'We’ve all had terrible CPD – let’s put an end to it'

All too often, CPD offers nothing – we need to focus on giving teachers what they really want, writes James McEnaney

James McEnaney

Teacher CPD is often just 'snake oil' – we need to focus on giving teachers the professional development they really need, writes James McEnaney

There is, I think, an under-appreciated but absolutely iron rule of education: everyone who has been to CPD events has been to terrible CPD events.

Perhaps ‘twas always thus, and maybe the rule holds for other professions, too. But there’s no doubt that pretty much every teacher in the land will know the script.

Four-figure, zero-value consultants wax lyrical about the magical powers of their latest and, naturally, greatest snake oils; badly disguised edu-businesses preaching that their (proprietary) approach is now the “one true faith”; someone calling themselves a motivational speaker and using words like synergy, in the genuine but oh-so-mistaken belief that it makes them sound clever.

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This is all great for over-promoted managers, secondment-fanciers, tax accountants and people trying to make a living writing sarcastic columns on the internet. That it offers nothing to teachers is, sadly, all too often neither here nor there.

For me, the worst CPD event I ever endured came during my newly-qualified teacher year when I was required to attend a truly horrific “critical skills” session. The day involved a room full of adults making some posters (glitter strongly encouraged), coming up with stupid team names and hearing that if we weren't using these approaches then we weren't really teaching properly at all.

A revolution in teacher CPD

Over the years I’ve had a lot of my time wasted at pointless CPD events like that one, but amidst all the darkness there have also been some glimmers of light. The best and brightest of them have come through teacher-led initiatives such as Pedagoo, so I was pleased to see that Education Scotland has decided to incorporate a Teachmeet-type event into that great missed opportunity of Scottish CPD: the always disappointing Scottish Learning Festival (SLF).

But that worryingly rare piece of good news left me wondering how much good could be done if we really turned the SLF, which promises so much yet delivers so little, into something actually deserving of the grand title. OK, one-off events will always be limited because the best, most effective CPD involves reflective progress over an extended period; but even so we should ask this question: what would a real festival of learning look like?

What if we gathered together hundreds of teachers, each one demonstrating a new resource or approach, or sharing some of their students’ work, and talking it all through with fellow professionals? And what if we managed to do that while keeping consultants, salespeople and edu-celebs, with all of their associated financial, ideological and PR concerns, as far away as possible.

Imagine if we told education secretary John Swinney that we don’t care about newspaper-friendly set-piece speeches and instead insisted that, if politicians wished to attend, they did so in order to hear from, and answer to, the professionals who actually matter? And while we’re at it, what if we held such events at a time and place when most teachers could actually attend?

I know, I know – this is all absurd. It isn’t how things are done. It would cost money. The people in charge might be uncomfortable with it.

Worst of all, it might actually change things. Imagine that.

James McEnaney is a journalist, FE lecturer and former schoolteacher in Scotland

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