continuing professional development for teachers. David Cameron, president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, has stated that savings can be made by reducing the cost of venues and catering, without loss of quality in terms of content. I hope this proves to be the case, but there are a number of factors at work which lead me to doubt whether standards will be maintained.

The capacity of some authorities to provide good in-house CPD is limited. In the past, the key group who might have fulfilled this function was the advisory service. But this has more or less disappeared, with former advisers having their role redefined as quality improvement officers, focusing on attainment targets and preparation for inspections rather than curriculum development.

At a time when A Curriculum for Excellence is being rolled out, this is unfortunate. There is still much anxiety and uncertainty among teachers about what ACfE entails, and there remains a need for time and opportunity to discuss its demands and expectations.

Until the budget crisis, some authorities were prepared to spend significant sums of money on private consultants who offer courses. Many are attractively packaged and presented, though there is variation in quality. As the recession bites, the weaker ones may go to the wall and the stronger ones may prove too costly.

There has been substantial input on ACfE from staff at Learning and Teaching Scotland (many seconded from schools and authorities). I have seen some of these presentations. Too often, they have consisted of little more than evangelistic enthusiasm, with frequent repetition of the mantra of the four capacities and little serious critical reflection on the underlying principles. It is not good enough to state that ACfE represents a "revolution" in Scottish education, without engaging teachers in genuine dialogue about what that might mean in practice.

What about the universities, which have traditionally had an important role in CPD? There has been a perception (sometimes justified) that offerings by university staff have been too academic and insufficiently geared to the needs of practitioners. In my view, good continuing professional development needs to be academically challenging and relevant to practical classroom situations. But the pressure on universities to increase research output has meant that many staff have not been encouraged to develop courses that will appeal to schools and authorities.

Cutting back on CPD could prove to be a false economy. If the teaching profession is to make the most of the opportunities of the reform programme, its members need to have the opportunity to ask questions and exchange ideas. Online message boards are all very well, but they don't take you very far.

Walter Humes is research professor of education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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