Scott Nevett, Assistant Headteacher, Southfield School for Girls, UK

While the majority of research into teacher professional learning is concerned with the practicalities of processes and structure, it is increasingly clear that successful programmes need to be cognisant of the idea that ‘the context or conditions for professional development are at least as important to consider as the content and process’ (Weston et al., 2021, p. 4). The move from a professional learning model focused on initiatives and implementation to one of building culture, habits and effective teams is one that all schools owe to their staff.

A cultural shift

At Southfield we approach professional learning with the belief that all teachers have the right to high-quality training and development, which also encourages self-efficacy and is considerate of workload. We also know that this is most effective when sustained ‘over a period of time… ensuring that it features multiple, iterative activities following the initial input’ (Cordingley et al., 2015, p. 4). In order for this to happen, we carefully enabled and encouraged a cultural shift to ensure that professional learning is highly valued by the leadership team and, subsequently, all staff.

As part of our school improvement planning, we identified a clear necessity to prioritise and construct professional learning to embed the ‘best bets’ in effective teaching and assessment across the school, despite strong and sustained student outcomes. Prior professional learning had been ad hoc and tended to occur on inset days. Our new approach drew on the EEF’s ‘Teaching and Learning Toolkit’ and subsequently their guidance report, ‘Putting evidence to work’ (Sharples et al., 2019). This has helped to ensure that our implementation is appropriately staged, robust and built with leadership capacity at all levels.

In order to facilitate the shift, three years ago we decided to rearrange the timetable. We are now able to set aside two successive protected hours each Wednesday for the sole purpose of professional learning across the school. This dedicated time is informed by the best available evidence and draws on our considerable existing teacher expertise. It is closely linked to our school improvement priorities and gives significant time for subject knowledge and curricular development. We celebrate each subject discipline as unique and try to help staff ‘make better decisions about what they can best do to improve their effectiveness’ (Coe et al., 2020, p. 5). To encourage agency, we ask all teachers to undertake a subject-based disciplined inquiry each year, which supports both their own development and that of their subject. We have adapted, and are indebted to, the model for inquiry set out in Putting Staff First, with all questions taking the form ‘What impact does [practice] delivered [over how long] have on [outcome] for [whom]?’ (Tomsett and Uttley, 2020). This is important to our approach as it encourages autonomy and job satisfaction by placing teachers’ own needs and those of their students at the heart of whole-school development. Teachers need to ‘see the relevance of PD to their individual needs, their pupils’ needs and the wider organisational goals’ (Worth and Van Den Brande, 2020, p. 18).

Year One: Ágætis byrjun (a good start)

Part of the initial stage was to align teachers to this new culture, our refocused school priorities and the rationale for change. Bespoke career-stage expectations were also designed in collaboration with a range of staff. These enabled teachers to identify individual priorities and opportunities for development.

The new two-hour weekly slot was structured within our wider monitoring, evaluation and learning cycle. This encapsulates and drives school improvement, and includes everything from quality assurance processes to standardised assessment timetables. A real focus in the first year was to embed career-stage leadership and facilitation opportunities, cross-curricular collaboration and individual reflection, as shown in Table 1.

The model was divided into two parts, with activities running on a cyclical basis, with opportunities for staff to experiment, trial, research and review in the interim periods. The first establishment phase provided a common pedagogical base of knowledge through collaboration. This then led to personalised experimentation, peer-to-peer support and innovation in the second phase. At regular points during the year, staff were surveyed, and this feedback was used to inform both in-year changes and the evolution of the model in Year Two and beyond. For example, although feedback showed staff becoming increasingly invested in the cultural aspect of the model as a whole, it was clear that we could not wallow in genericism, losing sight of subject-specific considerations and development time.

Table 1: Year One model

Establishment, collaboration and experimentation phase (cross-curricular/career-stage groups) Consolidation, collaboration and experimentation phase
Core modules Elective modules Mini-modules Peer-coaching Research groups
Spaced sessions Spaced sessions Single sessions Spaced sessions Spaced sessions
Questioning

Feedback

Formative assessment

Challenge

Metacognition

Feedback

Challenge

SEND

Active learning

Behaviour for learning

21 topics including:

Cognitive load

Modelling

Barriers to PP

Digital approaches

Dual coding

Vocabulary gap

Staff worked collaboratively on specific elements of pedagogy in the classroom Staff used research and evidence to inform collective decision-making for key areas of school improvement
Centrally created groups facilitated by UPS staff Centrally created groups facilitated by UPS staff Proposed, created and facilitated by staff at any career stage Engineered triads based on need/QA Personal research or group evidence
Continuous cycle of review to judge impact and inform adaptations to implementation, including staff surveys

Year Two to now: Coronavirus joins the party

With staff feedback ringing in our ears, the biggest shift in Year Two, last academic year, was a move away from a whole-school establishment approach to a sustained focus on subject-specific knowledge, pedagogy and curriculum design. This started in earnest, with a real sense of collective purpose and a newly invigorated eye on being the best subject teachers that we could be. Wider reading and the sharing of expertise, rooted in the classroom experience, became integral drivers.

Of course, the ‘best plans of mice and men’ surely did go awry in February of 2020. The move towards lockdown in March and the relative unknown of remote learning meant that while our core aims remained, the day-to-day focus of professional learning had to be responsive to the unfolding events. Fortunately, the slot created and protected each week and our newfound value in collaboration and teacher learning stood us in good stead and continues to do so. As the year progressed and finally became a new one (Year Three), the model we had created continued to be flexible and made our remote learning offer far more successful than it might have been. The academic year 2021–22 (Year Four) is looking like it might be somewhat ‘normal’, whatever that now means, and we are setting our sights on further enhancing our professional learning offer to meet our particular needs.

Conclusions

This case study began with the premise that successful and highly valued professional learning requires a deft balance between the cultural context that you create and the processes and content that you prize. While every school faces its own challenges and has its own particular professional body, this is a balance worth striving for – but it will not happen by chance. At Southfield we have learned that our balance is a mixture of whole-school and subject-focused sessions that are evidence-informed, driven by collaboration and committed to giving all teachers the individual agency to improve so that they can deliver a world of possibilities for our students. The processes and content that we prize might not be appropriate for every school. Yet our experience shows that it is essential that you create and attend to the right conditions for whatever it is you do value to flourish.

References

Coe R, Rauch CJ, Kime S et al. (2020) Great Teaching Toolkit evidence review. Evidence Based Education. Available at: www.cambridgeinternational.org/support-and-training-for-schools/teaching-cambridge-at-your-school/great-teaching-toolkit (accessed 5 July 2021).

Cordingley P, Higgins S, Greany T et al. (2015) Developing great teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development. Teacher Development Trust. Available at: https://tdtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/DGT-Full-report.pdf (accessed 7 July 2021).

Education Endowment Foundation (nd) Teaching and Learning Toolkit. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit (accessed 7 July 2021).

Sharples J, Albers B, Fraser S et al. (2019) Putting evidence to work: A school’s guide to implementation. Education Endowment Foundation. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/Implementation/EEF_Implementation_Guidance_Report_2019.pdf (accessed 5 July 2021).

Tomsett J and Uttley J (2020) Putting Staff First: A Blueprint for Revitalising Our Schools. Woodbridge: John Catt.

Weston D, Hindley B and Cunningham C (2021) Working paper: A culture of improvement. Reviewing the research on teacher working conditions. Teacher Development Trust. Available at: https://tdtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/A-culture-of-improvement_-reviewing-the-research-on-teacher-working-conditions-Working-Paper-v1.1.pdf (accessed 5 July 2021).

Worth J and Van Den Brande J (2020) Teacher autonomy: How does it relate to job satisfaction and retention? NFER. Available at: www.nfer.ac.uk/media/3874/teacher_autonomy_how_does_it_relate_to_job_satisfaction_and_retention.pdf (accessed 5 July 2021).