Passport to a more confident profession

26th September 2003 at 01:00
Like doctors and dentists, classroom practitioners have to keep their skills up to date, says Douglas Osler

Continuing professional development (CPD) is what makes professionals confident and good at their jobs. In education, its introduction has the potential to create the biggest leap forward in quality of any policy in the past 50 years. CPD is a means of managing change, something our education system has been poor at in the past 20 years. The need to move on has often been hindered by classroom devotion to the status quo. CPD will make changes in curriculum and methodology a natural extension of good practice rather than something new.

It has the effect of extending initial training by making time for subsequent learning. It ensures teachers stay alongside changes in their specialisms rather than taking a one-off refresher course. It provides the opportunity for managers to ensure the availability of teachers with the skills needed as society changes what it expects from schools. For example, when social inclusion changed the educational culture, where were the behavioural counsellors and the teachers comfortable with the concept of new community schooling? CPD will give teachers opportunities to develop themselves as individuals and so become more confident professionals.

It is astonishing that professional development for all emerged as part of the settlement of an industrial dispute. It should have come years ago from the demands of a profession knowing it could only serve pupils well if its practice was up to date and adapted for new challenges. Given the way it has emerged, I hope it is not eroded in the time-honoured fashion of earlier agreements.

Whatever is claimed, it is possible for a teacher in Scotland to qualify at age 22 and to be nothing other than a passive observer at required in-service training for the next 40 years. And that happens. In any career spanning 40 years, the demands society makes on its education system will change dramatically and a distant teacher training experience does not suffice.

I remember Sam Galbraith - coming from a profession that knew it could kill people if it fell behind current research and methodology - expressing amazement publicly when he was education minister that there were language teachers who never read in the language they taught, physics teachers who had not studied physics since university and classroom teachers who believed that their training 20 years before would be enough for the challenges of an inclusive education system.

Continuing to learn is the mark of a true professional. Having said all that, although we do a lot of things well in Scotland, our care of teachers is poor. Perhaps it is understandable that available resources have gone into the welfare of children in schools at the expense of proper attention being paid to the teaching staff but it is short-sighted.

The conditions in which many teachers work and relax during their working day are a disgrace. The lack of attention to their personnel needs (who would have a business with 100-plus staff and no personnel officer?) erodes professional standing. CPD offers an opportunity for teachers to be treated like other professionals and they should be hungry for it.

I remember being in Denmark and meeting the deputy of the main teaching union. He explained how the union as well as the employers had schemes of professional development because evidence of a well-trained profession meant the union was in a strong negotiating position when salaries were reviewed. Such lateral thinking is just a dream here. Last year I spoke to the whole staff of a secondary school from Sweden who were here for a week, on a funded study tour. In many countries, a licence to teach is only renewed after evidence of regular professional updating. Where have we been?

CPD should bring the added advantage of ending the stand-offs of recent years whenever a government wanted to bring about change. Teachers were not benefiting from the kind of professional development which would have made them the first to realise that change was necessary if Scottish education was to keep abreast of our economic competitors. So, ministers were always taking the system forward in leaps and tackling endemic complacency rather than presiding over gradual evolution with teachers wanting change because of their own professional eagerness.

CPD must be given the chance to be broad in scope. It is important that specialist knowledge is updated but that is only part of the agenda.

Research on how children learn, on effective classroom practice, on the implications of inclusion and developments we haven't even thought of yet must all feature.

Opportunities should be taken to equip teachers with the expertise a particular school needs. Training as a behavioural counsellor or taking modules out of social work or community education training would be invaluable in many schools. CPD will include an enterprise experience, another example of a new emphasis that is now just part of what makes an education good but which was never part of teacher training.

Then there are the developmental courses. I can imagine the tabloid newspaper reaction if our teachers went off on a hang-gliding course as was possible in another European country's scheme but the notion of team-building courses should not be dismissed too easily. They make a difference.

The present minister will recall that at the first meeting of the CPD committee which he convened, the only contribution made by one union representative was to dismiss professional development because teachers didn't have time. There must certainly be time. Nor should the time made available be at the expense of children's education. That was a regrettable outcome of the 1980s settlement of another industrial dispute. If we are talking professional, teachers must be prepared to join the same working world as other professionals with whom they would like to be compared.

Holidays should be used to accommodate professional improvement. For existing teachers, the time would be bought out and for new entrants it would be contractual to start with. That way, the real benefits of professional development would be translated into higher quality education for Scotland's young people and teachers would have greater respect from other workers, from parents and from pupils.

The certainty that the way they work is based on the best training available will give the profession enhanced confidence. The view that teachers should not have to stand up and be counted for their Higher internal assessments or for 5-14 tests makes sad reading. Doctors stand by their diagnoses and architects justify their designs but teachers think someone else should cover for them. That comes from the suspicion and tentativeness bred by lack of training and professional uncertainty.

The message must be that teachers will not be true professionals until they have greater self-confidence. They should engage with this policy as something that completes their professionalism.

Douglas Osler is former head of HM Inspectorate of Education.

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