Bruce Robertson says continuing professional development must no longer be seen as a chore and should be cheaper for teachers who are working in outlying areas. One answer lies in information technology
I wish that I had a pound for every time a sigh went up in a staffroom when the latest flyer for courses arrives from the local authority, the colleges of education, or the ever-increasing plethora of education consultants. In an all-graduate profession, it seems an anathema that continuing professional development is regarded as the teacher's equivalent of after-school detention!
But if continuing professional development is a right, it appears to me that some in Scotland are more equal than others.
The costs of in-service training and staff development in rural areas, are significantly more than for their urban counterparts. In Highland, for example, we have to factor into the costs of staff development an additional pound;40 a person on average, simply to get them to the course.
I recently spoke to a teacher who had to get a ferry the day before the course across to the mainland, drive more than 100 miles to the location, stay overnight, and return (via Marks and Spencer!) to Fort William for an overnight stay before the ferry journey the following morning - three days for a one-day course. Can you imagine the sense of frustration if (it was not the case on this occasion) the course was not of the quality and standard that the descriptor had conveyed? How do probationers in outlying areas stay in touch with their colleagues and get meaningful and stimulating continuing professional development?
How do professionals in these areas access courses for the MEd or Master of Business Administration degrees or the Scottish Qualification for Headship? The answer of course is with enormous difficulty, great personal sacrifice and, on behalf of the employer, vast expense.
There is a growing feeling across Scotland that the present system of staff development is neither sustainable nor manageable as we move into a new era of professional development.
Are we maximising the opportunities that information and communications technology affords us?
Via the University of the Highlands and Islands, for example, we are actively pursuing the introduction of Gaelic medium primary teacher training, as well as a range of continuing professional development opportunities for teachers and other council and public sector employees using distance and open learning techniques.
Already the staff of the University of the Highlands and Islands are heavily involved in post-graduate award bearing courses, using video conferencing, e-mail, as well as face to face meetings, and it seems to me that such a model has much to offer across Scotland.
Although there have been pockets of such practice in the past, it is disappointing that withinthe Scottish Qualification for Headship, which has so much potential - and if ministers have their say will be so fundamental for future headships - such techniques of learning are not already in the basic structure.
It would be relatively easy to design courses that could be delivered to clusters of schools and teachers across Scotland.
In fact, one could establish a virtual college, in which teachers both convey and receive continuing professional development.
When would a teacher prefer to spend some time on continuing professional development?
At 4pm - after a long hard day in the classroom - or at a time that suits hisher circumstances with all the advantages of an open and properly distanced learning approach?
What would you prefer - a 100 mile round trip in bleakest, darkest February in rural Scotland to access a course at a college, or the ability to access your professional development in your own workplace or your home?
As an enthusiastic applicant for the Scottish Qualification for Headship, what would you prefer - to spend two hours in the car to access your tutormentor, or to e-mail your assignment to your mentor, and follow it up with a video conference?
Clearly there will always be a role for meeting colleagues at meetings and courses but the new technologies now give us options that previously did not exist.
Has this director of education no sense of reality and finally lost his marbles, or can this really be delivered in Scotland at present? What we need is 21st century information and communication technology infrastructure; coupled with supreme teacher confidence with the new technology; commitment to working in clusters of schools or professionals or authorities or colleges.
We also need an imaginative broker of courses and associated accreditation for teachers, partnerships between authorities and colleges as well as the necessary influence of the Scottish Executive to push this important theme of training along.
We are at a point when these requirements are beginning to be put in place, and where, with imagination and commitment, we can modernise continuing professional development in a manner which the Scottish teacher deserves, because ultimately, that can only benefit our pupils and therefore of course the future of our country and the happiness of its citizens.
Of course, this begs another question. Do we have the right model for teacher training?
Or could some of the modern solutions for continuing professional development be applied to a radically different but perhaps more practicable and effective means of providing Scotland with the thousands of new teachers who will indisputably be needed during the first decade of the new century?
That, however, is a matter for another day.
Bruce Robertson is director of education for Highland Council