Satisfaction or your money back

14th November 1997 at 00:00
If the course you went on was a waste of time, why should your school pay?. Gerald Haigh advocates payment only for results

A quick and quiet revolution has taken place in the in-service training of teachers. Not so long ago, it went something like this: first, the local authority devised a programme of courses which it publicised to schools. The list went up on the staffroom noticeboard and teachers chose from it in an arbitrary way. Thus a teacher might fancy a course on technology in the primary school. The head would agree, and the teacher would attend. Sometimes, but not always, there would be feedback to the rest of the staff. If the course was badly planned and delivered, there would be muttering and grumbling, but little by way of formal complaint. It was, in short, a suppliers market. You took what was on offer, and never thought to question it.

Now the customer is king, and increasingly it works like this. School management assesses training needs, balancing the demands of the school development plan and the personal, professional needs of the teachers. The management decides how the training can be achieved - some within the school or by visits to neighbouring schools. Where it is necessary for some or all of the teachers to have the same training, someone can be paid to come to the school. There will also be a need to send some people on outside courses, and the head or the teacher in charge of staff development will study brochures from competing agencies of which the local authority is just one. When teachers return from an outside course, they will fill in a detailed evaluation form, assessing the course and outlining a plan for putting the new knowledge into action. If the course has been unsatisfactory, the head can make a note not to use that particular trainer again or demand a refund. Asking for your money back has become a trend.

George Loizou, head of Hillside primary, Stoke-on-Trent, ensures each member of staff has an individual development plan which details their training needs. But when one teacher returned from a course dissatisfied, he had no hesitation in demanding the money back. "We felt that this particular trainer didn't provide what was claimed. The teacher concerned felt it was a waste of a day."

The problem the Hillside teacher experienced is common. During training, delegates spend a long period in discussion groups, returning to report back to a plenary session. Teachers often comment that they are not being given enough leadership in such sessions. For their part, the trainers point out that teachers also complain when they are cooped up and lectured at all day. One trainer said his solution is "to use group sessions, but to make sure that they are based on the input of genuinely new knowledge from the presenter".

Angela Preston, deputy head of TP Riley Community School in Walsall, is another senior teacher who keeps a careful eye on the quality of available training. She devises an annual training plan for the staff based on returns from departments which arise from the school development plan. "I then map out a spending plan according to the priorities." She is critical of the way some training agencies work. "Some of the course descriptions are ambiguous. " The problem is, she believes, that an agency may have a fixed "stable" of presenters, each with a particular expertise. "They'll say that they can provide what you want, and then do it by twisting what they already have to suit you."

There are also, she suggests, many trainers and presenters who are past their sell-by date - "too many ex heads and ex inspectors in semi-retirement who do not have a finger on what is happening now".

The trouble is, she feels, that some course leaders and agencies are not in tune with the way that so many schools have sharpened their own styles of management and classroom practice.

"Course presenters have to be slick and efficient," says Angela Preston. "We are professional people, doing the job every day, and we are going to judge trainers by those standards."

What bothers her is that heads and senior teachers only find out by experience. What is needed is some sort of quality-assured directory of trainers and presenters. "If you were new to the job, how would you know who is going to be good?" Cost seems to be no indicator. "The discrepancy in fees is huge - to provide a tailor-made day for us could cost from Pounds 1,500 down to Pounds 300, and the sums have no connection with quality or with the fame of the presenter."

Schools such as Hillside Primary and TP Riley are increasingly using Investors in People, the training standards scheme, as a vehicle for developing a training culture. Angela Preston explained that at her school faculty heads looking towards deputy headship may have a senior management task delegated to them, "And I will mentor them as they do it."

Part of the same training culture will involve teachers mentoring and training each other, as well as looking to neighbouring schools. Tim Brighouse, chief education officer in Birmingham, says that teachers have considerable "craft knowledge" that could be more efficiently shared with colleagues.

There are people who run courses who have tried to recognise the need to satisfy consumer demand. Cornwall College, an FE college in Camborne, has an offshoot 200 miles away, a large in-service training agency based in Birmingham run by Tony and Barbara Russell, who, remembering their own experiences as teachers, have been determined to meet some of the common criticisms.

"We make it clear in each leaflet who the course is for: experienced teachers, newly qualified teachers or whatever," says Tony. Barbara said that they also take great care about the quality of their presenters. "For every course there are detailed evaluation forms - not just the usual tick sheets. We also monitor new presenters. We pay them good fees, but if the course falls apart they don't get paid."

The college offers an unconditional money-back guarantee. "We're the Marks and Spencer of Inset," said Tony Russell "The customer is always right and if he doesn't like what we provide, he gets his money back."

There is another side to the coin. Any experienced trainer will tell you of teachers who turn up having forgotten entirely what course they are on, which options they have asked for, and whether or not they have actually booked. Marks and Spencer, of course, have experience of customers like that.


* Look carefully at the training needs of all the staff to see if you can identify economies of scale * Try to promote a training culture throughout theschool * Get to know which are the good training agencies and which people, within them, are the good presenters.

* Build a data bank of information by chasing teachers for good feedback on the courses they attend.

* When a course is unsatisfactory, do something about it. Let the training agency know the problem.

* Ask for a refund if there genuinely has been a waste of money.

* Make sure teachers go to courses fully prepared and knowing exactly what elements of a course they are booked for.

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