Speech to Reform “Value for Money” event, 27th-Sep-2012
David Weston, Chief Executive, Teacher Development Trust

In 2007, a team of researchers in New Zealand reported on a school intervention that led to pupils making two and a half years of progress in their writing skills compared to the single year of progress made by their peers in the control group, while the least able 20% – those disadvantaged pupils who had struggled most in school – made even more staggering progress, equivalent to six years of schooling when compared to peers outside the study. This intervention was inexpensive, welcomed by teachers and their unions, reduced inequality, and easily replicable in any school in the world. In fact, we know the recipe for it in some detail, but… we’re not applying it in the majority of our schools.

In 2009, a study of school leaders found that there was one particular area that a headteacher or principal could focus on which resulted in twice the improvements in the progress of their school’s students when compared to a focus in any other area. The most important focus for leaders turned out to be relatively cheap, motivational for teachers, reduced inequality, and easily replicable in any school around the world – in fact the very same intervention observed in New Zealand two years before.

This same intervention has been reliably proven to result in greater achievement gains in schools than introducing performance pay for teachers, reducing class sizes, introducing ability setting, hiring more teaching assistants, facilitating parental choice (which despite statements earlier today, rigorous studies have shown to lead to negligible improvements), and setting regular homework. In the USA its introduction has been shown to be more effective than converting schools to Charter Schools – the equivalent of our Academies.

This mysterious, magical intervention in question is nothing other than continuous professional development and training for teachers, and instructional leadership from headteachers, also commonly known as CPD or INSET.

At this point I hope that many of you are feeling decidedly sceptical. You certainly should be! CPD does not have a good reputation in this country, and nor has it deserved one.

Schools spend just 0.5% of their budgets – or about £30 per pupil per year – on staff training and development. Around half of that goes on simply covering their classes, so in actual fact it’s nearer £15 per pupil for a whole year, less than the cost of a single textbook. You’d hope, for this tiny sum, that schools were getting some value from this, but sadly that isn’t the case.

In a snapshot from the now-abolished TDA, only 1% of surveyed courses and services for staff training were shown to genuinely transform the quality of teaching – 1%!. Most commonly, training involved teachers passively listening to lectures – exactly the sort of teaching we now rightly deem entirely unacceptable in our classrooms. However, schools remained, on the whole, entirely unaware of this, as well over a third conducted no evaluation of their CPD whatsoever, and only a paltry 7% of schools ever checked if training resulted in any actual improvement in pupil achievement.

We’ve been doing professional development wrong for many years in England. Schools have chosen training to simply ‘tick’ the behaviour box, or as a panic response to Ofsted, new exam syllabuses or new regulations, where they should target it carefully to meet the learning needs of their students. Teachers have been sent away on courses when they should be working in school, in teams, jointly planning lessons and observing each other. I’ve seen this first hand – until May this year I was one of those teachers having taught for nine years. When I left, to set up my new charity, I was astonished to discover that the research is actually consistent and clear. We know how to do CPD effectively, and we simply haven’t been doing it.

Professional development is not a particularly sexy topic. It’s hard for a headteacher or a policy maker to hold it up and say “look at this wonderful shiny thing that I’ve achieved”, but it works – and it is the best value for money investment that we can make in our schools. Extraordinarily, the current government abolished the agency responsible for professional development, and its replacement has no remit over CPD, and yet… Singapore, Finland, Canada, Australia and Korea have made it the number one priority of policy and teacher practice. Schools in England have been left to fend for themselves in this area… but my organisation, the Teacher Development Trust, is working to try and support them.

We have created an entirely free national database of training opportunities for teachers which features four levels of rigorous quality assurance, so schools can find the training that genuinely makes a difference. We’ve been producing simple guides for teachers, heads and governors about how to embed these important practices in their schools, and we’re currently creating a national network where teachers can not only access the most effective ways to improve their teaching, they will be rigorously evaluating and publishing them for their peers.

If we genuinely seek value for money in our schools, we must stop putting all of our political eggs in school reorganisation, exams, assessment and recruitment. It’s not down to the hero heads to save the day and drag a school forward through force of will. It’s no longer enough to innovate and research without having a reliable and effective ways of ensuring teachers are able to implement the ideas. The evidence is clear, the highest performing countries know it, and it’s time we prioritised it. Professional development for teachers, driven by teachers should be our number one priority.