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Making a difference: How can schools empower every professional to play a part in school improvement

Making a difference:

How can schools empower every professional to play a part in school improvement?

A Bluewave.SWIFT white paper

January 2015






The discussion


Case studies

Further reading



We would like to express our thanks to the following round table participants for their time and their valuable contributions. They were:

Dr Martin Airey Head of School, Darrick Wood School, Kent

Nigel Ashley Headteacher, Meadowside Community Primary School, North Yorkshire

Debbie Barkes Headteacher, St Faith’s Infants School and CPD lead, KYRA Teaching School Alliance, Lincolnshire

Jon Boyes Deputy Headteacher, Sandwich Technology School, Kent

Louis Coiffait Chief Executive, NAHT Edge

Philippa Cordingley Chief Executive, CUREE

Professor Peter Earley Professor of Education Leadership and Management, Institute of Education

Carol Jones Specialist for Leadership and Teacher Professionalism, ASCL

Dame Reena Keeble Consultant and formerly Headteacher of Cannon Lane Primary School, Middlesex

Jonathan Walsh Strand Leader, Manor Academy, Nottinghamshire

David Weston Chief Executive, Teacher Development Trust

Denise Willis Head of Collegiate Management, Queen Ethelburga’s College, North Yorkshire



This white paper looks at how every professional can be empowered to make a full contribution to continuous improvement in our schools.

It captures the discussions prompted by this question at the second annual Bluewave.SWIFT round table, held at the Institute of Education in London on 28 November 2014.

The discussion looked at the challenges faced by schools in this area as well as the approaches schools and the wider system could take to move towards this ideal.

It was a wide ranging, provocative and thought provoking discussion and our hope is that this white paper accurately captures that discussion and the ideas that emerged out of it.

Keith Wright

Managing Director




Leadership has never mattered more in our schools.

But leadership isn’t just a case of a strong headteacher or senior leadership team. In order for schools to fully realise their ambitions leadership has to run through the core of an organisation and involve professionals at every level.

A school system in which every professional plays a full part in their school’s success should include at least one of the following characteristics:

  • expert teachers are free to learn from and with each other best about current and developing practices - within schools and across formal and informal collaborations

  • performance management, including appraisal, is focused firmly on professional growth

  • structures and systems are in place that will allow every member of staff to make a direct contribution to school improvement

  • there is a strong culture of distributed leadership, in which those in middle leadership and other roles are allowed to take the leadership initiative and be responsible for developing and driving through change.

Put together, these elements represent the ideal picture, but a number of major challenges are preventing schools doing this. They include:

  • Fragmentation. The school system is less of a system nowadays and is increasingly fragmented. Schools are encouraged to support and develop each other but in practice this is patchy. Collaboration often sits uneasily with financial priorities and even competition across schools.

  • Lack of distributed leadership. There is still a strong tradition of top down decision making in our schools. Even where distributed leadership is perceived to exist, full devolvement is often undermined by an unwillingness to ‘let go’. Teacher Development Trust research shows that this is restricting the role of teachers in their own development.[1]

  • The spectre of Ofsted. Accountability pressures 'shape and distort' professional development of school leaders, according to the Teacher Development Trust.[2] Many school leaders have spoken about how they see league tables and inspections as being the most common motivations for CPD. This view is most common amongst secondary leaders, according to the TDT.

  • There is too much focus on CPD “done to” teachers and not enough on the professional learning process in the work place according to CUREE’s extensive research.

So how can schools overcome these barriers and truly empower all staff to play a part in school improvement?




The discussion: How exactly can schools empower staff to play a full part in school improvement?

Focus on professional learning

Philippa Cordingley, chief executive of CUREE, suggested that the starting point for schools was to ensure that teaching and learning was making a difference to children.

A key way of enabling this was to focus on professional learning – not training and development on its own – for teachers.

“We do systematic teacher reviews of research about teaching and learning that makes a difference to children,” she said. “We do a lot of work and research in schools to help them identify how well they are connecting teacher learning and student learning, taking evidence of pupil learning and using this to feed teacher learning.

“We did a study for Teach First to find out what exceptional schools do to transform challenging communities. We are also doing follow up studies of schools that are not making the progress they want to make.

“CPD is an important ingredient, but what works best is professional learning”

“CPD is an important ingredient, but what works best is professional learning. The way we get power into teachers’ hands is by focusing on teachers’ day to day learning.

“We should be thinking about work based professional leaning, not CPD, and provide this through collaboration between schools. When teachers take risks together that is when they build up trust.

“Schools have rarely shared their understanding of what constitutes professional learning. Pupils are being given increasing responsibility for their own learning so that they can take control of their learning but this hasn’t been pursued in the same way for teachers.

“The point is that if we had all this pedagogy at the heart of what we teach pupils why on earth do we not have it for our teachers? Leaders should be treating their staff as their classes.

Pooling knowledge

“We are doing a series of essays for the Royal Society for the Arts (RSA) looking at how we can develop ways of taking collective responsibility. ASTs (advanced skills teachers) were good but we need collective ASTs.”

“Collective discussion amongst teachers is crucial”

David Weston, Chief Executive of the Teacher Development Trust agreed that a collective approach was important. “Collective discussion amongst teachers is crucial. They need this so that they can get a clear understanding of where their students are now, what they know and what they don’t know, where they are going to take them and how they will do this.

“When you get teachers involved in clarification of pupil progress that is when teachers get really engaged. That is when they realise the difference that they can make. It lets them pool their knowledge.

“To empower staff sometimes requires leaders to take a lot of control away. Sometimes in order to empower staff you have to hand over control. But it does depend on where your school is on its journey.”

Leading the culture

David Weston cited the research of education academic Prof Viviane Robinson[1], saying the most important element of school improvement was how leaders led professional learning. “They need to show how as a school leader they are going to learn and improve practice. They literally have to give teachers time and space to do that as well,” he said.

“Leaders have to give teachers time and space to learn and improve practice”

Peter Earley, Professor of Education, Leadership and Management at the Institute of Education, agreed. “I do think that the leader’s role is to create a culture within the organisation where empowerment is an expectation,” he said. “Creating culture is the most difficult thing.

“There is some excellent practice around and we need to make sure that this becomes the norm but it is patchy at the moment.”

He suggested that creating ‘learning enriched’ schools would create that expectation of empowerment. He cited seminal 1980s research by US academic Susan Rosenholtz which characterised schools as being either learning enriched or learning impoverished institutions.[2]

“How do we ensure that all of our schools are learning enriched places? That comes back to leadership,” he asserted. “NCTL (National College of Teaching and Leadership) has been disempowered but the setting up of a Royal College of Teaching has been a positive development. This could play a part in creating a culture of professional learning in our schools.”

Dame Reena Keeble, consultant and former headteacher of Cannon Lane Primary in Middlesex, suggested that if headteachers immersed themselves in learning then this would encourage a climate of learning in the school.

“I have always called myself ‘lead learner’, not the headteacher. When I was doing my doctorate I started to understand what it was really like to be a professional learner.

“There is an issue around leadership creating a culture of professional learning”

“I think there is an issue around leadership creating that culture of professional learning. If the leader starts first then this gives the staff permission. ”

The challenge of time

Debbie Barkes, Headteacher at St Faith’s Infants School in Lincolnshire and CPD lead of the KYRA Teaching School Alliance, highlighted the practical difficulty of achieving a culture of professional learning.

“The day to day pressures that schools are under makes it difficult to make time, even if you know in your heart that it is the right thing to do,” she said. “A lot of schools that we work with at KYRA are very committed to sharing good practice but they are also concerned about their best teachers being out of the school a lot.

“The day to day pressures make it difficult to make time for professional learning, even if you know it’s the right thing to do”

“The key question for me is how practically can we do this? Most school leaders recognise the value of developing collaboration but it’s managing this practically.

“School leaders feel so accountable for everything so it is as much about empowering leaders as empowering staff.”

Need for collaboration

Jon Boyes, Deputy Headteacher at Sandwich Technology School in Kent, said collaboration was crucial. “Talk to any headteacher and they will say that collaboration is something that has got to happen. They are going to struggle going it alone. Everyone will be a part of a federation, trust or alliance in 10 years time.

“I do not think there are enough really strong, outstanding leaders in the country. In order to drive schools you need outstanding leaders. That is why multi-academy trusts will increasingly come into play.

“Leaders have to be on the ground, giving staff the capability to drive improvement. Then there has to be time to ensure that any professional development that is carried out in school translates into impact in the classroom. It takes time for that to happen.”

System failure?

Schools were faced with a fundamental challenge to their efforts to lead what the coalition government characterised as the school led, ‘self improving’ system when it came to power in 2010, Reena Keeble said.

“On a system level I do not think that we can tell schools to lead a self improving system because the structures are simply not in place,” she said. “Schools are fending for themselves. Sometimes it is hit and miss. We could recreate these systems but ministers do not want to appear to be dictating to schools.”

Accountability was a major barrier to this empowerment of leaders and teachers, said Louis Coiffait, CEO of the NAHT’s new union for middle leaders, NAHT Edge.

He said: “We did research with members of Edge. Some said that they did not want to be a head because of the spectre of Ofsted. When we asked them what CPD they needed they said that they wanted to be able to help staff look good for Ofsted. I think that neatly summed up the incentives driving the system at the moment.

“It is good that we have been given the opportunity to become a self improving system, but we needed a transition period and there has been no time for that.