Inset inhabits an alternative universe where embarrassing role-play and amateur psychology masquerade as professional development. Geoff Brookes has had enough
I've never had much patience with Inset courses, and when I was asked to write my initials in the air with my hands I realised that I was too old to be trained. It may be true that I am merely impatient. But all I want these days is to go on a course, find out what I need to know and then go back to school. I don't think I am alone in this.
We lead busy professional lives, with all sorts of pressures to deal with.
Constant change brings with it a necessity to keep up to date, to be re-educated. But when I do go on a course these days, I am offered party games. Perhaps I have been unlucky, but I do not need to introduce myself to five people I don't already know. I do not need role-play. I do not need to share my life story with a stranger.
These things are purposeless and irritating. If the warm-up exercises prove that I am introverted and inhibited, so what's new? It seems to me that Inset inhabits an alternative universe with its own priorities. So dabbling in a bit of behavioural science and tossing in a touch of amateur psychology is par for the course, as they say.
Things happen on courses which elsewhere would be regarded as abnormal. I was once asked to tell a deep secret to a stranger; something I'd never revealed to anyone before. This was all to do with breaking the ice, apparently. I reassured the poor young woman next to me that the only secret I possessed was a sudden need to murder the presenter. Later he urged us all to get in touch with our true feelings about accountancy. (He was an American ex-catalogue model. Don't ask.) There are skilled presenters around who can inspire and enthuse. But there are so many others who deal in second-hand techniques and half-baked concepts, bluffing their way through things they do not understand by asking teachers to write on flip charts. They then say they agree with everything the first group says.
Role-play is a particularly unsatisfactory area. People get so concerned about the quality of their performance, they forget the purpose of the simulation. It's second-class drama for amateurs. It is interesting that Inset for headteachers rarely involves party games. They are told what they need to know without any of the rest.
I am getting old. I want to go on a course and find out what I need to know in an interesting way. I don't want to sit in a group listening to a colleague mumbling away, unsettled by being asked to speak in public, holding up ideas for the inspection of others. I can empathise with this.
After all, by coming on a course they have indicated that they want to find out things; that they are not an expert. They have come here to listen and learn.
If you go out of school on a course then at least most of those present will want to be there. But if the Inset is presented within school, things can be very different. The presenter has to deal with a captive audience, some of whom will regard themselves as prisoners who have a duty to sabotage the enemy gaoler, before digging an escape tunnel. Staff may have a reputation they have to maintain, which can prevent them from involving themselves in the purpose of the training. So you have the clown, the cynic, the Latin teacher who has heard it all before and doesn't think that the wheel should be reinvented. All frightened by the concept of change.
Asking teachers to write their initials in the air will not change this.
But the true hell of Inset is the feedback, that dire bum-numbing experience during which it is possible to lose the will to live, and the light in your eyes is extinguished by flip-chart sheets and tedious repetition, exactly at the moment when everyone wants to go home. The cost of Inset is huge - generating enormous income for others - but the results are variable. If we had to pay from our own pockets, we'd complain, but we are playing games at someone else's expense and having a decent lunch, usually involving spring rolls and samosas. That couple of hours in the lounge of a posh hotel certainly breaks up the week, but is it cost effective?
One head I worked for didn't value Inset at all and rarely let anyone out of school. I wouldn't go that far. You can't expect teachers to keep up to date without giving them the opportunity to learn and talk and compare. But why does Inset have to be dressed up in clothes I wouldn't wear? Please tell me what I need to know and then let me get back to school. That is where I work.
Geoff Brookes is deputy head of Cefn Hengoed comprehensive, Swansea