How college lecturers are keeping up by training one another at work

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The Independent Online

It's not every day that a former student stops you in the street and recites a poem about plant hormones which they learnt 15 years ago. But when your name is Richard Spencer and you have a following in Australia, the USA and Europe, it is perhaps hardly surprising.

A biology lecturer, Spencer has become a leading light in the world of continuing professional development (CPD). On top of his teaching duties at Billingham's Bede Sixth Form college, part of Stockton Riverside College in County Durham, he attends training events to share his method of embedding scientific knowledge in poetry, dance and music.

The former student who approached him in the street recalled every word of his ditty "I am a seedless grape". More recent students might remember dancing to music by the Jackson 5 in biology classes, which he says livens up the lessons and helps them to recall facts. So successful has been his multidisciplinary approach, he could have chosen to patent his material.

Instead, Spencer shares ideas with colleagues at home and abroad through CPD events and festivals. He also attends conferences in his spare time to keep up to date with his subject. "When I was studying molecular genetics at university, we were told that there were 100,000 genes in the human body. Advances in genetics have put the number at fewer than 30,000," he says.

His work has won him several awards and, this year, an OBE in the New Year's Honours List to recognise his services to science communication.

Continuing professional development in further education (FE) has come a long way since 2007 when the Labour government announced lecturers would be expected to undertake teacher training and to show they spend up to 30 hours a year – on a sliding scale according to their teaching hours – improving and updating their skills. Since then, further education has developed an "in-house" tradition of lecturers training one another, which is usually low-cost or free because it is carried out by lecturers and trainers themselves. The Learning and Skills Improvement Service, a body run by representatives of colleges and training organisations, oversees courses led by lecturers who have been trained as advanced learning coaches, advanced professional development advisers or advanced E-Guides introducing people to e-learning.

"These are people with expertise and enthusiasm for teaching and learning," says Markos Tiris, its head of teaching and learning. "We have trained up to 660 advanced guides and they have already cascaded training down to more than 2,000 people which is not only cost-effective but flexible, because it can be delivered nearer to where people work."

Despite some initial reluctance, the vast majority of teachers in further education have completed the required number of CPD hours. These are recorded by the Institute for Learning (IfL), originally set up as a professional body by lecturers who were denied membership of the General Teaching Council for schoolteachers.

The IfL has more than 205,000 members. Of those who have successfully recorded their hours so far, 98 per cent have done more than the legal requirement, says its chief executive Toni Fazaeli. "Our members are looking to be dual professionals, enhancing and keeping up to date with their subject areas and their teaching methods," she says. "They are training and teaching young people and adults who will be in the workplace next year, next decade and in 20 years' time, so it is absolutely vital they not only keep up with developments but keep ahead of them." Successes have included the immediate use of the new iPad in training and the innovative "Rugroom", which provides a safe haven and access to further education for autistic students at City College Norwich.

This sector-led approach is likely to continue under the coalition Government. In his first major speech, John Hayes, the new minister for further education, promised to release colleges and workplace learning from the "highly centralised and bureaucratic system" of diktat by Whitehall to enable colleges and workplace trainers to respond better to the needs of local businesses and learners.

He plans to scrap the regulatory requirement for college principals to undertake the Principals Qualifying Programme. "That is not because I do not want appropriately qualified principals, but because I know there is a range of development opportunities and qualifications that can enhance principals' capabilities to run colleges," he says. "Individuals and their institutions should be free to decide what package of development is right for individual circumstances. With this Government, FE is no longer the poor relation. Cinderella is going to the ball."