Teacher Sabbaticals

Have you been to a good training course recently? Hmm, me neither.

News of a pilot project, launched by the Department of Education last week, has got people talking about the merits of continuing professional development for teachers. The subject of the project, a ‘paid sabbatical’, moves the centre of gravity away from regular updates and courses (done to me), to a more personalised and bespoke opportunity (I do it).

I’m all for it, though having just had a six-month sabbatical, I would say that.

My feeling is that much of current training in education is far too acquisitive, rather than related to deep thinking. It’s a hurdle to be jumped to ‘get’ something, rather than a testing or training of the mind. I wonder sometimes whether people go ‘on training’ for the right motives. Take this example. Our school delivered some training a couple of years back about how to teach synthetic phonics. We tried to explain why this particular method was beneficial to children’s learning. When asked for feedback at the end of the course, one of the young delegates replied,

‘It was OK I suppose, but I thought I was going to learn how to pass the test.’

What? But there was a logic to his oafishness. The data for this end-of-Y1 Phonics check is submitted for national comparisons and is published. This has the effect of giving the figures more importance than the actual impact of phonics teaching on reading. So give me a short cut to the test, not any of that pedagogy nonsense.

I am certain this teacher is not an outlier but instead is increasingly typical of teachers in schools where the panic of published results dictate the culture and direction of the school’s development.

In fact, so technocratic has the world of teacher education and professional development become, that issues related to pedagogy and epistemology are rarely discussed.

But there is evidence that things are beginning to change. Ofsted’s Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman is ensuring all training for inspectors involves deep research from excellent academic sources. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is collecting dozens of detailed studies about what works in the classroom, again based on the most reliable evidence.

To these two examples, I would add a third important development –that of peer-to-peer exchanges across the globe. Through learning platforms and social media, teachers are increasingly able to learn more about other systems, strategies and ‘what makes a difference’ to pupils’ development. This peer support could become a major force for good; we have great friendships with teachers and school leaders in China, Sierra Leone, Belgium, France and Spain. I got really carried away in China last year, talking with the principal of creating a ‘global alliance’ where we can exchange and share best practice.

So the DfE’s announcement that there will be a pilot period of paid sabbaticals for teachers sounds like a great idea and fits in with this trend to a more globalised market-place. Let’s do away with courses which try and tell you how to ‘pass the exam’ and instead give exposure to the best research and innovation across the globe.  Piers Morgan rubbished the idea of paid sabbaticals on Question Time last Friday insinuating that teachers get loads of paid leave (school holidays) and therefore are lazy enough as it is. Tempting as it must be for the media to see all teachers as unionised clock-watchers, it is nonetheless a very simplistic viewpoint and is just wrong. A lazy teacher is an oxymoron.

But Mr Morgan may have a point in that a paid sabbatical may prove impractical for some and, above all, very costly.

My compromise would be this. Once a teacher has been at a school for 7 years, they are given the chance to participate in a teacher exchange for a year. For some, going abroad is one option, preferably at one of the alliance schools alluded to above. For others, staying close to home at a school in different circumstances may prove a preferable option. This could be organised through current Teaching School Alliances. As well as benefitting teachers’ experience, it reduces the poisonous effects of increased competition. It’s in everyone’s interests to assist in supporting teachers as part of a wider learning community.

Maybe the detail is irrelevant at this stage. The direction is the right one; away from the closed compliance of competitive silos, and towards a broadening of the horizons for the teachers of the future.

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