US shows us the way

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
The NUT's John Bangs looks across the Atlantic for a lesson on teachers' ongoing training

The Government believes teachers should be entitled to continuing professional development. So do teachers. When Warwick university surveyed members of the National Union of Teachers early last year, 80 per cent wanted the right to high-quality professional development.

The NUT has campaigned consistently for this entitlement. But can the union provide high-quality training as good as, if not better than, that of other providers? We believe we can, not only because we have long experience of providing effective training, but because good practice already exists. We have learned much from the work of the two biggest teacher organisations in the US - the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Both are direct providers of professional development for their members. The NEA, for example, runs a programme, the Professional Development Schools Initiative, which covers initial teacher training and ongoing professional development. The programme has attracted interest from beyond the union, with school districts and universities signing up to take part.

At a federal level, the NEA and AFT are part of the Learning First Alliance, a coalition of 12 national organisations that includes parents' groups, school boards and school administrators. The alliance aims to publish papers on major teaching and learning issues.

The NEA has also established a separate body, the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education, which is funded from members' subscriptions and distributes training grants to individual and groups of teachers - and, indeed, school districts.

The AFT runs its own professional development programme - Education, Research and Dissemination (E, R and D) - based on the principle that the organisation to which teachers have voluntarily committed themselves, their union, is best placed to provide professional development.

E, R and D is based on common-sense but radical assumptions - assumptions that have a strong resonance here too:

* there is a big gap between research and its effective dissemination into practice;

* much professional development is characterised by ineffective, latest fad, in-service experiences;

* teachers are entitled to training based on research-led practice which works in the classroom. One AFT officer likens much professional development to a doctor randomly trying out pills on a patient to see if they work;

* teachers are confident learners when in a non-threatening, non-judgmental environment;

* teachers themselves, as peer tutors, can be the best trainers;

* administrators and school boards have chosen radical structural alternatives for providing education without investing in good research-led professional development.

In the US, the government has little if any say in the way education is conducted at state and district level. There is no standards fund, although Washington funded the pilot phase of the AFT's programme. Decisions on school organisation and quality assurance are made by myriad local, demcratically elected bodies. The NEA and the AFT have the potential to provide consistent, proven training for teachers which the federal government lacks the capacity to provide.

AFTresearch shows that its members expect their union to provide effective CPD. It says providing professional development is "union work". The NUT believes teachers' continuing professional development is union work too. The programme we launched on March 31 is based on that principle.

Our pilot schemes will start this summer. First up, teachers in the North-East can apply for a pound;3,000 scholarship to conduct research into effective strategies for developing children's thinking skills. Participants will receive two days' training, including work on evaluation and reporting skills, supported by academics from the University of Newcastle's school of education.

But eventually we hope to have a network of residential and distance learning courses running across the UK. Graduates from early courses could go on to become peer tutors themselves.

For too long, as the AFT says, teachers have had imposed on them ineffective fad-based experiences. Indeed, the Government here seems obsessed with structural change such as Fresh Start but fails to give teachers relevant continuing professional support. And, of course, it is teachers themselves who can be the best researchers and trainers.

At government level there are positive signs. The Teacher Training Agency has run a successful "teachers as researchers" scheme. The Government itself intends to distribute best practice research scholarships. It is teachers themselves, however, who must be at the centre of providing their own professional development. The NUT's professional development programme will make sure that assertion is realised.

John Bangs is the National Union of Teachers' assistant secretary for education and equal opportunities

Tips for tutors * As a tutor you are in the front line of pastoral care. The job is as important as your subject teaching.

* You are going to see these same pupils daily for up to five years. Save time and trouble by setting some routines at the start - how to come into the room, putting homework diaries out for checking, answering the register in the way you want.

* Be strict, fair, kind and funny. These are the qualities pupils say they want in their tutors. Don't be lulled by the tutorial role into being too familiar. Your children expect you to be an adult with authority.

* A well-organised tutor is a blessing to a busy year leader. Do the administrative jobs that are passed down to you efficiently and promptly.

* Support your tutor group. They are your team. They are important to you. Watch them in matches and concerts. Organise charity events and trips with them.

* Know your tutor group. When you take them on, study their records and histories. Get to know the families, too.

* Celebrate individual events and successes - awards, achievements, birthdays, returns from illness. Give praise and reward at every opportunity.

* Keep an eye on attendance patterns. You are in the front line in this.

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