The year in FE: Emerging trends in professional development practices

I’ve been working as a freelance consultant, trainer and coach for the last three years and I am presently working with around twenty FE and Sixth Form Colleges on a range of initiatives from developing Supported Experiments cycles, to improving the embedding of English to building capacity in coaching skills. I have contact with many others through networking.

For me 2013-14 has been a year of seeing how colleges chose to respond to the “more for less” agenda and deal with ongoing cuts and funding threats. I think there are two trends emerging:

A. Build for the future; Focus on development

Some colleges are focusing on building a culture for improvement and protecting resources that can foster development. These institutions are still funding external staff development, maintaining staff development slots on their calendars and even increasing their internal capacity for development through Advanced Practitioner or Teaching and Learning Coaching teams. In this difficult climate, some leaders have actually invested in a coaching network for the first time.

To me, this is a hugely positive and encouraging approach to see in a time of such financial pressure. I think it shows that there are leaders with vision about how their institutions can best develop their own staff and thus deliver improvement for learners. It is leading with a growth mindset, inspiring people to enhance and develop and believing that we need institutions with this ethos and behaviour, however hard the financials look. It is building for the future.

In such colleges, I have heard staff talking about how they can see “money where their mouth is” leadership and that this real, practical commitment to resourcing counts for a lot! Some space at least is being made in these colleges for problem solving, sharing of effective practice and creative discussions about learning. There is some professional development support on offer for staff.

My own role here has been to support several aspects of this positive trend:

  1. Developing the skills of the T&L coaches or Advanced Practitioners, especially around tackling resistance and negativity in coaching conversations and developing strong performers within teams. It is good to see that colleges are realising the need to up skill this group, on whose heads a great deal of responsibility lies. If your coaching group are skilled and responsive, teachers’ practice can change and develop effectively. But this coaching skill set is not the same as the one used in the classroom and this difference needs to be acknowledged and addressed in training and support for this vital group of staff. More thoughts on this topic in this blog:
  2. Planning and implementing Supported Experiments and other innovation projects, to encourage an evidence-based approach to teaching and learning and to extend the sharing across institutions. More details about how this works in this blog:
  3. As a trained project manager, I really enjoy sharing that expertise and helping colleges to structure their improvement projects effectively and maintain momentum to achieve outcomes. Really inspiring to see so many great projects this year, despite the current sector pressures. You can read about some of this work in the following blog:
  4. I am encouraged by the reports from colleges who have embraced these models and noted so many cultural and performance benefits for teachers and learners. See case studies here:

B. Reduce the development spend; Focus on current funding context

Some colleges have drawn their horns well in and made some drastic cuts to staff development; some have put a ban on travel to London for external events; some have reduced their Advanced Practitioner or T&L Coaching budget; some have cut down or eliminated shutdown days in the year for CPD. I can understand the feeling of needing to cut costs but in some places I think there hasn’t been enough reflection on the impact and what will be lost.

If people can’t attend external CPD events, you can end up losing that outward facing perspective, from which you can tap into current research and pedagogy and simple things that are working elsewhere. This can leave your college isolated and circulating its own ideas without access to other useful and current approaches. For a college wanting to grow, develop and move forward, I think this is a retrograde step.

If there is no in house staff development group, such as the T&L Coaches, who is going to really lead that improvement work? Who will intervene with individuals to tackle performance issues and spend the time and effort required to move people forward?

Some leaders have told me that they are devolving that role to curriculum managers. I work with that tier of staff and am constantly amazed at the scale and breadth of the job. I think in most colleges it is unrealistic to make the curriculum manager the only driver of T&L improvement. They may not have time, skills or real passion for that work and this has an impact on its effectiveness. T&L Coaches are the best fit for that task, as far as I can see in the sector. That does not mean that curriculum managers don’t get involved in leading T&L; it just means that the related roles and tasks differ from those of the coach.

Cutting out the CPD days in a college calendar can create a huge problem for cross college training or sharing of practice. Reflective dialogue, sharing of practice and development of resources all need more time than a snatched twenty minutes on a team meeting agenda. I deliver tailored training for coaches and for managers and also CPD for teachers. It is becoming very hard to find sufficient time on college timetables to deliver anything of any depth or real practical value. I think we are damaging our capacity to learn together by cutting shared time so thin. The consequences for improvement work will only become clear over time. What is clear for me is that we are working harder, in more isolated ways and with less access to effective practice, if we don’t prioritise some time to sharing and CPD.

In colleges struggling with cuts and a vastly reduced development budget, I have been working to help them get the most out of their money by:

  1. Training groups of teachers/managers/coaches to develop in house CPD sessions in bite-sized formats so that they fit into college timetables but give staff access to research and pedagogy from the wider sector. I feel as if I am helping colleges with their capacity building that way – one Quality Manager recently told me, “We get you in for a day and from that training and the resource pack you give us, we can devise a year of support for staff! Good value for us..”
  1. Using my project management and planning skills to help colleges structure their development effectively, minimising costs and focusing on where best to deploy the resources at their disposal. This can involve 1:1 or small group planning with related coaching by phone to help people stay on track and keep up momentum.

In conclusion, I think colleges could find these questions helpful to ponder as they plan for next year:

  1. How can we see the impact of professional development here?
  2. What kind of culture are we aiming to create here, as regards professional development?
  3. How are we building capacity for improvement here, through our approach to professional development?
  4. Have we placed our resources and roles in the most effective locations within our college? Could we make any enhancements?
  5. What are the top priorities for spending our professional development money?
  6. If we decided to spend more money on professional development, where would it be best directed?

If you would like to contact me for further support or training, here are my contact details:

This entry was posted in Advanced Practitioners, Coaching, Consultancy, CPD, CPD for Teachers, Culture for Learning, FE, Leadership of learning, Learning Leader, Performance management, Sharing good practice, Supported Experiments, Teaching and learning and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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