Creating a shared culture of professional learning across a MAT

Written by: Kathryn Morgan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The Academy Transformation Trust has launched its own institute to drive a shared culture of professional development for almost 2,000 staff across 22 schools. Kathryn Morgan speaks with institute director Abby Bayford to find out how this works in practice

In 2014, Kraft and Papay’s pioneering research into the link between school professional environments and teacher development highlighted that if we are to support teachers to keep improving and develop their expertise long into their careers then ensuring schools have supportive environments and cultures is of fundamental importance.

However, England’s evolving educational landscape and the rise of multi-academy trusts (MATs) means that we are now not only talking about standalone school environments, but organisation-wide cultures and environments.

MATs are having to widen both the reach and impact of their professional development provision. They now need to meet the needs of increasing numbers of staff and in a wider range of roles, such as HR and administration, shifting the language from teacher development to people development.

This is relatively uncharted territory for our sector. At the Teacher Development Trust (TDT), a charity supporting effective CPD in schools, we continue to support our network member schools. However, we are also tailoring our provision to incorporate organisation-wide support, working with MATs to create sustainable and scalable improvement initiatives.

The ATT Institute

The Academy Transformation Trust (ATT), one of our members and a family of 22 schools serving primary, secondary and further education, has been developing its own “Institute” with the intention of doing just this.

The ATT Institute is a thoughtful and ambitious people development offer designed to harness the collective capacity of the almost 2,000 colleagues across the MAT.

I spoke with Abby Bayford, director of the ATT Institute, who is an English teacher by training and has previously been a vice principal and SENCO.

In particular, I was interested in how they have established a vision that is bought into by the whole organisation, making sure that each member of their community is able to thrive in their day-to-day work and develop their expertise, irrespective of their role and the school they serve.

Q: What is the rationale behind the ATT Institute?

“When establishing our institute, we engaged in a lot of candid discussions with colleagues about their professional learning experiences. What we learned was that CPD was not yet an entitlement for all staff. In fact, it was largely the domain of teaching staff with very little professional development for support staff and those working in administration, governance, finance and operations. It quickly became apparent that we needed to ‘re-set to re-ignite’ and born out of this discussion was the vision for our institute: a conduit for people development activity that meets the needs of all employees in our MAT.”

Q: How did you create a vision that would get buy-in from all staff?

“When establishing the mission and vision of our institute, we wanted to foster a common purpose by promoting and modelling the intentional use of language. As Professor Viviane Robinson has highlighted (2017), learning is an experience – an interpersonal social exchange, anchored by our attributions, behaviours and values.

As such, we knew that if we didn’t clearly delineate the vision and operationalise the values that are conducive to impactful professional learning, as (business and management expert) Peter Drucker puts it, the culture would eat our institute strategy for breakfast.

After some deliberation, and in collaboration with other colleagues, we decided to refer to all learning as people development. This is more than semantics, talking in this way has enabled us to explore the types of behaviours, beliefs and values required to mobilise teacher agency and improve learning. It also enabled us to make explicit that our institute aims to serve not just ATT employees but also the communities we serve. Cultures of growth with high levels of trust must be intentionally designed and incubated. With support from the TDT, we carefully unpicked the features of a culture of trust and thought hard about how we can design people development that harnesses collective entitlement, avoiding a ‘done-to’ approach.”

Q: How did you ensure high levels of colleague engagement and collaboration?

We were inspired by Christine Counsell’s work on curriculum leadership, particularly “crafting readiness” into learning experiences for students (2018), and how we could approach adult learning in a similar way. Meaningful collaboration, where all colleagues contribute and generate insights can be hard to facilitate. We therefore decided that a substantial amount of the thinking needed to happen prior to people development activities in order to maximise participation. Practical ways we engage in advance, thus strengthening contribution and agency, are:

  • Sharing research that has informed the design of the activity in advance.
  • Sharing key questions for colleagues to think about in advance.
  • Live agendas, where discussion points feature and staff add their insights, questions and experiences as notes beforehand.

This has, over time, became the norm for learning conversations, not just for calendared people development. In fact it has become a key lever in ensuring that meetings become conversations that are increasingly learning-focused. It has also contributed to improved levels of trust. As Susan Scott writes in Fierce Conversations (2002) ‘the conversation is the relationship’.”

Q: What role has leadership played in embedding people development into day-to-day working?

“The first step in enabling leadership is being clear that every employee in our organisation is a leader who has a professional obligation to keep improving. As such, we wanted to create a vast people development entitlement through which colleagues could design their own learning journey from a menu of experiences.

Part of the menu are 42 leadership development pathways across all our directorates – education, finance, governance and operations. This is more than a list of training courses. With colleagues we have established experiences that will develop role expertise. The curriculum available to our staff has increased their agency and enabled them to lead conversations about their own people development, again avoiding a “done-to” culture. Strategic collaboration, at all levels, is central to our people development offer because it extends our reach and our scope of influence across our MAT.

We have established subject Team Network Groups and Strategic Development Groups: a community of middle and senior leaders across all directorates who work collaboratively to drive our strategic work. We describe these groups as the learning brain of our organisation.”

Lessons from the ATT Institute

So, what can we learn from the work of Abby Bayford and her colleagues at the ATT?

The power of professional conversations

Professional conversations should be the starting point of any school improvement approach or initiative. The TDT’s CPD diagnostic tool involves a series of quality conversations with a range of colleagues and from a variety of roles across the school. This enables us to understand different needs and perspectives, helping leaders to make choices that are not only informed by research but also by the voice of their team, teaching and non-teaching.

In Reduce Change to Increase Improvement (2017), Professor Vivane Robinson emphasises the importance of leaders engaging staff in the process of school improvement from the onset. She explains that a common problem, due to time restrictions and a desire to enact positive change, is that leaders bypass their staff. This leads to a sense of change fatigue and superficial buy-in as staff struggle to see the purpose of new initiatives.

While a process of engagement that is fuelled by rich professional conversations takes time, in the long run it leads to long-lasting improvement. In addition, these conversations are important for building positive working relationships where people feel that their voice is heard and valued, increasing both a sense of personal and collective agency and, in turn, organisation-wide collegiality.

Effective collaboration

What is also striking about the ATT’s approach to people development is the emphasis on genuine collaboration, rather than merely the illusion of inclusion. Staff are given the opportunity to identify problems of practice, in a range of roles and work together to find solutions that will lead to genuine change.

The TDT’s collaborative enquiry model is designed to help classroom teachers identify their own problem of practice and work with their peers to find appropriate solutions that lead to incremental behaviour change and the development of new habits and pedagogical approaches. Similarly, collaborative enquiry can be used with other teams within an organisation and is especially helpful for diagnosing and finding solutions to shared problems that exist in schools across a MAT.

The enabling art of leadership

It is clear that leadership has played an integral part in ensuring that ATT’s people development strategy is a lived reality for staff across the MAT. This is a good example of leaders working collaboratively to ensure that the conditions for a supportive environment and culture are in place across the MAT.

By removing barriers and providing colleagues with the time and resource to engage with the provision, their strategy becomes a fundamental aspect of people’s day-to-day working rather than an add-on. It is the work, so to speak.

Abby’s role further demonstrates just how vital the role of the CPD leader is vital to ensuring clear communication about programmes and alignment with wider school priorities. Planning and evaluating CPD programmes while bringing all colleagues on board to ensure successful implementation is complex and a process we support leaders with on our qualification in CPD leadership.

  • Kathryn Morgan is an expert advisor at the Teacher Development Trust having previously been a primary deputy head and trust director for professional learning and development.

Further information & resources

  • Counsell: Senior curriculum leadership 1: The indirect manifestation of knowledge: A (curriculum) as narrative, The Dignity of the Thing (blog), April 2018:
  • Kraft & Papay: Can professional environments in schools promote teacher development? Explaining heterogeneity in returns to teaching experience, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, December 2014:
  • Robinson: Reduce Change to Increase Improvement, Corwin Publishers, 2017.
  • Teacher Development Trust: A UK charity which works to raise awareness of the importance of professional development for teachers and other education professionals:

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