INSET Days: Keeping them relevant

Liz Free

Earlier this year, the Teacher Development Trust called for a move away from models of one-off, one-day continuing professional development and learning (CPDL) for teachers, to more effective longer-term programmes of support and engagement. This raises questions about the role of ‘In Service Education Training’ (INSET) days. How do school leaders protect these days, building them into CPDL planning and developments throughout the year alongside the short-term day-to-day business that all too often takes over?

The quality of a school cannot exceed the quality of its teachers and school leaders, and one of the challenges in ensuring we develop this quality is to take the same approach as we would when thinking about developing the learning of a young person. In this way, professional learning is no different to pupil learning. You wouldn’t dream of improving a child’s fluency and comprehension in reading through five isolated days across a year, nor would you expect children to learn algebraic equations in five days across a year.  And yet, five in-service education training days – assuming five days are actually used for professional learning, which is rare due to the day-to-day operational demands getting in the way – are considered enough by some, or too much by others when it comes to professional development in schools.

Thinking differently

If we accept that the development of teachers is a core lever for sustained school improvement, we need to prioritise and approach professional learning in the same way as we do teaching.  We see this in consistently high-performing schools. In these schools, staff needs are clearly understood, areas for learning identified, and a plan developed over a sustained period of time, with a clear structured map for implementation, which sets out tangible expected outcomes. Constant review and assessment throughout is key. INSET days are crucial for facilitating this process and structuring ongoing activity – be it lesson study, developing professional learning communities or action research around specific areas of learning.

However, with pressure on schools to achieve increasingly short-term outcomes – whether moving from maintained to academy status, grappling with assessment requirements, new curricula and government agenda, the anxiety of OFSTED, increased legal liability and increased range of pupil needs – more and more INSET time is committed to informing and influencing-type activity, including policy updates, legal updates and day-to-day business. The result? Professional learning can fall firmly off the agenda, which in turn leads sustained school improvement to fall off the agenda, creating a vicious cycle where short-term drivers dominate.  This is symptomatic of a broader need to think more expansively around professional learning.

Start with leadership

School leaders have to balance the ever-increasing range of short-term demands with the long-term view of sustaining individual school improvement. To do this, it’s essential to equate the importance of teacher and pupil learning.

It’s key to have that clear direction about what you’re trying to achieve through INSET days and how they fit in with CPDL as a lever for sustained change. It is about matching teacher needs within the context of the school’s own improvement plan, something that is complex and will vary from school to school.

From my experience of high performing schools, whether in Singapore, the UK, the USA or anywhere else in the world for that matter, we see this sense of priority and investment in teachers as professional learners. Education across the board is valued, expectations are high, and teachers are enabled to and expected to engage in learning focused on improving their effectiveness as teachers – and want to! Timetables are structured to allow weekly or biweekly opportunities to engage in learning conversations, research and observation of peers, working with experts in the field, co-teaching and considering specific areas of pedagogy and learning. This is not seen as a luxury, but considered an essential component of the teacher’s role, and indeed the leadership role in facilitating this; just as schools ensure the breadth and balance of pupil learning is met through carefully constructed timetables, curriculum and planning for individualised learning, so should professional learning be facilitated, approached and respected.  We, as teachers, are professional experts in learning.

In this way, INSET days are a valuable resource which, when fully embedded in a wider approach, will enable continuous development and improvement in the quality of teaching and learning.

A shift in approach

Right now, the teacher experience of CPDL is completely inconsistent across the country.  There’s no national requirement or entitlement for CPDL – quite alarmingly for our world-class profession.  However, the tide is turning.  I strongly welcome the principles set out for the College of Teaching, which will begin to recognise the contribution of CPDL in developing us as professionals and will reward professional progression through status within the College.  It’s a great opportunity for school leaders and teachers to lead our own professional community with CPDL at its very heart.

The future of InSET days

There are so many opportunities to maximise the impact of INSET days.  We can look at creating best practice through schools leadership, networks of schools and teaching alliances.  By opening doors and linking with other schools we can extend professional learning communities. INSET days are a way to do this, but this process requires time, understanding and a clear vision of the journey schools are on.

Liz Free leads Professional Development at Oxford University Press, one of the UK’s leading providers of Continued Professional Development and Learning (CPDL).  She is an outstanding child-centred practitioner and leader with Headship background and expertise in school growth, improvement and development. Follow her on Twitter @LizAMFree

Want to hear more about the Teacher Development Trust’s research? Watch the first of a series of videos from David Weston, founder of the Teacher Development Trust (TDT), and chair of the Government’s CPD Expert Group in the Professional Development & Best Practice hub on Oxford Owl. Building on the TDT’s report, ‘Developing Great Teaching’, David’s series of videos aim to help you understand the building blocks underpinning successful PD and how to put these into action in your school. You can access all of the videos and more when you subscribe to Oxford Owl.