Effective CPD for school support staff

Written by:  Bridget Clay | Published:
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Teacher development is a clear priority for the most effective schools, but how do you ensure that your support staff are not missing out on crucial CPD? Bridget Clay advises

At the Teacher Development Trust we work with schools all over the country developing how they implement and run CPD. Over the last few years we have seen real improvements, with teachers having more access to evidence-informed ideas, and more participation in CPD that is really focused on pupils and learners.

However, CPD for support staff in most cases lags behind the CPD for teaching staff. It is not uncommon to see:

Very little CPD available for support staff. Some have no clear performance management and very little training beyond statutory duties.

Support staff who are expected to attend the same training as teachers, some of which is irrelevant and therefore frustrating.

The bulk of CPD being one-off and out-of-school. Expert input is crucial for effective professional learning, but it is not cost-effective nor likely to have an impact if it occurs in isolation and is not part of a wider programme.

A lack of career development or seeing the role and development of teaching assistants solely as a route to teacher training, rather than a skilled role in itself.

Of course there are major differences when considering the professional learning of non-teaching staff compared to teaching staff. These differences often come with real challenges, some of which are listed below:

  • Non-teaching staff are likely to be on different contracts, which makes finding time for professional learning more difficult, or in addition to salary costs.
  • Many non-teaching staff will be the only person in their role, allowing fewer opportunities for collaboration.
  • There are less established or clear routes for career progression for many non-teaching roles.
  • Many schools have a history of not prioritising or managing professional learning for support staff, which has set different expectations and a different starting point to non-teaching staff.

Yet, despite these challenges, there are many examples of schools with excellent practice. This article outlines some key principles to consider when planning professional learning for support staff. It is split into two halves – CPD for support staff who work directly with children, and CPD for support staff who don’t.

Support staff who work directly with children

CPD for support staff who work directly with children, such as teaching assistants and pastoral workers, shares similar key principles to CPD for teaching staff. In fact, it is often appropriate for support staff to collaborate with teaching colleagues, particularly when they are working day-to-day with the same children with the same needs.

Cultivate a culture of learning

Even the most effective professional learning processes are dependent on a positive learning culture. It is important to cultivate a belief that professional learning is valued, where staff feel trusted to experiment and try things out, and where staff feel valued as professionals. Some key changes you can make is to ensure that you consider and include support staff in briefings and to look for opportunities where you can build a collegiate team. Don’t segregate your staff, but also don’t expect people to sit through things that are largely irrelevant to their role.

It is also important to support collaboration, peer observation, collaborative planning and the sharing of practice among all staff. Too often meeting time and collaborative time is provided for teachers in a way that it isn’t for non-teaching staff.

Finally, make sure that professional learning is prioritised, resourced and celebrated. This might include providing time, preserving a space for collaboration, supporting opportunities for accreditation and expert input, and just talking about and modelling professional learning.

Ensure professional learning is driven by and linked to pupil need

CPD that is closely focused on pupils is much more likely to benefit pupil outcomes. Obviously all staff in schools do some things that don’t directly benefit pupils and there might be accompanying CPD – for example, learning how the new data system in school works, learning how to line manage colleagues, learning how to manage a budget, learning how to drive the school minibus etc – but professional learning that is designed to directly benefit pupils should be closely linked to specific pupil needs.

This means that support staff who work with children, just like teachers, should engage in identifying pupil needs and directing their learning accordingly. Throughout any professional learning activity, staff should consider the pupils who they expect to benefit, and then in their practice they should experiment with new strategies and evaluate whether they have achieved the expected impact.

This can be supported through collaborative processes, such as Lesson Study, collaborative enquiry and action research. It is vital that teaching assistants who work with children are given the time, space and support to engage in such processes.

Engage in the theory and the practical context of your learning

Effective professional learning includes both engaging in the theory and evidence, as well as contextualising and embedding it in your own classroom practice. This can be supported through collaboration with higher education institutions, direct engagement with research, input from experts, using research summaries or colleagues in school to support the dissemination of research.

We are seeing a renewed drive for evidence-informed schools and many teachers are engaging more deeply with research. This should also be supported among non-teaching staff.

Enable opportunities for expert input

It is hard to learn something new. We are inclined towards sticking to what we know and rejecting what is unfamiliar and what doesn’t suit our existing outlook. As such, it is really important to engage with external expertise that can disrupt our assumptions. Obviously experts can also provide evidence-informed input and support, too.

All staff should have access to external input and challenge, including opportunities to visit other schools, access to evidence-informed input, and the opportunity to seek out different approaches and strategies. The National Association of Professional Teaching Assistants, the Professional Standards for Teaching Assistants, subject associations, the Specialist SEND Association, and the teaching assistant research and guidance from the Education Endowment Foundation can all be helpful sources for this.

CPD for general support staff

Support staff who do not work with children are sadly often forgotten about in a school’s CPD programme. Yet many of the principles of effective CPD for staff who work with children still apply.

Cultivate a culture of learning

CPD for non-teaching staff is often focused on statutory training or career development. While both of these are important, it is also important to prioritise developing and learning within your role. Professional learning is not just about fixing problems but about best meeting school needs and continually working to develop, and this is something that should be shared and celebrated.

This is partly aided by a positive learning culture, by providing time and resource, by enabling collaboration and the sharing of practice, but also by effective line management, which supports and encourages development opportunities.

Expert input and engaging with theory

All of us need expert challenge to support us to learn. We also all need to ensure we are engaging in evidence-informed practices. As such, it is just as important for non-teaching members of staff to have opportunities to engage with experts as it is for teachers. School visits are perhaps particularly important, as non-teaching staff are even more likely to be the only ones working in their role.

Associations such as the National Association of School Business Management and National Network of School Site Staff can provide this expert input. Similarly, Skills for Schools, a site managed by UNISON, provides a number of resources and opportunities.

Professional learning is driven by need

While staff who don’t work with children might not need to link their learning directly to an expected pupil outcome, they do need to link it to a clear school need and evaluate how they meet that need.

Some needs will be quite specific and procedural, such as completing first aid training or learning how to use the school data programme more effectively.

However, there will be more complex skills and knowledge that need to be learned in a sustained and focused way.

For example, leading and managing others, re-assessing and developing the approach to school events, reviewing and developing how the school tracks all data, or reviewing and developing a school-wide approach to professional learning.

Sadly, it is quite rare to see non-teaching staff given much role in school improvement projects and action research.

Yet, when schools have done this it can result in significant engagement and improvements. For example, one colleague at a large school was given the time to research how different organisations approach performance management. With a team of colleagues, she then redesigned how appraisal works to be more in line with evidence-informed approaches.

Similarly, in another school, the receptionist was encouraged, after giving feedback, to redesign how school events worked, which resulted in higher parental attendance and events that went off much more smoothly.

It is important that schools deliver powerful professional learning for all staff, enabling not only an improvement in staff motivation and wellbeing, but also in a more efficient and effective school, where pupils and staff succeed.

  • Bridget Clay is the director of school programmes at the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for professional development. She is a former maths teacher and works with schools nationally to develop their CPD. Follow her on Twitter at @bridget89ec

Further information

  • You can find out more about the work of the Teacher Development Trust at www.tdtrust.org and for information on the TDT Network, visit http://tdtrust.org/network
  • Professional Standards for Teaching Assistants, UNISON, NAHT, NET & Maximising Teaching Assistants (based on work completed by the DfE-commissioned working group), June 2016: http://bit.ly/2xvjnGJ
  • Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants: Guidance Report, Education Endowment Foundation, Spring 2015: http://bit.ly/2fiIrc1


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