How to keep the staff learning while they work

A break from the classroom gives a welcome chance to refresh skills

For primary school teacher Alex Vinton and the six and seven-year-olds in her class, Tuesdays usually follow the same pattern.

The day kicks of with English in the classroom, followed by a singing assembly in the school hall, and an RE lesson back at base. After lunch, it's maths, followed by indoor PE before home-time. It's the sort of plate-spinning exercise most teachers experience most days.

But the Tuesday before last, Vinton's day at Marlborough First and Middle School in Harrow had an altogether different character. That's because she was on a maths training course, organised by the local authority attended by teachers across Harrow, who, like Vinton, are responsible for co-ordinating all maths teaching in their schools.

It was a day surrounded by adults, providing the chance to take stock of the learning process going on back at school, and to find out about new initiatives and teaching ideas. For Vinton, who is 27 and in her fourth year of teaching, training courses like these provide a welcome contrast from the classroom experience, and a vital opportunity to brush up her own teaching skills. "When you are in a classroom all the time you can get stuck in a rut," she says. "The main reason I love going on courses is that I can meet and network with other teachers, and get fresh ideas about teaching."

In the last year or so, as well as attending courses in her maths role, Vinton also had a day out of the classroom to refresh her skills in teaching phonics, the system by which children are taught early reading and writing skills. This was necessary when she moved to her current class, having spent a couple of years teaching older children.

The jargon for these ongoing training activities is continuous professional development (CPD), and the task of coordinating CPD for all school staff falls to the Year 6 (children aged 10 and 11) teacher, Karen Tighe, who was responsible for staff training when she worked in the mobile phone business before entering teaching. "We are a learning environment, and if we don't promote the ethos of learning then we shouldn't be in our job," she explains. "The minute you think you've cracked it as a teacher is the day you become a bad teacher."

But leaving school for a day to attend an off-site course is not the only way for school staff to top up their training needs. Over the past decade or so, schools have developed numerous different ways of embedding the training process into the school routine. At Marlborough school, for example, every Monday afternoon, the teachers get together for a training session. Topics covered include a session on establishing consistency in the teaching and marking of pupils' writing, discussion of curriculum changes and updating the use of teaching resources in classrooms.

Tighe tries to ensure that the training is timed to fit in with other demands on teachers, for example, a session on report-writing. And new Ofsted rules mean she has to show she is measuring the impact the training has where it really matters: on children's learning.

"This is about getting people to think about the effect that each training experience has had, and also how can they share it with the rest of the school," she says. At secondary schools, the most common reason for teachers to attend training sessions is to find out about, or take part in workshops on, changes to the subject they teach. GCSE and A-level syllabuses and exams have changed significantly in the past two years, and new qualifications, such as the Diploma, also create additional training requirements.

Tory Richardson, 24, an art teacher at Tuxford School in Nottinghamshire, has recently attended a number of courses run by the Edexcel exam board, so that she can become an external examiner. She finds this very useful when she gets back to her own classroom.

"It means I'm more familiar with the specification [what students should learn], and I can pass my knowledge on to the rest of the faculty," she says. She's also acquired some advanced training on a method of helping pupils take more change of their own progress, called Assessment for Learning. All this has made her a firm believer in teachers continuing to learn. "It's vital. You have to stay on the ball and keep in touch with what's going on, and try new things in class," she says.

Assistant head Dave Vernon, a design and technology teacher, co-ordinates training across the school. "Each member of staff has a personal improvement plan, within which they can opt for whatever training they feel they need," he explains. And the resultant training comes in a variety of guises, including courses outside school, and a range of on the job activities.

"We offer secondments to the senior leadership team here, and give teachers the opportunity to go on what we call learning walks, in our school or in partner schools, where they spend two or three minutes in a large number of classrooms, focusing on one aspect of learning. If a teacher can see something and then use it to help children in their classroom, that's good training."

If you're a teacher and want to find out more about training opportunities, visit www.tda.gov.uk/cpd .

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