We don't want to be Waltons

17th October 1997 at 01:00
I cordially declined the most recent in-service invitation to land on my desk. If the education department insists I attend future courses then either the quality must improve or a press-gang will be needed. Last year an entire day was frittered away by a Master of Discipline for Learning.

In return for a four-figure sum (allegedly), 140 staff were given a lecture and a ring-binder. Seasoned fans of the Ricki Lake Show would have recognised the American psycho-babble, peppered with sugary anecdotal tales of how Bart Simpson can be transformed into John Boy Walton. This metamorphosis is achieved by the teacher uttering key phrases such as " I hear what you're saying" and "I really like the way you are behaving". To quell the cynics a video showed how this strategy really does work. (Money back? Not bloody likely.) It would be an understatement to say the classroom scene was stage-managed. It contrived to make party conferences look like improvisation theatre workshops. Mindful of our role as the conscripted audience we said little, but the outbursts of body language spoke volumes. More head shaking than Sotheby's, more tuts than a Cairo boot sale. After the departure of education's Elmer Gantry, a member of the senior management team hurriedly issued a disclaimer of sorts. Some things would be taken on board, others cast away. Suggestions that Mr Discipline be made to walk the plank foundered. To date the only discernible change to the school discipline policy has been the introduction of praise cards for S1.

An interesting postscript is that two weeks after the lecture the discipline for learning programme gained national publicity. A school in Yorkshire, plagued by pupil indiscipline, had implemented the scheme. It produced results, albeit unexpected. Pupils at the Ridings school in Yorkshire became uncontrollable, staff walked out and Whitehall sent in a "hit squad" to restore order (and banish Nigel de Gruchy's annoying diction from television?). What more can I say?

More recently I was compelled to sit through a totally inappropriate in-service on "computing and the classroom teacher" delivered by a university professor. Acetate after acetate, he chuntered on about "fat pipes", "thin servers", "internets", "intranets" and the joys of Java. I burst out laughing at this point, believing he had said Jabba (Star Wars fans will understand this). Although able to understand complex computer systems he had no concept of the space-time continuum and overran by an hour. The next speaker flung her acetates on the table, apologised for her demeanour but explained that it would be impossible for her to deliver her lecture due to time constraints.

The last straw was a session on how to improve Higher results. The morning began with acetates identifying "trigger" words in examination questions. Two years earlier, the same acetates had been issued to my head of department at an in-service. The afternoon session culminated in the group being given 15 minutes to do an exercise which takes the candidates an hour. A principal teacher and I mutinied, refusing to participate. One way to improve results would be to stop classroom teachers being sent to worthless courses where the highlight is lunch in the council's canteen.

It is possible to benefit. A 5-14 course last year was informative and useful in the preparation of classroom materials. Too often, however, teachers feel they have gained little from the experience which will help them in the classroom. The evaluation process is flawed. Teachers are often asked to assess the value of the course. Unless the judgment can be made anonymously there is pressure to praise unworthiness. The course has been organised by management or an adviser, and it may be the case that criticism is as welcome as rabies at Crufts. The in-service industry is too often off course. Maybe it's time the providers were given a session on the needs of classroom teachers and how best to meet them.

Hugh Reilly teaches modern studies in Glasgow.

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