Open letter - What do they want? Better professional development

30th November 2012 at 00:00

Dear Michael,

It is hard to believe that a Curriculum for Excellence can thrive without some extended professional development for the Scottish teaching workforce.

International research evidence overwhelmingly supports the value of particular practices. In a sentence, professional growth and development work best when they are approached by teachers working collegially together - and doing that work on an extended basis, not for an isolated day or half-day.

This has worked successfully in some schools in Scotland. Indeed the Journey to Excellence videos on the Education Scotland website contain excellent examples of collegial development over an extended period of time. I have watched the Balwearie High experience of formative assessment on about 20 occasions. It is excellent and encouraging. And Boghall Primary is interesting on critical skills.

But we do not know how extensive this practice is in Scotland. Certainly I do not; and I suspect you do not. One experienced secondary teacher commented to me: "The usual pattern for in-service is days with a variety of different themes where staff will be sitting in the assembly hall and be lectured to. These will be one-day events with the possibility of splitting into smaller groups to discuss a theme for one hour and for a minute-taker to feed back to the SMTSLT what took place. These days are usually viewed as being imposed and the feedback as not having any major impact.

"In my experience, teachers are more positive about sessions where they have engaged with colleagues either on the same subject area topic or on a theme that actually has an impact on classroom learning and teaching. But too little time is available for teachers to work together."

Now talk to anyone at higher levels in Scottish education about the idea that isolated days (far less half-days) of in-service are useless (often worse than useless); and that this has been well known for at least 30 years. "Yes, we know that," they say - often very condescendingly.

If they know it, Cabinet Secretary, why do they allow so much public resource to be invested, in at least some schools, in something that does not work?

On the other hand, one of my many advisers on such matters was sent the following testimonial: "In-service days in our education authority are really well structured and we usually have very good sessions and presenters. I am about to team-teach with a teacher from a resource centre, following up on a course in support for learning I attended."

Scottish teachers want and deserve good professional development. Capacity-building is, in part, about ensuring that those who design and deliver that professional development are themselves au fait with good practice. As my Latin teacher used to say: "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"

Yours sincerely, Iain

Iain Smith, Former dean of education, was at one time a dean of education in the University of Strathclyde. He writes in a personal capacity.

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