Let the good times roll;Effective teaching and learning;Conference;Making the Connection;Preview

15th May 1998 at 01:00
Staff development and appraisal can improve quality - for both teachers and pupils - so long as they are handled properly, says Anthony Finn

Successful learning depends on effective teaching. Consequently, providing appropriate training to enhance classroom teachers' skills might be expected to be a priority. It might also have been reasonable to expect that staff development and appraisal schemes would have had a positive impact on teaching and learning. Yet the evidence from recent research suggests that neither conclusion can be justified.

In successful classrooms, pupils enjoy a constructive relationship with good, supportive teachers who treat them as individuals, stimulate their curiosity and help them to learn interesting things. They welcome encouragement, good humour, patience and tolerance.

They enjoy a well-ordered environment in which they feel secure. They dislike being patronised and they resent being considered as uninterested or poorly motivated because of the inappropriate actions of others.

Scottish teachers have much in common with their pupils. They wish to improve their own teaching and to secure higher standards for their pupils; they want their work to be recognised, valued and supported. They appreciate opportunities to be creative and resourceful. And they resent criticisms of all teachers based on the perceived weaknesses of a small minority. Above all they, too, want time and training to help them to do their jobs better.

Pupils want to improve their learning and teachers want to improve their teaching, and the most important factor in children's education is the quality of their experience in the classroom. Yet, for all the rhetoric about the pre-eminence of teaching and learning, the emphasis of the past few years has been on measurable outcomes: on performance indicators, exam results, the planning and management of education and the assessment and accountability of teachers and schools.

There is a danger that the importance of the product is leading to a devaluing of the process - that what we can measure has become the only touchstone of our effectiveness.

Of course, it is important to have good management systems. Appropriate planning and monitoring can certainly improve learning standards. However, learning will not improve simply because it is better managed. (After all, good teaching can still thrive where there is bad management!) Effective learning also requires the personal investment of teachers who are willing to take risks and try out new strategies to improve their teaching.

Where teachers are encouraged and supported in this, they will achieve substantial progress. As academic guru Michael Fullan has asserted, "neither top-down nor bottom-up change works". Classroom improvement requires both good leadership from management and the professional commitment of those who have to implement change. Quality, it seems, comes in circles.

It is in this context that the impact of the new guidelines on staff development and review, published in late January, must be judged. Until now, staff development and appraisal has been perceived by some as part of an anti-teacher agenda. The propaganda of the previous government, particularly, but not exclusively, in England and Wales, led to its being seen as a tool which could be used by management to "weed out" unsuccessful teachers and to improve accountability.

Research on previous schemes in Scotland and England suggests that many teachers regarded appraisal as a low priority in competition for their time and attention against new curricular developments such as 5-14 and Higher Still. Teachers who took part in appraisal would, on the whole, have preferred to dedicate their time to issues which they considered more relevant to their needs. And yet the evidence of those teachers who have been appraised is that it can have significant benefits.

Above all, it provided an opportunity for reflection on teaching and encouraged discussion of ways in which teachers could be supported in their work. The process worked best where it was informed by self-evaluation and led to agreement on opportunities for development.

It is these features which have led unions representing other employees in the new councils to push for career development interviews.

The revised guidelines on staff development and review try to build on these successful aspects of previous practice. There is strong encouragement for the use of teacher self-evaluation, including an assessment of where, in a teacher's judgment, current practice might be improved.

The guidelines stress the importance of creating "a supportive learning culture" and promote teacher review as a professional entitlement of all staff which is "clearly integrated with the normal life and management of the school".

Finally, teacher review should avoid the unnecessarily bureaucratic approach of the past: it has to be straightforward and simple, "resulting in minimum disruption for pupils" and, presumably, for teachers. The language of the new guidelines implies a commitment to promote discussion of good practice within a context which teachers should find unthreatening. However, the challenge for authorities, and also for headteachers and their promoted colleagues, is to ensure that staff consider development and review helpful.

If it is to succeed in encouraging teachers to take responsibility for their own professional development, it must also make sure that they have the opportunity to do so.. Indeed, effective staff development can help good teachers to make the very improvements in their classroom skills which might, in turn, improve pupil performance.

Good teachers make a difference to learning. They give priority to what happens in their classrooms and they find ways to improve their teaching and professional skills.

Clearly, teachers must be accountable for the effectiveness of their teaching. They are also entitled to have some control over decisions about how they could improve. Reconciling these objectives may seem difficult, but the success of staff development and review will be judged by the extent to this particular circle can be squared.

Anthony Finn is headteacher of St Andrew's High School, Kirkcaldy

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