Lean, mean and local

19th January 1996 at 00:00
Two studies reveal that most schools still favour their local education authorities as providers of professional development services. Sue Law Derek Glover explain their findings.

Some local education authorities are "lean, efficient and effective" and less risky than private providers of professional development activities according to a survey last year of primary and secondary heads. But teachers and managers questioned in 100 primary and secondary schools in a range of authorities still warn of complacent LEAs offering the worst of both worlds by trying to run a full advisory service while meeting staff salaries through Office for Standards in Education inspections.

This pull in two directions - also criticised recently by Chris Woodhead, chief inspector of schools - has, according to the schools we surveyed, been proving too difficult for many LEAs to manage effectively. As one secondary head noted: "The LEA is now running down... the good staff have gone into inspectorate work and the poor or complacent are left, not to respond to our needs, but to offer what they think we want... but those days are gone!"

Despite the problems with LEAs, schools are not inclined to use private consultants "on spec": schools don't like "the way in which independent providers tend to come in, give their course and then go off without seeking any feedback... we cannot sort out the gloss and the reality of offers. "

Increasingly, schools prefer what one head called a "known, local and negotiated service." Often, though not always, this means the LEA. Higher education is used and valued for its expertise and research focus but schools worry about its distance from classroom life - though these anxieties are diminishing as teacher training partnerships develop.

Overall, three-quarters of the 40 primary schools in the survey reported that working with their local LEA had real advantages and there was a 15 per cent improvement in schools' satisfaction with LEA services in primary and secondary schools in the past year. In addition, for the first time since Keele University established its professional development database three years ago, there is evidence that primary schools are now bidding for special funds to support professional development. Increasing numbers of secondary schools also regard external funding as vital: 25 per cent of the 1995 sample were receiving between Pounds 300 and Pounds 10,000 through, for example, Investors in People.

However, while secondary and primary sectors thought the quality of professional development and in-service training was improving, lack of funds remains a major problem. Sums available vary greatly between schools of similar size: for example, two LEA primaries, each with 320 pupils on roll, have Pounds 2,608 and Pounds 10,700 respectively. The amount available per head of staff has declined by 20 per cent overall since last year's survey. The average for a teacher in a local authority school is Pounds 253 while for grant-maintained schools, the average is Pounds 574.

There is evidence that professional development in the secondary sector is beginning to match individual, department and whole-school needs. We do not yet know whether the same conclusions can be applied to the primary sector.

Decisions about staff development opportunities in just under 60 per cent of schools surveyed were based on some form of broad-based discussion, while in 5 per cent it remained the sole remit of senior management - with either the head or the head and responsible deputy making all the decisions. Overall, schools reported that about 50 per cent of their professional development resources were being used for the school as a whole, with 30 per cent for departmental or year activities, and 20 per cent to meet individual needs.

There continues to be little or no funding for courses like MAs or diplomas: teachers and managers now predominantly self-fund this kind of development.

A common theme running through this year's commentaries is the sense of growing frustration over "lost" development opportunities. One primary school head spoke for many in complaining that "with a decreasing pot of money there is a lack of cover for absent staff, matched by a growing unwillingness to attend courses in the teacher's own time and a lack of interest as a result of increasing workloads." Another (secondary) school response points out that "the greatly increased range of provision has coincided with considerably reduced funding - and staff expectations (following appraisal targets), are difficult to meet."

Against this background there is evidence that schools realise they need to be increasingly resourceful in the type of professional development opportunities they offer their staff. There is, equally, a clear concern that they can't, single-handedly, meet all needs and will end up just plugging gaps.

The move away from traditional off-site courses (except for some specialist subject training) continues. Although this is less marked in the primary sector, schools are becoming increasingly, entrepreneurial through: developing staff training skills; running annual (staff) conferences and programmed activities such as paired observation and group developmental work; encouraging research in association with local universities and colleges (often teacher training partners); and through offering carefully-negotiated individual opportunities following appraisal.

The difficulty is that all this diverse activity has to be managed, which takes time (often deputy head time) away from other pressing responsibilities. Several schools worried about "building up a system which gives staff the view that they can have the training they need, but in reality we can't afford it or we're not prepared to have the disruption it entails", and where "the demise of teachers' centres has left us with no common local meeting ground where networks can develop".

Training priorities are gradually shifting away from national curriculum content and assessment towards the range of management and cross-curricular topics which reflect schools' ability to target their programmes to meet needs. There is growing resentment at the apparent inspection focus in so many in-service training events - as one head commented: "if only we knew then what we know now we wouldn't have attended any courses before the inspection. "

Standards are improving as schools become better at assessing value for money and there is evidence that providers are charging more consistent fees in what remains a buyers' market. While schools accept that, in the short term, competition has helped to improve quality - especially in school-based consultancy - they still harbour fears about the longer term viability of the market.

Undoubtedly, however, whole-school professional development planning seems to be gaining ground and this year's sample schools are committed to using opportunities as constructively as they can to ensure professional development "adds confidence, boosts morale, and benefits the pupils".

* Sue Law is Director of In-Service Education at Keele University and Derek

Glover is In-Service Research Fellow at Keele University

* Keele's 1995 reports, For Better,For Worse: Professional Development Trends in Primary Education and The Glass and the Reality: Managing Professional Development in Secondary Schools, are available from the In-Service Education and Management Unit, Keele University, ST5 5BG. (Pounds 2.50 each including pp)

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