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Yoga classes? You must be joking;Career development

Most other countries now have a hard-nosed attitude to INSET too, writes John Walshe

Why is it that teacher development has become a much more serious topic, not just in the UK but in other countries as well? Can we blame the politicians for that, as well as for everything else that's gone wrong in schools?

Remember when you could indulge your interests in yoga or creative painting during what was laughingly called "in-service training"?

Many teachers have fond memories of local education authority advisers who promoted the fashionable or the obscure to the heart of their INSET programmes. If you were lucky - or unlucky depending on your viewpoint and the INSET theme - you could be sent off in the mid-Eighties to attend a three-day course at an LEA residential centre.

But, in truth, there was often little relationship between the supposedly essential INSET activity and educational requirements. In the Nineties the national curriculum and the requirements of school development plans have put a stop to such idiosyncrasies and have been increasingly dictating priorities. And we won't dwell on the effect that a pending OFSTED visit has on in-service training.

But is it any different elsewhere? Like a good politician, I can answer:

"Well, yes and no."

Globally, it would seem that Israeli teachers have the best deal of all when it comes to professional development. They are entitled to a sabbatical every seven years on two-thirds of their salary, and they can teach part-time to make up the remainder.

Most other countries fall a long way short of that.

In Germany, in-service training has been mainly voluntary but teachers are under increasing pressure to attend courses that are related to central initiatives and curricular changes. Surprisingly, there is very little provision for substitute "cover" for teachers absent on courses.

In Ireland, where, it is said, sex was only discovered when television arrived in the Sixties, the biggest in-service programme has focused on relationships and sexuality education.

Every primary school teacher and a large chunk of the secondary teacher cohort had three days of in-service training, and some of them obviously needed it. As a teacher friend of mine who works in a Catholic school remarked: "Talking to sexually-active and sniggering boys about contraception is not easy, especially when you are supposed to tell them about the Catholic Church's view on condoms." But, the programme has been excellently and sensitively handled.

In the United States, "systemic reform" is still all the rage, and the education system has been in a state of near-continual change for a decade. The reform programme is, however, akin to a storm lashing the surface of the ocean: it may or may not disturb the depths. In the meantime, teachers are expected to learn the skills associated with the latest vision and unlearn the practices and beliefs that may have dominated their professional lives.

In the end, two things are clear. One is that simply investing more financial resources in in-service courses will not achieve much unless they are part of a wider agenda for change. The other is that teachers must be included in the changes - strong professional teaching cultures lead to better learning among pupils.

Teachers need to understand the why as well as the what and the how if such involvement is to be truly effective.

John Walshe is the education editor of the Irish Independent and the principal author of "Staying ahead: In-service training and teacher professional development."

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