Pupils in state schools are legally required to be taught for a minimum of 190 days a year (independent schools don't have this requirement and pupils are normally taught around 170 days). However, state school teachers are required to work for 195 days a year. These extra five days are Inset Days – In-service training days. Sometimes named Baker Days after Lord Baker who introduced them as Education Secretary.
Given the Government's philosophy of encouraging greater choice, independence and variety in education, is it not time that this rigid requirement for a statutory minimum were lifted?
Schools could still close for training if they felt this was a genuine benefit, but they would no longer be forced to do so. Such deregulation would be popular with parents for whom Inset days are a source of disruption. This is especially the case when a school is closed randomly during the term rather than having Inset days before the terms starts or after it finishes.
On the other hand, in some schools more training is needed. What if a primary school is failing to teach children to read? Keeping the school closed for several days while the teachers are trained in phonics would be a plus.
Yet the requirement for pupils to be in school 190 days a year could be an impediment to quality training. The fantastic results achieved by so many independent schools – teaching children for 160 or 170 days a year – reminds us to measure outputs rather than inputs.
What do teachers think? The National Union of Teachers would surely respond with knee jerk opposition to any "threat" to Inset Days.The Left may well see them as serving an ideological purpose – they can be used to push diversity, or health and safety, or "progressive" teaching methods. For education professors it's a nice little earner – Ted Wragg used to pitch up regularly to give his views.
However, it does not follow that NUT members find Inset days worthwhile. Some teacher bloggers have expressed scepticism about the existing content which they are legally required to listen to (for example here and here.)
One teacher reflects:
It is truly ghastly seeing teachers in their casual clothes. Then there is the buttock-clenching embarrassment of role play. The whole day is like some awful menopausal support group.
A Deputy Head of a Swansea Comprehensive says he was "asked to write my initials in the air with my hands". He says:
Inset inhabits an alternative universe where embarrassing role-play and amateur psychology masquerade as professional development.
But the true hell of Inset is the feedback, that dire bum-numbing experience during which it is possible to lose the will to live, and the light in your eyes is extinguished by flip-chart sheets and tedious repetition, exactly at the moment when everyone wants to go home. The cost of Inset is huge – generating enormous income for others – but the results are variable. If we had to pay from our own pockets, we'd complain, but we are playing games at someone else's expense and having a decent lunch, usually involving spring rolls and samosas. That couple of hours in the lounge of a posh hotel certainly breaks up the week, but is it cost effective?
I often wonder what impact, if any, inset sessions have on what happens in the classroom.
These examples are unscientific. However, there is something of an echo in an academic study a decade ago by Manchester Metropolitan University.
In their survey one teacher said:
"It’s a standing joke in the staff room, so what was the lunch like? You know it’s a good course if you get a good lunch.”
The report noted "the absence of practical applications being the major cause for irritation, but poor presentation, delivery pedagogy and weak planning coming close behind." Individual comments included: “Silly games or irrelevant topics that do nothing for me in the classroom.” “I’ve had enough of constant role play, discussion groups and feedback sessions.”
Some of the comments suggested that the courses were not merely a waste of time but damaging for morale. One Deputy Head saying:
When you go on these things and sit there doing role plays with each other I’m afraid I cannot stand things like that so I come away from things like that thinking maybe I shouldn’t be a head but actually if someone gave me a class of children or a hall full of parents I would be OK with that. I just find some of these activities so trite.
A starting point of having to find something for everyone to do for five days is the wrong approach.
Schools could have a flexible approach involving different teachers taking part in training courses they were actually interested in. What if the requirement for exactly 195 days teachers work a year was made more flexible? That might allow more days for training in one year and fewer in another year.
It would be interesting for a current survey to be conducted of teachers views on scrapping a statutory requirement for Inset Days. Some of the comments above are from several years ago. My suspicion is that the only change is that the lunches are less good. Schools often have other priorities for their spending than booking luxury hotels.
If schools are being set free, then the imposition of Baker Days should end. In some years, in some schools, more than five days training might be regarded as worthwhile. In some schools less. That should be their choice.