From education to employment

Two ways of thinking about staff training

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, at least in Further Education, that the high road to outstanding quality lies in the ‘sharing of good practice’.

The idea is so emotionally appealing we don’t stop to interrogate it much. ‘Sharing’ sounds so warm and reciprocal and ‘good practice’ feels so optimistic and full of professional esteem.

So we tend to relax and not ask questions like ‘whose idea of good?’ and ‘what is the evidence this improves the quality of learning?’ or ‘what exactly does ‘sharing’ mean and how do we know it happens?’

Nor is there any harm in skipping such questions if – and it is a big if – the organisational culture is such that as a manager you know definition isn’t necessary: staff’s idea of what’s good coincides with your own and everyone’s keen to learn and adopt new ideas because that’s just the kind of place this is.

In these circumstances it can actually be exhilarating to sit in on training sessions where a teacher explains to their peers some aspect of their work. You frequently witness practice that is dazzlingly good and leave feeling at once elated by the brilliant teaching your students are benefiting from and – if you’re like me – humbled at realising how much you’d have to catch up on were you ever to step back into the classroom yourself!

Such sessions are great for staff too. They send out energising messages about management’s belief in them, they offer opportunities to take the challenging step of educating one’s peers and they boost morale by letting everyone see they belong to an organisation in which learning of this calibre can be done purely in-house.

But if the culture of the organisation is not in such good health, taking such an approach to staff training may not amount to much more than wasting time and money. In the first place there’s a very good chance that in the absence of a mission-driven definition of values, ‘good practice’ will simply equate to ‘what I enjoy doing’. It’s pot luck whether learners will benefit from that.

Even more problematic is the notion of ‘sharing’. The implicit, blithe assumption is that staff are as unfailingly receptive to good practice as blotting paper is to ink. But what if the recipients’ minds are as defensive as waxed paper?

Achieving absorption requires a much more concerted approach to training. An inspiring vision of why it is needed has to be set. A clear and compelling rationale for it has to be given. The requirement has to be gently but firmly made clear that participants in the training will be doing something differently as a result of it. Furthermore, everyone has to know that the manager in charge of the change programme is going to be there as the training is delivered and still there when its results are implemented.

A manager who knows their staff and the culture they’re working in will know which of these very different approaches to training – or combination of them – is appropriate.

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.

The summary below is intended to help with reaching certainty about that:

What kind of training?


Staff interest

Organisational need


magnanimous: provision of training is motivated by a moral duty to staff

pragmatic: training is a means to a achieving a defined corporate goal


to assist the individual

develop their career in a way that may benefit the College

to facilitate a new way of working required of staff

Rationale for selecting participants

first come first served / competition / length of service….

those who’ll be required to implement and comply with the new way of working

Rationale made clear to participants

possibly not

definitely and repeatedly

Delivery of training



Context of training


place of training in a wider change programme is explicit

Implementation of what’s learnt

left to staff discretion

required of staff

Senior leadership present?

almost certainly not

yes, so they feel in touch with, and can guide the process to which the training contributes


participants may be coached to identify how best to make use of what they’ve learnt.

senior management monitor to ensure participants fulfil the anticipated outcomes

In summary…

heart’s in the right place

head’s in the right place


Related Articles