A couple of years ago I was heading off on a course. I had to get a train there so set off early enough to arrive with time to spare for a caffeine fix. I armed myself with some reading for the train, having just bought John Tomsett’s ‘This Much I Know About Love Over Fear’. The first chapter had me hooked and as I settled into a cosy corner of a cafe with a good coffee, I read on. The thought occurred to me that I could just skip the course and stay where I was for the day. However, my school had paid for the course so duty compelled me to traipse across the road to the hotel where the trainer was eagerly awaiting, flipchart and post-its at the ready. By the time the course was over, my suspicion had been confirmed: I would have been better off reading in the cafe.

There is a difficult truth here. The majority of one-off CPD courses are a waste of both time and money. I get into trouble saying this because there are a lot of providers in a growing industry who will be out of a job if everyone believed what I’m saying. However, research from the Teacher Development Trust shows that:

“the most common training involved sitting watching a PowerPoint and the most common reason for selecting a course was ‘the teacher wanted to go’ – not hugely systematic. When CUREE conducted a snapshot of training provision for the TDA, they found that barely 1% of training they looked at was effectively transforming classroom practice. Finally, in research from NFER, when teachers got back to classrooms only 7% of schools checked to see if there was any effect on student attainment.”

In other words, training is often delivered in a way that all teachers recognise as poor teaching. Plus, there is a query over the motivation for going. The easiest way to show you are meeting a development target for your review is to simply go on a course. No one seems to bother checking that it worked, but at least you get through your end of year review. Finally, even if the course is well delivered it rarely changes what happens in the classroom. If it does, very few senior leaders would actually notice.

Then there’s the issue of CPD budgets. These are shrinking because whenever budget cuts are required (i.e. for the foreseeable future) staff training funds are first against the wall. Given that many courses fall in the £300-£500 range after VAT is added, they would have to be absolutely stellar to justify the outlay. Let’s also keep in mind the time-cost (perhaps the most valuable currency for teachers) as someone has to hold the fort and cover lessons while the attendee is absent.

This all sounds very doom and gloom, but I should point out that some providers offer much cheaper, and better, training. I’m the Data Protection Officer at my school so I have to get on top of GDPR this year. I went to a one day session with SCIS and learned all I need to know, am using the resources gained to conduct an audit, and I have the ongoing support of the presenters who were very helpful. All this cost £95. It suggests the CPD economy is suffering from some serious, Mugabe-esque inflation.

I would also draw a distinction between a course and a conference. The former involves a hotel basement (or other such bunker) and lots of Foxes Glacier Mints to maintain morale. The latter, when done well, can offer excellent variety and great networking opportunities. ResearchED costs £25 a ticket – beat that for value. I also used to run content for the Telegraph Festival of Education and unless you buy last minute you should never pay full whack for a ticket. We had over 300 speakers on the bill spread over two days. Again, maximum choice for under a hundred quid (for early bird).

The main reason for writing this, though, is to present an alternative model that works. I think that teachers should consider a much wider range of options when pursuing CPD. I spoke at the ResearchED national conference this year with Carl Hendrick and we used this slide to show what a good cycle of professional learning looks like:

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When a teacher identifies an area for development they should begin with a discussion. Who knows most about this area? If no one in your school is an expert, then try Twitter. Get some good advice on how to proceed. The first step doesn’t involve going on-line to find a course, it should be finding out the lay of the land. This leads to the next step – reading.

Blogs and many (though not enough) excellent research papers are free. Books are maybe £15-20 and, ideally, schools should be gradually building up a good CPD catalogue in their library. This starts a process which the Teacher Development Trust highlight as being crucial – learning over an extended period of time. To acquire an effective skillset it takes 30-50 hours spread over a year. After all, we wouldn’t expect to learn to drive after a one-day course, nor would we expect a pupil to pass an exam after a day of lessons. If the skillset is significant enough to have an impact in the classroom, it will take time to master.

Observing is the next step. This can be observing what happens in your classroom, or somebody else’s. It might even involve visiting another school – an exercise which does actually merit getting cover for. Essentially, try to study the effect of what you are professionally learning in its context. Seeing things in action is better than theory, so try to do whatever you can to capture this.

Then, write. This can be low-level like an entry in a CPD log, a Twitter exchange, or more challenging like a blog or a talk for colleagues. This step inspires reflection which makes it so much more likely that the skills acquired will be internalised and then put into action. Even if you only write for an audience of one, that audience will benefit.

This brings us back full cycle, in a process of ongoing reflection, which makes us healthy professionals. Feeling that we are constantly learning and moving forward is good for morale as well as practice. It doesn’t need to cost the earth, and it does work better when done incrementally. I think the litmus test of all professional learning is whether or not it improves the quality of learning for your pupils. If you followed this cycle all the way through for one year, I’d be amazed if it didn’t. Unlike a day spent sucking boiled sweets in front of a PowerPoint.