The CPD opportunity your school might be missing out on

Hilary Goldsmith

Hilary Goldsmith is the director of Finance & Operations at Varndean School. She joined the school in January 2016 and, as a passionate believer in animal therapy, quickly saw an opportunity to combine this with the school’s existing pastoral provision. “Varndean is a unique place where we embrace opportunities to innovate and re-think the status quo. Bringing animals to Varndean has tapped into the rich seam of nurture, wellbeing and care on which the school rightly prides itself.”

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When we think of innovation in schools, we usually imagine a new piece of equipment, a new software programme that will change the way we deliver a subject, or track progress, measure attainment, something tangible that comes with a price tag. But actually, innovation is just about doing things differently; it's thinking about how and why we do what we do and trying out a way of doing it differently with a bit of imagination.

Currently, education funding is such that very few schools in the UK are able to try out new things. Instead, we are having to revamp existing things; to recycle, upcycle, reinvent. This is, of course, far from ideal for the forward-looking school leader of the 21st century, but if we apply a bit of creativity, it could in fact be an opportunity to be truly innovative.

Let's look at CPD. Support staff CPD is usually quite difficult to manage well. Often an add-on to a teaching programme, it can sometimes be seen as pointless, ineffective or irrelevant. Instead, why don't we take a look at staff development from a slightly different angle? Instead of looking at the person, the role, the training course, why not look at the wider educational context of their role within education, and see how we can develop their engagement with school improvement and better understand the part they play in it?

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Why don't we consider, for example, giving our caretaker or site manager an opportunity to spend some time online researching or collaborating with other people doing similar roles in other schools? There are worryingly few non-teaching staff taking part in ed-debates on Twitter, for example, and those that are are usually school business leaders with a handful of HR, admin and network managers. It's unusual to see support staff connecting, collaborating, beyond the most local of contacts, or taking part in debates and discussions about the impact of funding cuts or new initiatives and how that impacts them. Encouraging our middle managers to begin to express their thoughts and experiences with other like-minded colleagues will develop not only their professional voice, but also their ability to seek solutions, through networking, and through collaboration.

Imagine if we encouraged our site, network and finance managers to engage in LinkedIn activity as part of their role, not furtively, in their own time? Once they were able to manoeuvre their way through the barrage of unwanted sales connection requests and mindless notifications, it would actually provide a great resource for setting up networking groups, product reviews and recommendations.

There are many IT folk on social media, as you'd expect, and that's great to see. So why don't we as schools use the expertise sitting within our network teams to encourage and train the rest of us to get online to join the wider world, and take advantage of the internet and all it has to offer? Schools need to move away from the idea that support staff should only be using the internet in their lunch hour, and that using social media during work hours is to be frowned upon. We know from experience that support staff can often feel sidelined, less important, an add-on to the main show, but those same people will probably already have a lively, active presence on Facebook, Instagram and / or WhatsApp. The social media skills are already there, but we’re not harnessing and utilising those skills for the benefit of our schools.

Think how we could be truly innovative here. Consider the opportunities that LinkedIn, Twitter, Tumblr or other professional social media or blogging sites could provide to create our own support staff networks, groups, pooling of online resources, specialist blogs in their areas of expertise. Social media provides some amazing opportunities to read / hear about the very best practice, and to connect with and make direct contact with the most exciting and innovative people who are leading our educational systems. So rather than leave it to the school business or CPD lead to filter and direct this learning experience, why not let our own experts fly?

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Ask your receptionists to research the very finest customer service practice, determine the key drivers behind them, and connect with experts who can support them to implement the relevant aspect of that research into their own setting. Why not encourage Secondary TAs and pastoral staff to connect with feeder Primary schools and their staff online? This way, they can get a feel for the activities and experiences that Year 6 students might be having, to better understand each school’s own contexts in order to support transition.

Find ways for those small teams, cover supervisors, exams officers and data managers to do more than just meet their local counterparts once a term for a stale croissant and a cup of coffee. Allow, encourage and support them to proactively engage with educationalists online, expanding their horizons, their support networks, their opportunities and making their CPD truly personalised and interactive.

What have you possibly got to lose?

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