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How can we make INSET more effective?

When the then Education Secretary Kenneth Baker introduced INSET days in 1988 it was not without controversy.

Baker Days or “B-Days” as they became known were soon likened to Bidets in that everyone knew what they were, but nobody was quite sure how to use one properly. If we fast forward nearly 30 years, it may be claimed that this is still the case: schools are required to provide 5 days INSET each year, but is this time being used effectively?

Let us consider the standard Baker Day model used in schools across the country. INSET days are spread across the year, generally at the beginning of term, or around half term. These days can be used for anything from skills training on a new MIS, to introducing a new pedagogical strategy, or departmental meetings and preparation for the term ahead. Frequently, the day will involve a full staff meeting followed by a presentation, either from the SLT or a guest speaker on a particular theme. Anyone who has sat on an INSET day will recognise Dylan Williams’ description of a typical day:

All too often the only requirement for staff is that they sit and listen. Either to an expensive motivational guest speaker or to a member of the school’s own leadership team. Teachers tend to be fairly intolerant of this and have a tendency to misbehave. We know that if we took this approach in an observed lesson we’d be (rightly) lambasted so we resent having it inflicted on us. Why does it happen? Cos it’s easy. The expensive motivational guest speaker will have delivered his (it’s always a bloke!) spiel many time before and can just trot out the same old same old and pick up their pay cheque.
Dylan Williams Keynote to SSAT conference, December 2012

But, this is an important event right? Important enough that teachers are giving up time to attend it, the school is spending precious budgetary resources to run it, and the Government has made it statutory, because the continuing professional development of teachers is a crucial part of ensuring the best possible learning outcomes for our students. So why do schools and teachers tolerate a learning experience which is so obviously sub-standard in many cases?

More importantly, what can we do to change this situation?

A good INSET day is a partnership between the school and the body providing the training. As a trainer, I have a responsibility to ensure that what I offer is engaging, relevant to the school and likely to lead to better outcomes for the students - just like a teacher. I need to stay away from a one-size-fits-all style of training and instead provide content tailored for the school. This should build on teachers’ experiences with pupils, along with their professional aspirations. Furthermore, whilst it is acceptable to deal with abstract pedagogical theories, it is essential to place these in the context of the classroom so that teachers can see how it might work for them right from the start.

As a school however, I am responsible for making sure that INSET days are not just a one-off event, quickly forgotten in the hurly burly of the new term. Themes and ideas explored on the day should be followed up and developed over a period of time. An international research review published in 2015 found that:

The duration and rhythm of effective CPD support requires a longer-term focus – at least two terms to a year or longer is most effective, with follow-up, consolidation and support activities built in.
Developing Great Teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development Teacher Development Trust 2015

If a school is to get the most out of the time and money being invested into its INSET programme, then it is essential that each training day serves as a starting point which can be developed and nurtured through the academic year. We don’t expect students to magically transform their behaviour or understanding of a topic after just one day, so why do we believe that we can treat teachers differently?

Continuous professional development means that we have to reflect upon our practice regularly and systematically. Surely this then is the point of INSET: to give us an opportunity to reflect and develop. That being the case we need to provide teachers with the time that requires.

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