Education in wonderland


A frustrated Sir Tim Brighouse calls for the powers that be to recognise the importance of effective CPD.

It’s the quality of teaching stupid!

I feel like shouting it, as one hapless ministerial announcement follows another, each telling us what initiative they have dreamt up or intend to legislate about in order to improve our educational standards. 

First it is synthetic phonics, next it is learning some poetry by the age of five: it reminds you of nothing so much as Wonderland.

“Make every school an academy,” cried the Mad Hatter, “so they can be free of the national curriculum.”

“I am introducing a new one of those!” screamed the Red Queen, “and it will prescribe what all children will learn every minute of every day.”

Alice enquired gently whether that wouldn’t be pointless if every school had been made an academy. “Of course it would child. That’s why I am doing it.” She paused before adding: “Anyway I have sent them all a bible from King James.”

The Mad Hatter nodded: “But I have a better idea – another anniversary. We should send them the 1662 book of common prayer so they can pray for deliverance.”

If it weren’t so funny it would be enough to make you tear your hair out. Like Alice’s Wonderland nothing is mad in itself, it is simply funny because it is so incoherent. Time and again politicians, wilfully it seems, overlook the obvious point that it is the quality of the teaching profession that makes the difference and crucial to that is CPD.

Yet it isn’t merely ministers who overlook it but Ofsted too. When did you last read an inspection report that highlighted CPD as a strength of an outstanding school or a point for development in a weaker one? Yet CPD is integral to the success or failure of any school.

As the recent articles in SecEd from 21st Century Learning Alliance Fellows have shown, when teachers are given a little time and resource to pursue and research their ideas they generate all sorts of ideas and possibilities which stimulate their own teaching. 

If you had to suggest six ways to make CPD in schools successful, providing a few hundred pounds for bursaries for teachers to engage in small action research or curriculum enquiry projects, like those undertaken by the 21st Century Learning Alliance Fellows, would be one.

A second would be to earmark one of the occasional days for faculty visits to other schools to see classroom and faculty practice around a focused topic that the faculty has decided to study further. 

The third affects the agenda of faculty/departmental meetings: rotate from classroom to classroom and invite the host to welcome everyone by explaining the lay-out, the display and what they intend as the next step in improvement. Follow it with a report on the latest ideas from the national subject association to which at least one departmental member belongs (subscription paid for by the department).

The fourth, fifth and sixth CPD suggestions affect the whole school rather than the subject department. Make sure that job descriptions are written not with a list of tasks ending with the spirit and energy-sapping “...and such other duties as may from time to time be determined”, but as a list of primary and support responsibilities so that everyone has a taste of leadership and knows that they work in a team. Use another of the occasional days to arrange visits in pairs and threesomes to other schools like yours to look at issues such as questioning techniques, marking practices or making best use of tutorials. Finally ensure another occasional day is taken up by teachers teaching each other about similar issues of common interest.

So there it is – a recipe for successful schools at minimal cost. Of course you could hope that if sanity ever prevailed in Wonderland, the secretary of state would put in place systematic support for CPD by, for example, supporting beginning teachers with a chartered teacher status acquired over their first three or four years by visits to learn more about pedagogy, their subjects, whole-school issues, and how to overcome barriers to their children’s learning.

This could be followed for those seriously committed to teaching as a career by a Master’s degree, for which they would get pension credit thereby allowing them to retire three years earlier than they would normally. 

But that will have to wait until the Red Queen and the Mad Hatter have moved on. In the meantime let’s get on with the others.  

  • Professor Sir Tim Brighouse is visiting professor at the Institute of Education in London and co-chair of the 21st Century Learning Alliance.

Further information
The 21st Century Learning Alliance is a forum with representation from practitioners and industry that debates difficult issues to help stimulate improvement and change. Two articles have appeared in SecEd detailing the work of the Alliance’s 2012 Fellows. Read these at


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