Graham Chisnell, CEO, Veritas Multi Academy Trust, UK
In this reflective piece, I explore the benefits of creating a culture of talent management within schools, and how this builds career pathways for teachers and strengthens staff retention. Through the springboard of a research trip to Singapore, Veritas Multi Academy Trust have devised a system of ‘talent pathways’ to build professional development opportunities for teachers across their schools (King, 2016).
One aspect of a strong school is that it rests on the foundation of effective career progression for teachers. With a backdrop of rising teacher attrition in the UK, with a five-year retention rate of 67.7 per cent for those who qualified in 2013, our early career teachers are leaving the profession at an alarming rate (Dickens, 2019). Our senior posts in schools remain vacant, with over a quarter of schools in the UK struggling to fill their top positions (Busby, 2019a, 2019b).
While UK school spending is among the top nine countries globally (OECD, 2020), school budgets remain pinched. School leaders are challenged to think creatively about how they can resource their schools; as a result, professional development budgets have seen a cut of 12 per cent (Teacher Development Trust, 2019).
Searching for a fresh answer
In order to address the challenges of rising teacher attrition in schools, there needs to be an understanding of the cause. One common factor in many international studies is the quality of professional development afforded to teachers (Ovenden-Hope et al., 2018; Kelly et al., 2019). Schools that have a culture of prioritising professional development build a climate in which teachers feel increasingly confident in their role (West-Burnham, 2009). Miller (2019) also found that providing professional development was a useful retention and progression strategy, especially for black and minority ethnic teachers.
During a research trip to Singapore on behalf of the British Council, I spent a fortnight working with 10 UK school leaders and 10 Singaporean principals. Knowing that the attrition rate for early career teachers in Singapore was low, I wanted to examine the role of professional development in creating a climate in schools where early career teachers were keen to remain in the profession and were able to progress.
Teachers in Singaporean schools can enter one of three pathways to a future career, represented in Figure 1.
The Singaporean approach to career development left me with the challenge of placing the best parts of this system into my own organisation while recognising the political and cultural differences between our two jurisdictions (King, 2016). I also had to ensure that our approach matched the context not just of early career teachers but of all staff working across the trust. I consulted with staff team leaders and asked them to speak with their teams to obtain a picture of which professional development opportunities had the most impact on them and their role. We then brainstormed the gaps in professional development and considered partner organisations that could offer training, helping me to build a meaningful professional development pathway for each staff group.
Talent pathways are professional development pathways for staff across the organisation; they map out professional development opportunities for staff that lead to strengthening practice, while building opportunities for career progression. The pathways available to our staff and volunteers are outlined in Figure 2. While talent pathways are available to all adults in our schools, this article focuses on the teacher talent pathways.
Each pathway holds a range of continuing professional development opportunities for teachers. Our team leaders initially discuss the pathway with teachers during appraisal meetings and consider what the Singaporean Ministry of Education calls the ‘ARC’ approach: providing opportunities for teachers to undertake Assignments, develop their Relationships as a leader and attend relevant Courses. I have used the ARC approach in forming our talent pathways. Assignments are given to our leaders to help to develop their leadership practice. These assignments help to build relationships between colleagues, strengthening the culture of the school. Courses are then provided where relevant, to further support the teacher’s professional development in order to deepen their understanding of leadership theory, subject content and practice, as they follow through the assignment.
The ARC approach provides a wealth of opportunities for the teacher, while informing school leaders of the teacher’s potential as an advanced teacher, school leader or trust leader.
Research pathway (Figure 3)
As a research-active organisation, we provide time for our teachers to engage in a research project each year as part of their appraisal cycle. Each teacher is coached by their team leader to devise a purposeful research question. Teachers are given a ‘learning ticket’ with a cash value of £150 to support their research activity, which they can spend on relevant courses or professional membership of organisations like the Chartered College of Teaching. If the research project requires further financial support, teachers can apply for a bursary with a cash value of up to £250 to assist their research project. For example, one teacher used their research bursary to purchase a set of Lego to research its impact on supporting narrative development in boys’ writing. We have found that through our research pathway, each research project brings fresh ideas and opportunities for teachers to share their practice with others, deepening the teacher’s own professional standing in the school.
Teachers are guided by their mentors to engage in TeachMeets and local journal clubs to develop their engagement with pedagogy and practice. Teachers with similar research questions are grouped together in professional learning communities to work collaboratively on their research project (Hairon and Tan, 2016).
The research pathway supports teachers in developing their research methodology. In so doing, a research-informed culture is built across schools, where teachers bring fresh ideas to their practice and test these out through reflective inquiry.
Advanced teacher pathway (Figure 4)
The advanced teacher pathway takes the teacher from their early career development through to becoming an expert teacher. In the initial stages of their career (their first three years in the school), early career teachers are supported through coaching. They are put into a professional learning community or linked to a ‘research buddy’ who is pursuing a similar research question, where they develop research skills and self-reflective practice. As teachers develop their skills, they are given subject leadership responsibilities and, through our subject hub system, where subjects are clustered together, the subject hub lead will mentor the new subject leader in their role. Teachers are then targeted for a school-wide development project. This may be to lead an initiative across the school, such as the introduction of retrieval practice. The school-wide assignment helps to develop a broadening understanding of pedagogy and practice beyond the teacher’s own key stage expertise while also developing opportunities for the teacher to build relationships with a wider group of colleagues.
As the teacher progresses, opportunities to become a subject hub lead emerge and they move from mentee to mentor. At this stage in our talent pathway programme, the teacher is heading towards becoming an ‘expert teacher’. Expert teachers are encouraged to share their practice across the school and beyond. Formal training routes are offered to the expert teacher, including the Chartered College of Teaching Chartered Teacher or Leadership programme and the National Professional Qualification for Middle Leadership or Senior Leadership.
The development of the expert teacher within the advanced teacher talent pathway allows teachers who are keen to remain class-based to share their expert knowledge of pedagogy and practice with others.
Leadership pathway (Figure 5)
Our expert teachers who are interested in developing their leadership skills are supported through our leadership pathway. Future leaders are given a leadership review, where a range of staff are asked to review the teacher’s leadership qualities, leading to a coaching conversation with a senior member of staff. Opportunities for training are developed, including sponsorship for the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH). Wider opportunities are given for teachers to work across schools within the trust and beyond, through our network of schools. We have a National Support School in our trust; this brings opportunities for leaders to share their expertise across a wide network of schools, building strength in system leadership. Leaders are encouraged to share their research outcomes with other organisations through training events, such as conferences and TeachMeets.
Teachers on the leadership pathway are given opportunities to become a lead coach, using group coaching to support the development of teachers in their team (Britton, 2010). Wider leadership skills are provided to future leaders through school- and trust-wide assignments, such as running a training programme for staff across schools or developing an element of practice within a team of teachers. In the past two years, 12 teachers have been supported on the leadership pathway and, as a result, three teachers have been promoted to leadership positions within trust schools. There is, however, a note of caution here. In developing some teachers through the leadership pathway, other teachers not targeted for development can become demoralised, as they may perceive themselves as left behind as they see their colleagues promoted.
The talent pathways system motivates teachers to develop practice and take greater ownership of their own career pathways. This has been demonstrated through the analysis of staff questionnaires, through feedback given by teachers undertaking professional development within our talent pathways and during group coaching sessions.
A wider benefit of talent pathways is the retention of teachers, with a reduction of teacher resignations across our trust in the past two years, reducing from 19 per cent in 2018 to six per cent in 2019 for our 32 teachers across the trust. While the introduction of talent pathways cannot be credited as the only contributory factor to the retention of teaching staff, in staff surveys teachers state that they feel more supported in their professional development as a result of our talent pathways and that they are contributory factors to them remaining in our schools.
As a result, talent pathways strengthen succession planning, growing future leaders from within our schools.
The introduction of talent pathways has taken just under two academic years to become embedded in our trust schools. While there is a lot to still learn about the long-term impact on both the retention of early career teachers and the progression of all staff, early indications suggest a reduction in teacher resignations and a more positive engagement with professional development among our teaching staff.
If you are considering developing talent pathways as a system of professional development and career progression, here are some key points to consider:
- Create talent pathways personalised to your school by reviewing your current professional development opportunities for each staff group in your school
- Consider the training gaps and whether any other organisations can support you
- Train your senior staff to coach teachers through the talent pathway (Chisnell and Jordan-Daus, 2020)
- Assign coaches to spot talent in teachers, encouraging teachers to take on assignments, build relationships and attend relevant courses
- Support the teacher through their talent pathway with regular coaching sessions
- Learn from what works and review your pathways
- Celebrate success across the organisation.
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