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INSET days – the antithesis of school development…

Big changes are not always the best way to improve teaching and learning. It’s the small, manageable goals that matter…

Matt Tiplin
by Matt Tiplin
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Have you ever set yourself a new year’s resolution only to give up on it before the end of January?

Or embarked on a new health and fitness regime that proved to be over-ambitious and unrealistic?  

If so, you’re not alone.

When we see a need for change, our instinct is to adopt the big-bang method and try to solve everything at once.

This is especially true of teachers who are natural problem solvers.  

There’s no shortage of challenges in our schools right now. Budgets are squeezed, workloads are getting heavier, and children need extra support with their learning and wellbeing. Especially after the disruption of the pandemic.

However, teachers shouldn’t have to fix everything in one go.

When it comes to making changes, it’s the small but winnable goals that make the biggest difference.

This little-by-little approach, known as marginal gains, allows teachers to keep developing their practice in small but purposeful steps. 


School improvement relies on recruiting, retaining and developing good teachers. With so many people leaving the profession (according to the latest workload census figures) it has never been more important to keep good teachers in the classroom. 

However, if teachers feel their school is trying to make major changes that are simply too challenging to achieve given the timeframe, there’s a risk they might walk away from a job they once loved. 

Launching big, new training initiatives on a high-stakes INSET day can make people feel overwhelmed rather than motivated to learn.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that INSET days are the antithesis to school improvement. At least in their traditional format where a ‘sage on the stage’ sets the scene for whole-school CPD.

What works for the trainer might not be so successful in every classroom or with every cohort. 

Some schools are recognising the need to review their approach to teacher professional development. Instead, they’re focusing on helping teachers boost their individual practice in a more measured and attainable way.

This makes a lot of sense.

Rather than delivering a blanket announcement that all teachers need training in how to incorporate numeracy into every lesson, for example, it would surely be much more effective to hold smaller, more frequent training sessions.

These regular sessions could offer the perfect forum for a teacher to share best practice. E.g. sharing an idea based on how a number game they used last week in a Year 5 maths lesson helped to expand the children’s understanding of fractions.   

This seems to me a far better way to strengthen the link between professional development and practical application in classes.

Teachers take on learning in manageable chunks and apply that learning in a way that suits the needs of their pupils, rather than making big changes to their teaching all in one go.  

Build confidence and expertise 

Accountability can feel scary when schools try to do too much too quickly.

Take the example of a teacher who feels under pressure to make a lot of major changes to their teaching practice and to demonstrate them all at once in a lesson observation.

Rather than letting their individual flair and enthusiasms shine through, our teacher ends up trying to tick all the boxes in the lesson in order to meet a one-size-fits-all evaluation of what a good or outstanding lesson should look like. 

In aiming to achieve the impossible, they start to feel stressed, and this has a knock-on effect on their pupils.

The classroom atmosphere becomes tense and uncomfortable and nobody learns anything. 

However, if the teacher had the opportunity to self-reflect on one particular aspect of a lesson, guided by an expert colleague, they would see for themselves where they could improve their practice.

That might be by assessing whether a reading task went well for a particular group of students, or by reviewing a video recording of a warm-up session to see how well it helped the children prepare. 

Self-reflection activities like these help teachers see where they, as individuals, can improve their practice, in small, incremental but incredibly important steps.  

By making small yet positive changes, teachers can maintain their authentic voice and their unique teaching style – all those things which make them special as a teacher.

And the improvements they make are long-lasting. 

Matt Tiplin has been a senior leader in a MAT and an Ofsted inspector. He is vice president of ONVU Learning

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