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Do I miss inset day? Not likely!

Posted on: 11 Apr 2016
Posted by: Peter Tait

As schools begin to return for the summer term, former head of Sherborne Prep, Peter Tait, looks at staff inset days and says they need to return to being an "excellent opportunity for teachers to examine and improve their craft".

Since 1988, state schools in the United Kingdom have been required to offer their staff a total of five inset days each year – often called ‘Baker’ Days after the then Conservative Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker who introduced the measure. In state schools, these days can be scattered throughout the year while in independent schools, they tend to be held immediately before the start of each term, usually for one or two days duration.

Initially, in-service (inset) days were designed, in part, to accompany the introduction of the national curriculum and to provide the opportunity of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for staff. They were usually given over to matters of education and the classroom: discussing individual pupils; looking at the balance of the curriculum and how to improve the effectiveness of teaching; sharing ideas, skills and good practice; working out how to challenge and extend children; and all the time providing staff with an opportunity to learn something new, to be inspired or challenged about their teaching and to reflect, both individually and collaboratively, on how to do things better.

Inset days were an opportunity to catch up with new developments, to talk about individual pupils, or classes, and their learning and pastoral needs. Properly used, they provided an excellent opportunity for teachers to examine and improve their craft, so crucial in what is a dynamic profession.

In recent years, however, the whole educational rationale for inset days has been subsumed by the need to use the allotted time for the purpose of ensuring staff are properly trained in social and pastoral areas, particularly safeguarding and child protection. Frustratingly, they have become something to be endured rather than a source of inspiration and ideas. Like groundhog days, they have tended to focus on the same topics at regular intervals out of necessity, with little tweaks here and there, but leaving little room for much else.

Since ‘Every Child Matters’, the momentum of change has gathered ever greater pace as the prime purpose of inset days has ‘morphed’ into ensuring staff have the required accreditation or certificates in order to ensure their schools are compliant. Most inset days therefore consist of various child protection and safeguarding courses, training for First Aid or health issues, internet safety and cyber-bullying, nutrition, teaching British Values or, as with the PREVENT programme, identifying and preventing radicalisation – all important initiatives in themselves, but deleterious as a whole when they take up whole inset programmes.

On the back of government requirements for inset training, there has grown a whole industry of providers, offering workshops on any new government initiatives, such as WRAP (Workshop to Raise Awareness of Prevent) or CARE (‘Confidently Addressing Radicalisation and Extremism’) or, indeed, on a wide range of topics that have currency, but not always relevance, to particular schools. In a profession where shared time is of the essence, perhaps more could be done to consolidate training to allow for staff to meet together for discussion, rather than to receive information that can easily be communicated in some other way.

Of course, the argument is ‘what is as important as the safety and well-being of children?’ but that misses the point. The extra requirements of school staff to be compliant have come at a cost, and that cost is the opportunity to fine-tune what schools are required to do, which is to educate their pupils. Parents, who are required to find childcare for the equivalent of a full school week, (although a number of schools do, helpfully, run the days concurrently) also deserve to know that the inconvenience caused is at least directly, or indirectly, going to benefit the all-round education of their children.

This is not to play down the vital importance of child protection and other matters of compliance, rather to bemoan the loss of time available to refresh teaching and learning. While safeguarding properly lies at the heart of schools, we should not be surprised at a degree of weariness felt by teachers as they await their first mandatory session on compliance, whilst champing at the bit to get into the classroom. We need the pendulum to turn, at least a little, perhaps with more training being done on-line, in shorter sessions or in different formats, so teachers have some time over to focus on improving their core competencies and the quality of their teaching.

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About Peter Tait

Peter Tait is the former head of Sherborne Preparatory School and is now a writer and independent education adviser.