Margaret Alcorn

2nd December 2011 at 00:00
The national CPD co-ordinator talks about the vital role of continuing professional development, the promising prospects for online and in-school training and her hopes for the Donaldson report. Photography Angus Blackburn

Are good teachers born or made?

Made. Good CPD will improve every teacher. Everyone has the potential to teach well - as part of lifelong learning we should always seek to improve.

What kind of teacher were you when you started?

I wanted to change the world. I thought teachers had a moral purpose to change society, make opportunities available to more young people. I don't know if I was very good in the first couple of years as a teacher. I had a lot to learn but I always had this passion for making a difference to the lives of young people.

Was there any particular person or event that made the difference to you?

Lots, but most recently it was Donald Henderson, the civil servant who gave me this job. He had the confidence to let me go in all kinds of new and sometimes risky directions.

Why did you move out of the classroom?

I was an English teacher and assistant head at Castlebrae when my head of service phoned to say there was a secondment in staff development available and she thought I would be very good at it. She claims I said "no thanks" and put the phone down, but she phoned me back. I had always been drawn to the idea of teacher development being at the heart of success and I thought the secondment might allow me to do that more strategically on a bigger scale than working with one school. For the first six months I was miserable, then I gradually began to enjoy the experience. But I still miss the classroom like mad.

What would you do with the chartered teacher scheme?

Reform it. I think we went into it too quickly at the beginning and didn't build the scaffolding that would allow it to be as successful as it could have been. I am less keen on the idea of standards but would like more of a focus on enhanced practice and the continuing lifelong learning we should be requiring of all our teachers.

How does the national CPD team fit into its new home, Education Scotland?

We have, perhaps because of our small size, been in danger of being marginalised. So we have an opportunity to be more strategically placed in the way that teacher professional learning is led. The Donaldson report gives us a very strong steer as to the kind of contribution the team can make to education at a national level. The best place to do that is in the national body.

The Donaldson report said a lot about CPD - are the resources there to deliver it?

It's time to reconceptualise what professional learning looks like. Donaldson gives us lots of ways forward. The old model of teachers going on courses which often required cover and was therefore very costly is not affordable in today's climate, but the international research we have looked at leads us to conclude that the best CPD is often what can be offered in schools and by colleagues working with colleagues. I am very excited about the potential of online learning and how that can make a difference to the way teachers learn.

What's the biggest single gap in a new teacher's training?

It's different in every case, but we did a survey a few years ago looking at teachers in years one to five. They said it was behaviour management, but when you spoke to them in more detail you uncovered a whole range of issues. It was as much to do with teacher confidence, building relationships with colleagues and their understanding of pedagogy.

Name one of the best examples of CPD you have witnessed during the past year.

Learning rounds - a model of school-based CPD which has a number of characteristics: group observation of practice in order to improve the learning of the observing group; no evaluative or judgmental statement when describing practice, only learning and planning how improvements can be brought about on the basis of that. It's a very effective way for teachers to reflect on their own practice and identify their own learning needs. There's lots of evidence of ways in which it has brought about collegial practice and broken down some of the isolation that still exists in many schools.

Is there any international practice we can learn from?

The work in Ontario on leadership is outstanding; learning rounds is drawn from the work of Professor Richard Elmore at Harvard; and just last night I had dinner with a Singaporean delegation who believed their system has focused so long on attainment that it has lost the values aspect. I am also impressed by the quality of work in Spain, using 21st-century technology to deliver collegial practice.

How can CPD be delivered successfully for supply teachers?

There are huge challenges there, but we have set up CPD StepIn to provide online support for supply teachers. They have a strong sense of isolation and feel undervalued. Many schools and authorities do open up their CPD programmes and events to their supply teachers - that's a strategy we should be encouraging.

Do you have a secret pleasure or vice?

I love trashy fiction - crime novels. I sometimes feel it's a vice because I'm not reading something worthy. And I love a good old gossip - I enjoy talking and being with people. That's a pleasure.

Personal profile

Born: Edinburgh, 1947

Education: Lorne Street Primary, Leith; Broughton High, Edinburgh; MA, Edinburgh University; Moray House.

Career: Worked in insurance, then tax office; at 21, went to Edinburgh University; taught at Broughton High, Forrester High, Wester Hailes and Castlebrae; development officer for Edinburgh City Council, then CPD manager. National CPD co-ordinator since 2004.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today