Teachers need quality time set aside to keep learning

I learnt a new technique to teach you that. David Davies/PA Archive

Teachers in England have good access to free courses aimed at improving the quality of their lessons, but many are opting for shorter workshops, rather than the long-term qualifications more common in other countries.

This is the finding of a new set of data released as part of the 2013 Teacher and Learning International Survey (TALIS) of 34 countries, carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The survey pulls together comparative data about teacher satisfaction and professional development.

Before leaping into the inevitable “how did we do?” section, there are some caveats. First, this report is labelled as TALIS 2013 and much of the data refers to the 12 month period before that. It is therefore already significantly out of date in many cases. Just consider how much development has taken place in school-based initial and continuing teacher education in that time.

Second, the target sample size in each country was 200 schools in each country, with 20 teachers and one headteacher from each school. The chances are your school or your children’s school was not involved. So this may be a useful comparative tool – on which to base further discussion – but not on which to base policy decisions.

How did England do?

I want to start by considering the effects on teachers’ lives of class size. The data is both surprising and obvious. Take a look at these two charts from England:

Teacher’s job satisfaction. Talis 2013, OECD

The chart on the left shows teachers job satisfaction measured against the number of disruptive pupils – a clear inverse relationship. But consider the chart on the right, comparing class size and job satisfaction. The average class size in England, according to the TALIS dataset, is 24 pupils. What is surprising here is the lack of variation in the satisfaction measure.

We may have expected that a bigger class size in an average school may mean less job satisfaction, because issues of classroom control can tend to take over from issues of learning. We can only suppose that a class of five pupils or less presents a very different set of problems and conditions for teachers than a class of 26 to 30.

There is rather more variation and interest in the data on teachers’ professional development. There is one chart where England comes out as first on the list: in terms of how much teachers pay for their own development. The TALIS dataset suggests that most teachers in England do not have to pay at all.

Professional Development. Talis 2013, OECD

However, just take a look at the other markers, and especially at those countries and provinces so often held up as England’s superiors in terms of teaching and results: Singapore, Finland, Alberta (Canada).

The clear spot on the table indicates the percentage of teachers given time for professional development in school time. Singapore and Alberta do rather better here. The black dot indicates the percentage of teachers who received non-monetary support such as reduced teaching time. England is very low in this respect. The blue dot at the bottom indicates those who received a salary supplement. Again, against those three other countries, England scores the lowest.

If you talk to teachers from these countries, as I have had the opportunity to do, you will find a very different mindset in the way professional development is conducted. There is a focus on individual needs rather than treating the whole staff as a unit. Here is a clear message for future debate: good quality teaching requires giving the teachers corresponding quality time to develop.

Of interest in this data is the relationship between staff appraisal and professional development. In England, the emphasis is moving towards a (potentially) punitive pay-related model.

The TALIS dataset identifies a relationship between the appraisal process and the effect on the individual teacher’s professional development. Where this was the case, then there was an identifiable positive effect on job satisfaction and, reasonably, on performance in the classroom.

In England, the report says “one third fewer teachers … [than average] say they see a moderate or large positive change in their motivation, public recognition, job satisfaction or responsibilities after they receive feedback”.

But there is a highly significant finding in the light of the government’s Teaching Schools initiative, which act as centres of excellence for other schools:

Teachers in England report higher participation rates than average across TALIS countries for courses and workshops (75%) and in-service training in outside organisations (22%), but lower than average participation in more in-depth activities, such as those involving research or formal qualifications.

The implication here is that course and workshops (often short-term) and external in-service training are shallower, less effective and bring less lasting impact than research-based or accredited professional development courses.

Here is where we might expect to see a change when the next TALIS survey is carried out. For this we can thank research and policy measures to emphasise school-based research, together with the perceptible growing enthusiasm for research engagement by so many young teachers in England. As a result, we may hope to see a significant change in the professional development landscape – with more young teachers pushing for school based research and individualised training – and a corresponding positive change in teaching and learning.