Plenty of room at the top…

Gary Williams calls on schools to invest in developing their teachers.

One of the more bizarre characteristics of the vast majority of schools is the way in which they fail to support learning for some of their most distinguished and successful learners; the teachers.

It’s more likely that as a teacher you’ll be discouraged from trying to study your subject further. It’s certainly a long time since I met a teacher continuing to study their subject and being paid to do so by the very people who employed them initially because of their knowledge in that area. You do have more chance of studying for an education or business qualification in this way, but many secondary teachers teach for the love of the subject; not to go into management.

So why, in Wales, could we not have a system of continuing professional development (CPD) for teachers that involves both improving your teaching skills and your subject knowledge? Imagine if after ten years of teaching you’d managed to get yourself both a masters degree in education and one in your subject area.

Maybe we don’t need it? As far as I’m aware we don’t have a great track record of holding on to teachers within the profession. A sizeable fraction leave within the first few years. Perhaps something to look forward to, as well as a tangible reward in the form of being better qualified, would help? If we look at physics, for example, we also seem to have an increasing gap between the body of knowledge and processes that are research/academic/industrial physics and what is taught in schools. I studied for an MPhil in my own time and at my own expense while teaching. For me it was a real eye-opener and the insight it brought to my teaching invaluable. I’m also fairly sure it worked the other way, with me educating university staff about what happened in schools. Levels of funding in school science was one particularly difficult area as most couldn’t understand how school science departments operated on such pathetic amounts. For practical science you need funding, and without experiments you aren’t doing science.

Maybe it would cost too much? I doubt that’s really possible in a school. Every pound spent on people in schools yields many times that initial outlay in return. If it didn’t why would we bother sending children to school in the first place? To invest in those people who have been through the system successfully and who have also chosen to invest themselves in that very system makes sense. If students make better career choices because they see content and knowledgeable teachers then the investment will be worth it. If we keep teachers in the profession longer and they undergo new experiences and are helped to learn more about their subject and teaching it then the standard of teaching will improve. We spend rather a lot already on inspection systems that lead to no noticeable improvements.

Maybe it’s too difficult? If you think so and you’re in politics you should quit now and try teaching. Let’s take physics as an example again. There are about 200 qualified physics teachers in Wales. To appoint someone to help facilitate their supported learning is comparable to a year group in a school. That gets done by quite a small group of people on a daily basis all the way across the country. Wales isn’t big enough to make it that difficult.

Maybe it’s not obvious enough? Unlike a new building, investing in people is less obvious for people to see [6]. But buildings don’t make progress; people do.

Maybe it’s too long term? There certainly seems to be a lack of long term vision as regards the education system in Wales. Instead of trying to import science talent, how about nurturing some of our own? Why not have a long term plan that produces masters qualified teachers as a matter of course, identifies teachers’ needs and provides for them, helps link schools and universities and makes school science vibrant and up to date?

No doubt there will be problems along the way, but one of my favourite quotes is from John F Kennedy “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win….

Gary Williams is the Editor of Physics Education and the National Coordinator for the Institute of Physics Teachers Network

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