Some years ago I was involved in helping to organise some training events for our local Area Learning Community. Each school had agreed to designate ONE day where we would all get together and share training/ ideas in teaching and learning. We actually managed to run this for two years. The first year was fantastic and all the teachers gathered in a local hotel for training and to hear from top quality keynote speakers. The second year was done on a much tighter budget with each school hosting speakers and training events so that local teachers could choose what they specialised in. Both of these events were great and did a lot to help improve the sense that we were part of something bigger and that we on the same team. Relations between schools were at an all time high. However, since then – we have not has any shared training and rarely schools rarely interact with each other (even before COVID brought any contact to a grinding halt).
I still find it odd that schools still have (to some extent) some control over their holidays and when they take any training or exceptional closure days. The reality is that the Translink bus schedules are often the key driving force when decisions are being made about when schools will be open or closed. I know that discussions have been had at a senior level between department and EA figures about whether some form of consolidation of exceptional closure days can be made.
But why might this be useful, let me list the main reasons I think this should happen.
- Improvement in training programmes
- Opportunity for greater collaboration and sharing of good practice between schools
- Opportunity for Area Learning Communities to come together and improve relations
- Common training days means that national programmes of training in collaboration with local universities and providers would mean that we could have a resurgence of training within the NI education system
- Families with children (and parents) who are at or work at local schools will finally have holidays that are alignment.
- Finally – an end to that sense that another school is getting more time ‘off’ that what you are
1: Improvement in training programmes
The common timetabling of holidays and exceptional closure days across schools would allow the education authorities and schools themselves to better plan ahead for training. Much of the training within NI schools comes from within. This is one of the key strengths of the NI education system but it is also a weakness. We often are slow to act and change along with changes within educational practices. We continue to use and follow old, out-of-date teaching techniques and fall behind the research and advances that are made in other countries. If we want to be at the forefront of educational chnage – we should ensure that we are training up our leaders and teachers as much as possible and then disseminating that information. It is easier to do that if we have common days. It also means that we can share our expertise. Instead of being insular and not hearing about what other schools are doing – we often are led by the same people, pedalling the same old things and change grinds to an unsteady halt.
2: Opportunity for greater collaboration and sharing of good practice between schools
The sad reality of the competitive nature of the NI education system is that schools compete for pupils. At both the primary and secondary levels – the number of staff that we have available year-on-year is directly linked to the number of pupils on our books. When another school down the road starts to ‘do better’ and take on more pupils, this has a knock on effect on that other school. This competition brings caution. We are reluctant to share what we do and how we try to improve and do things differently (and share what the business world calls our USP or Unique Selling Point). We are wary of our neighbouring schools and it is actually easier to collaborate with schools in other parts of NI than it is to collaborate with our neighbours. It should not be like this.
Secondly, the lack of training and development that disappeared with the education boards, means that we rarely have any opportunity to meet with teachers who teach the same stuff that we do. The last time I saw some of the other local Geography teachers in the are where I work was when the Revised Curriculum was being introduced – over 10 years ago now!
If we are serious about actually improving teaching and learning on a subject by subject level – we need to encourage collaboration by removing the threat of competition. We need to be able to share the good practice from one department to another and from one school to another.
It is getting increasingly difficult to make a difference with some pupils and students within our society. The challenges of inequality, deprivation and a local of motivation for success combined with alcohol and drug abuse mean that we need to learn to work together to see how we can change minds and lives. Now – more than ever – we need to learn how to share the good practice in one area with other schools so that we can build each other up (and encourage each other to keep up the fight!)
3: Opportunity for Area Learning Communities to come together and improve relations
I have noted above about the successes that can be gained when local schools work together with a common goal. But we need to be forced to do this. We need a timeframe. We need a shared sense of purpose. We need our leaders in education to actually lead and be people who are keen to bring groups together in order to collaborate and help support children. Maybe we have forgotten what the purpose of education is. Maybe we have been told to focus too much on the quantitive measures and the numbers of passes and have lost sight of the qualitative – where success is not measured in grades but in survival or in smiles.
I feel that trust between schools is at an all time low and we need to start to rebuild the bridges and the partnerships that once were about. We need to strengthen ALCs and we need to make them effective vehicles for social and educational change. We need to improve our sectoral and phase links from nursery to primary, primary to secondary and secondary to tertiary level.
Having common training days is a start. They will require co-ordination. They will require trust. They will require sharing and this will require transparency as we open up about our strengths and our weaknesses.
4: Common training days means that national programmes of training in collaboration with local universities and providers would mean that we could have a resurgence of training within the NI education system
I know that during the COVID lockdowns many teachers started to think about improving how they did things. The EA is (finally) starting to put together a better programme of support and training for teachers. The local university have developed a series of new courses to help support teachers. But, we are still miles off where we could be.
Some occupations have much more robust professional development programmes and we need to do something similar in NI. We need to professionalise our training and development. There are still too many teachers who have done very little since they left Initial Teacher Training. There are too many who instead of having 20 years of experience – actually only have one year of experience that is repeated 20 times.
We need to build in accreditation programmes so that teachers have to build an annual portfolio of training to prove that they are being reflective and learning on the job. These days should be set aside for teachers to be able to go to refresher sessions at the Universities in their subject areas. To catch up with what is current thinking in that subject area. To find out about the most recent advances in learning. Each teacher in NI should HAVE to complete training courses and modules EVERY. SINGLE. YEAR. They do this in other professions (especially nursing and medicine) – why do we think that we do not need something similar?
You might also want to take a quick look two posts I wrote a while before in relation to this:
Why I am more convinced than ever that we need to rethink teacher education
5: Families with children (and parents) who are at or work at local schools will finally have holidays that are alignment.
At one time in our house there were 3 of us at 3 different schools with 3 very different holiday schedules. As a teacher, it was difficult when my young children were ‘off’ at different times to me and we had the luxury of Grandparents who were close by and who were glad for some time with their Grandchildren. But, for many that is not the case.
How much easier would it be if every calendar was lined up in the same way? It would be easier to book days off and to know when you could actually go on a break.
6: Finally – an end to that sense that another school is getting more time ‘off’ that what you are
Most teachers DO sit and try to work out whether the teachers in THAT other school were getting more time off that us. ‘How could they get those extra 2 days at Christmas?’ ‘Where are those days coming from? They are off the same amount of time as us at Half term and Easter . . . .’ We have all heard it. We have all said it. We reckon that some schools do not get the same amount of supervision than others. We reckon that some are twisting the rules in all manner of directions so that their workload is less.
It’s a small point, yes, and there is probably not much truth in it anyway – but if the decisions were taken by a higher power – then there is not much that anyone can really say!!