Extract: The School Leadership Journey – How to create a strong professional development community

In this extract from The School Leadership Journey, John Dunford writes about how to create a strong professional development community. 

In being a proactive school leader, making the most of the opportunities available to innovate and chart a well-defined course for the school, the building of a strong professional community that encourages the sharing of excellent practice is a high priority. At a time of pressure on school budgets, when many schools reduce the professional development budget before anything else, determined leadership is vital to maintain a developmental ethos. Working in a cost-effective and time-effective way, there are six measures that can be taken to support staff in playing an active learning role:

  1. Promote a climate of learning by setting an example
  2. Appoint a senior member of staff to oversee professional development and include research in his/her brief, either in an individual school or across a group of schools
  3. Join a local teaching school alliance and make the most of the development opportunities offered by the alliance
  4. Encourage staff to participate in local and national networks and to join with staff in other schools on developmental work in their fields of activity
  5. Filter research evidence, so staff do not have to sift through hundreds of pages that will be of little or no help to them; make this evidence readily available in the school
  6. Become a school member of the Teacher Development Trust and use its database of high quality professional development providers before signing up for training opportunities

Promoting a climate of learning means that the senior leaders in the school must set an example, whether doing a PhD or a Master’s degree, or bringing back to the staff the lessons learned from research, from available evidence, from courses or conferences they have attended, or from external contacts with other schools and researchers. In particular, the head should be a role model of learning.

Appointing a senior member of staff to oversee professional development and research is helpful. In allocating the responsibilities of the senior team, the values and priorities of the school are reflected. While the creation of a culture of professional learning, with all members of staff taking responsibility for their own development, is an essential goal, there still has to be a senior co-ordinating figure to ensure that professional development is aligned with school development priorities and that the full breadth of the range of opportunities is brought to the attention of all staff. Joint practice development with other schools is unlikely to take place unless it is encouraged and facilitated from the top. It is logical for this member of the leadership team also to be in charge of research at the school, tying staff research interests with the needs of the school. This role can be particularly influential when it is held across a group of schools, for example in a multi-academy trust.

At Huntington School, York, Alex Quigley is director of learning and research. The Huntington head, John Tomsett, believes that teaching will only become an evidence-informed profession if school leaders create the conditions where classroom teachers can access research easily; feel encouraged to change practice in the light of evidence; are supported by a research lead in the school with a connection to higher education; and can evaluate the impact on student outcomes of changes to their pedagogy.

Joining a local teaching school alliance sends a positive message to staff and increases opportunities for professional development at all levels. Especially for schools trying to build their professional development from a low base, teaching schools provide a wide range of opportunities for staff to gain experience from beyond their own school and expand their learning.

Encouraging staff to participate in local and national networks can broaden horizons. As a maths teacher, I found meetings of the local maths group to be a very useful learning experience. Whether local networks are organised by a teaching school, the local authority, subject associations or a group of enterprising teachers, they can be invaluable in bringing teachers into contact with others.

There are plenty of national networks, which are easy to access in the first instance through websites and social media. Subject associations and organisations such as Whole Education and the National Education Trust are professional learning communities that provide invaluable and stimulating contact between teachers from different parts of the country.

Making research evidence available to staff in a manageable way helps to nurture professional development. Much education research has previously been published more for the benefit of the researchers than for teachers. Written in specialist language and published in obscure journals that never find their way into schools, most research has had little practical benefit for children’s education. In the absence of an educational equivalent of The Lancet, there are research summary services, such as that produced by the School of Education at the University of Bristol, to which schools can subscribe. The EEF toolkit forms the most user-friendly research tool, gleaning evidence from over 10,000 studies of strategies that work most effectively – and most cost-effectively – on school improvement, especially in raising the attainment of disadvantaged learners. EEF research projects, based in schools, are also written up in an accessible way.

Ensuring that staff attend only high quality professional development courses is part of the role of the senior leader with oversight of professional development. Historically, there has been wide variation in the quality of external courses and the Teacher Development Trust has been formed partly to raise the quality of provision. Its TDT Advisor tool is free to use and provides a list of the best professional development resources – courses, conferences, consultancy services, printed and online material. In the manner of TripAdvisor, teachers can comment on the quality of training and resources. In addition to user comments, professional development provision is subject to random audits by the Teacher Development Trust and providers have to sign up to a code of practice.

Sarah Coskeran of the Trust has set out four tests of good CPD, which teachers are advised to follow before committing to a professional development activity:

  • Where is the evidence that this activity will help me and my students?
  • What follow-up and support are on offer?
  • Will the training help to evaluate its impact?
  • You say you’re good – but who can corroborate your quality?

John Dunford joined a school leadership team in 1974 and was head of Durham Johnston Comprehensive School from 1982 to 1998, when he became general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He is chair of Whole Education, Step Together Volunteering and the South Gloucestershire Education Partnership, and was for two years national pupil premium champion.