The education training industry's dirty little secret

Posted by Andy Newell - Last updated on August 30, 2021

Schools around the world spend hundreds of millions of pounds a year sending their staff out for training courses or bringing external trainers in. It’s a model that has changed little in decades and, in my opinion, represents the biggest scandal in education.

30+ years of accumulated educational research tells us that traditional modes of training delivery are spectacularly ineffective. Unless a training provider is offering teachers a model of in-class support to embed a new strategy in practice, the vast majority of these teachers (around 95%) will not be able to actually apply the new technique or practice into their lessons (Joyce and Showers).

This problem was neatly summed up by Michael Fullan:

“Nothing has promised so much and been so frustratingly wasteful as thousands of workshops and conferences which led to no significant change in practice when teachers returned to their classrooms”

A disservice to the next generation?

The tragedy here is that if certain teaching practices are well implemented in classrooms, there would be radical changes to outcomes.

For example, effective implementation of feedback to learners has been shown in certain circumstances to add 8 months of additional learning every year (Sutton toolkit). Imagine a world where that was a reality. Think of the life advantages for these learners, the impact on our economy.

Now flip that around and reflect on the tragedy of the current situation. Young people don’t get a refund on their childhood.

What turns this tragedy into a scandal is that it’s not the big secret the title of this blog implies. Everyone in the know, knows. The companies, the booking agents, the training providers themselves and many school leaders all know that these training offers do not do “what they say on the tin”.

Inspiring future generations





A rock and a hard place?

Unfortunately trainers are caught between a rock and a hard place. They work incredibly hard, often travelling all over the country delivering their content to the best of their ability, usually only getting a small cut of the fees. I have yet to meet a trainer who is truly satisfied with their mode of delivery. I should know, I was one.

External courses or onsite expert training is inherently expensive. What schools are actually paying for is petrol, train fares, hotel accommodation, booking agents, venue hire and marketing costs. At this time of budgetary constraint, education budgets really shouldn’t be going to support Shell and Hilton, they should go on making the most of what they already have.

I’ve heard a lot of people say they’ve ‘brought CPD in house’ to overcome the above challenges. But, if you scratch beneath the surface the traditional training course has often been replaced by something that looks very similar, just run in the school hall on a Wednesday afternoon by a member of staff.

The problem hasn’t been solved if it stops there.

Schools need to have the courage to recognise and share the excellence within. Encouraging teachers to collaborate through coaching and enquiry holds the key to actually delivering sustainable changes to classroom practice. This can be very hard to do in practice. The trick is to overcome the very barriers that stop training providers engaging with schools in this way: time, distance and cost.  


Re-thinking the role of experts

Don’t get me wrong, there will always be a role for experts working with schools, but not unless they are actually prepared to support teachers in the classroom to apply their new knowledge.

Training events need to be recognised for what they actually are: namely opportunities for information transfer and nothing more. Schools can seek mediums for accessing expertise and key information in ways that are far more aligned with the task at hand.

Video streaming, e-learning, web based discussion forums etc. can all do the job just as well; but have the advantage of being available for all school staff when they actually need it and at a fraction of the cost.

There are many trainers out there who have started to pay more attention to the little voice in the back of their head and are looking at how they can take advantage of technology to better deliver and share expertise. The likes of Optimus Education, SSAT and consultants like Mike Fleetham are a promising sight but it’s a challenge for them when there’s still demand (and money) focused on the “tick in the box” CPD packages that persist.

I’d like to end this blog with two points to consider when you’re thinking about how to invest in your teachers’ professional development:

1)   Elmore’s 2nd law: The effectiveness of teacher PD is the inverse square of its distance from the classroom.

2)   The Professional Learning Razor:  When reflecting on professional learning would you apply attitude X or practice Y to student learning? If you wouldn’t dream of it, don’t subject your teachers to it.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments section.

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