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The problem with professional development

Published: Jun 19, 2014 5 min read

Yvonne Baker

I sometimes wonder which profession really is the oldest. You have to say that engineering has a good claim – after all, you can argue that those who discovered the wheel kind of started civilisation off – while medicine probably has a reasonable shout. No doubt teaching is up there – someone had to work out quickly how to effectively pass on skills and knowledge to the next generation – while accountants and lawyers were a little later to the party, sitting quietly on the sidelines, taking it all in, working out how they could make a few quid.

Whatever order they arrived in, the key defining factor among these great professions is a lifelong commitment by its members to continuously improving their knowledge and skills, keeping up to date with developments in their fields and ensuring they remain ‘at the top of their game’. This commitment is usually encapsulated in three little letters – “CPD”, shorthand for Continuing Professional Development – so easy to trip off the tongue, but how often do we really consider what this is (or is not), and what does it mean?

A commitment to continuously develop

This is a topic currently close to my heart – both in terms of the ‘day job’ and as a member of the Engineering Council. Engineers, and those teaching young people about engineering and related STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), all operate in fast moving fields. It is often not only the technologies and applications of science that move on so quickly but also, on regular occasions, the underpinning science itself.

When those working in engineering become registered – as Chartered Engineers, Incorporated Engineers or Engineering Technicians – they agree to continually develop their skills and knowledge throughout their careers. Ensuring this happens is the role of the Engineering Institutions – whichever they have chosen as their professional home – and a new code of practice has just been agreed on how to ensure this happens.

For teaching, there is no doubt that the majority of teachers – and certainly those we have the pleasure to work with through the National Science Learning Centre and National STEM Centre – are equally committed to making sure they stay up to date in their chosen fields. After all, how can you effectively inspire and teach young people if you are not up to date with what’s new and exciting in science, technology or mathematics yourself? Some of these teachers have even taken the step of becoming a Chartered Science Teacher via the ASE, and others are ‘fellows’ of the Primary Science Teaching Trust – both of these recognise a commitment to professional excellence including on-going CPD.

At the same time, despite much discussion, there isn’t any immediate likelihood of a general system across England for ensuring all those teaching STEM have access, support and incentive to engage in regular subject-specific CPD. True, it is part of the Teachers’ Standards in England and the Ofsted framework; as Ofsted themselves point out in ‘Maintaining Curiosity’ – teachers’ engagement with subject-specific CPD has a positive correlation with the effectiveness of science in schools. However, we still have a way to go until this becomes a standard part of Ofsted’s conversation with heads, principals and governors, let alone a strategic discussion within many schools and colleges themselves.

Demonstrate the benefits of ongoing subject-specific CPD

So what is to be done? Firstly, perhaps we all need to be clearer on the benefits of encouraging teachers to engage. Evaluation shows that working with the Science Learning Partnerships or the National Science Learning Centre is not a costly luxury – rather it is something that brings benefits to teachers and young people that schools cannot afford to do without, including better achievement by young people and improved retention of staff. ENTHUSE Award bursaries are there to help make participation possible – thanks to the generosity of supporters including BP, Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, there really is no reason for any school to not get involved.

Secondly, we need to be clear that professional development comes in many forms, and all have their place. It is great to see the growing emphasis on school-to-school support across the system and there is clearly much that teachers can learn from their colleagues in other schools as well as those with whom they work directly. We know that many of those who have benefited from working with the National Science Learning Centre, the National STEM Centre, the scientific societies and others spend significant time and effort passing on this knowledge to their departments and neighbouring schools. We also know that there are many innovative teachers and schools who have plenty of ideas of their own to pass on. At the same time, it is folly to think that this means there is no place for ‘external support’ – great teachers, engineers, doctors, accountants and others know that without the input of different perspectives, expertise and views, they will not stay for long at the top of their game.

Thirdly, we need to ensure we recognise and celebrate those teachers, technicians and school and college leaders who ‘get it’ about making time and opportunity for STEM-specific professional development and, in doing so, make a massive contribution to young people across the UK. That’s why we are holding the second ENTHUSE Celebration Awards at the House of Commons later this month.

The problem with professional development is that, all too often, it can seem more like a chore than a pleasure, something that consumes time and money but gives little benefit. However, for all teachers it is vital and for those teaching STEM, it is of even more importance. We know how to make STEM-specific professional development effective, impactful and affordable – come and talk to us to find out more.