On giant's shoulders

14th January 2005 at 00:00
Central to improving education is training staff. And research now shows that they seem to learn best from their peers. Anat Arkin reports.

No self-respecting celebrity would dream of starting the day without first consulting a lifestyle coach. Captains of industry - and a growing number of headteachers - also hone their leadership skills with the help of a consultant who can offer advice and act as a sounding board. Lesser mortals too can benefit from coaching, which could soon be coming to a school near you.

The Government wants to see more coaching of teachers by teachers. Its Five Year Strategy for Children and Learners, published in July, sets out plans to boost demand for coaching and other forms of continuing professional development by turning teacher appraisals into teaching and learning reviews. The idea is to make sure teachers receive the development that matches their needs and that career progression and financial rewards go to those who are continually building on their own expertise.

For senior teachers, progression on the upper pay scale will depend not only on showing that they have developed themselves but also that they are coaching and mentoring less experienced teachers. Those hoping to gain the new excellent teacher status will also have to demonstrate that they have provided regular coaching and mentoring to colleagues.

It remains to be seen if all this will translate into more opportunities for the majority of teachers to learn and develop. Funding for training, previously ring-fenced, was swallowed up by general school budgets last spring, while best practice research scholarships and other schemes targeted at individual teachers have been axed. What happens next will depend on how far school leaders see training as a priority.

Sarah Stephens, director of policy at the General Teaching Council, says it is not just about making more money - and time - available for professional development. "It's also about getting the message to school leadership that this is absolutely essential to their improvement agenda. It's not an add-on, but part of their core effort."

The task of getting this message across will fall largely to the Teacher Training Agency, which has been given new responsibilities for training and is due to announce plans for improving the quality and coherence of programmes early this term.

Angela Walsh, the agency's co-director of teacher training strategy, points out that there are already plenty of training activities available to teachers. "The concern is the range and quality of the development," she says.

"What we'll be looking to do is to share really good quality practice and ensure more schools know about that and have a sustained programme of professional development that has a positive impact on the teachers, on schools and, of course, on pupils' achievement."

The Department for Education has commissioned a study to identify the key factors in effective coaching and mentoring for teachers. There is already a lot of research evidence that training is most effective when it involves teachers working together in their own schools or in clusters of schools with some external expert support. Activities that are sustained over time also tend to have more impact than one-off courses.

"The danger with courses," says Cressida Inglis, deputy headteacher of Castle secondary school in Thornbury, South Gloucestershire, "is that people might be inspired by what they see on that day, but then they come back into school and by five past nine they are overwhelmed by the minutiae of what goes on in the classroom."

On the other hand, she says, a coach from a teacher's own school will understand the issues and can help the teacher put new learning into practice.

Castle school has a well-established mentoring programme for newly qualified teachers and is now trying ways of providing support for teachers in the second year of their careers. Last year one of the school's assistant heads worked with these teachers one-to-one for three weeks. An initial coaching session focused on an issue the teacher wanted to tackle.

The teacher would then try out various ideas, with the coach providing support, through team teaching, say, or classroom observation. Afterwards, they took time for reflection, debriefing and discussions about the way forward.

"Delivering that all in a three-week block was very intensive but very focused on what the second-year teacher wanted, and that seemed to be a very powerful model," says Ms Inglis.

There was a similar focus on what teachers wanted to learn in a project that Essex County Council and the General Teaching Council ran last year for teachers in the second to fifth years of their careers. It is during post-induction years that teachers are most likely to drop out of the profession, so the project was designed to help with retention.

"We started off by auditing the needs of the teachers, working with them to identify what they wanted to work on rather than imposing things on them," says Neil Fazackerley, the project co-ordinator, who was at the time an assistant head at Passmores secondary school in Harlow and is now a deputy head in London.

The audit showed that teachers wanted to observe each other's lessons, so those at the primary schools were given the chance to look at how subjects were taught in secondary school and vice versa. Several teachers also wanted to learn more about using information technology in the classroom, so a colleague who knew a lot about this led a training session for all the schools.

Given a choice, it seems that teachers would rather learn from each other than go on external courses. But this does not mean that traditional courses are dead. "I think it's still got its place," says Mr Fazackerley, "but it's of less value than other forms of CPD that are more rooted in the classroom."

These forms of learning could become more widespread in future, especially if training becomes compulsory for teachers in England as it already is in Scotland. Ms Stephens thinks this might be worth considering, but only once all teachers have the time to pursue their own advancement and access to high quality development activities.

"We still have a picture of variable and inequitable access to CPD," she says. "So it wouldn't be very supportive to teachers to move to that model of requirement until we get the supply side sorted out. Then we will look at it within the profession."

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