The “New” Professional Standards

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while, hence the title, and the frankly unpalatable length of this post, for which I can only apologise. I would like to take us back to May when the Education and Training Foundation published the Professional Standards for teachers in FE. They are a concise set of standards, although the appealing concision of the two page document is a little undone by a 22 page set of guidance notes which expands on them. I basing this primarily on the main standards, although the “amplification of the standards” in the guidance are also occasionally illuminating in what they highlight.

It may surprise you that I quite like them. I have no general qualms with them, and no issues in particular with the concept of professional standards. I like that the fact that they are short: this makes them multiply applicable and on the face of it at least, suggest no specific approach to teaching and learning. There’s a lot of trust and faith in practitioners which is no bad thing.

It’s an interesting set of standards, however, for someone like me who has a bit of a historical interest in the notion of professionalism and the role of a professional organisation. So I thought I might go through them and make sense of them.

The first section is “Professional Values and Attributes” and this is what they are:

Develop your own judgement of what works and does not work in your teaching and training
1 Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the diverse needs of learners
2 Evaluate and challenge your practice, values and beliefs
3 Inspire, motivate and raise aspirations of learners through your enthusiasm and knowledge
4 Be creative and innovative in selecting and adapting strategies to help learners to learn
5 Value and promote social and cultural diversity, equality of opportunity and inclusion
6 Build positive and collaborative relationships with colleagues and learners

So far so happy. There’s nothing here which is desperately innovative or remarkable, nor terribly controversial either. What is interesting here, however, is what it doesn’t say. Critical reflection is crucial to developing as a teacher, and I wholeheartedly agree. However, these values and attributes imply that this is only permissible in one direction: towards you the practitioner. By omission, then, this could be seen to suggest that it is not considered professional to critically reflect on the practices of leadership teams, of OFSTED and of wider organisations, policy makers and government. There is mention of “collaborative relationships with colleagues” which could (should?) suggest constructively critical working relationships, perhaps, but this is a single point made once at this stage. Perhaps more about this will be uncovered as we progress.

Onto the second section “Professional knowledge and understanding”

Develop deep and critically informed knowledge and understanding in theory and practice
7 Maintain and update knowledge of your subject and/or vocational area
8 Maintain and update your knowledge of educational research to develop evidence-based practice
9 Apply theoretical understanding of effective practice in teaching, learning and assessment
drawing on research and other evidence
10 Evaluate your practice with others and assess its impact on learning
11 Manage and promote positive learner behaviour
12 Understand the teaching and professional role and your responsibilities

Again, there’s nothing here I think I particularly disagree with, although I am (perhaps optimistically) assuming that “knowledge of educational research to develop evidence based practice” means more than “read a bit of Geoff Petty’s book”. I’m intrigued by the statement “research and other evidence” as well: other evidence like what, exactly? OFSTED’s random pronouncements on “best practice”?

The Guidance isn’t tremendously helpful on what it means by “professional responsibilities” in point 12, except to say that we need to be aware of them, and a reference to equality and diversity (something which runs throughout the document). There is a slightly clearer reference in the Guidance to this: “keeping yourself thoroughly up-to-date on organisational requirements and rules” suggesting that the “responsibilities” are defined by your employer. On one level this could be interpreted quite negatively: perhaps there is a need for an independently defined set of “responsibilities” for a teacher in FE. I’m not so sure, however. In practice, I think that allowing organisations to develop and define roles and responsibilities is useful: different elements of FE, even different departments within a college, work in different ways, and the role of a tutor is different in those contexts. Anyway, organisations have always defined this, so there is nothing astonishingly new or tremendously innovative here.

The final section is entitled “Professional skills”, and this is perhaps the most interesting section.

Develop your expertise and skills to ensure the best outcomes for learners
13 Motivate and inspire learners to promote achievement and develop their skills to enable progression
14 Plan and deliver effective learning programmes for diverse groups or individuals in a safe and inclusive environment
15 Promote the benefits of technology and support learners in its use
16 Address the mathematics and English needs of learners and work creatively to overcome
individual barriers to learning
17 Enable learners to share responsibility for their own learning and assessment, setting goals
that stretch and challenge
18 Apply appropriate and fair methods of assessment and provide constructive and timely
feedback to support progression and achievement
19 Maintain and update your teaching and training expertise and vocational skills through
collaboration with employers
20 Contribute to organisational development and quality improvement through collaboration
with others

Starting at the end, we come back to collaboration, but this time it does suggest a degree of criticism: after all, how does one improve the quality of ones organisation without looking at it with a critical eye. This critical eye is presumably only to be focused on your own organisation, not on government, OFSTED and other organisations. I find this a little disturbing: government and OFSTED have their own agendas and their own opinions, not all of which are right or best for the sector. Should we not be pointing a critical eye in their direction, and should the sector not be challenging them? Perhaps it is, but the hackneyed line that FE is the Cinderella sector is true, because it is looked down upon by its two ugly sisters of school education and HE, because it is often ignored by the wicked stepmother of government and its quangos, but does this mean that FE should be sitting around waiting for a fairy godmother to find us a handsome prince? (I so hate the Cinderella story on so many levels).

Anyway, back to the standards: the remaining standards on professional knowledge are focused on practice, and despite making no claims to defining good practice, we can draw some conclusions here. These are as follows:

A) Learners learn best when they are meta-aware of their learning: that they have specific goals to work towards, and reflecting on those goals.

B) Technology improves learning.

C) Learning and assessment are two separate things.

D) Effective feedback is important.

Again, nothing new or terribly innovative here, most of which I have been over before in various settings, but basically: (A) and (B) are sometimes true for some learners in some contexts, (C) is not always true, because formative assessment is part of learning, but in the current discourse learning and assessment are generally considered to be separate, and (D) quite frankly, is a bit of a no-brainer (cf. formative assessment).

In some ways, B stands out for me because it arises elsewhere in the Guidance, under point 4: “Be creative and innovative in selecting and adapting strategies to help learners to learn.” There are three points here, the first of which mentions classroom strategies and techniques, but he other two are: “finding ways to use technology to underpin learning wherever it can add value or extend the learning context” and “using learning technology to improve learners’ chances of reaching their potential”. It’s a little disconcerting to note that in recent discourse in education the primary mode of innovation seems to be around the inclusion of digital technology, and that other kinds of innovation in classroom practice is not really considered as such.

Standards like this are always hard to draw up and if anything these are controversial for their lack of controversy. There is little there that hasn’t been said or done before by LSIS or IFL. Perhaps it is their concision which is the problem: how do you engage with such broad sweeps of the brush? I know that they have passed me by, for the most part, saying nothing new to me, and very little new to the general FE teaching community.

Then again, is that perhaps the point? By reflecting what practitioners already do, do they much more effectively unite the teaching community in FE? IFL tried this way back in their (often similar) definitions of professionalism but stuck the 30 hours CPD thing on top. Unfortunately, as FELTAG are finding with the increasingly notorious 10% blended learning, this was the only thing anyone focussed on. The ETF standards are much less stark: there are no specific numbers in any of it. In some ways this could be interpreted as lacking robustness, but as soon as you start quantifying this sort of thing, you get onto increasingly rocky ground.

Quantified or not, however, there is a lot of fairly straightforward and sensible stuff in these standards. Equality and diversity is recognised throughout, and there is a lot of positive support for personal and collaborative development. There is a general sense that the best development comes not from some advanced practitioner/consultant/manager telling you what is “best practice” (a phrase happily absent in the standards, you will note) but rather through working together. This places the emphasis on action research, peer observations, and raises the value of those staff room discussions about what is and isn’t working in class. To my mind, this shift from top down cascading of “best practice” to critical joint practice development is no bad thing at all.

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