Is a professional learning culture possible?

Written by: Keith Wright | Published:
Photo: iStock

How can we give every professional in our schools a stake in school improvement. This was the topic under discussion at a recent education roundtable debate. Keith Wright reports.

Today the reality is that if schools are going to fully realise their ambitions, leadership has to be at the very core of the organisation, and this can't happen unless professionals at every level are given the opportunity to have a direct impact on school improvement.

But how do you spot schools that empower their staff to play an integral part in their running? There are a number of key characteristics, including giving teachers freedom to learn from and with each other, the use of performance management systems that are focused on personal professional growth, and the development of structures and systems that allow every member of staff to make a direct contribution to school improvement.

That's the ideal but it is a patchy picture in our schools. When I gathered a group of primary and secondary heads and leading education figures for a roundtable discussion at the Institute of Education, we agreed that there were a number of barriers that were preventing schools from achieving this ideal. They included a fragmented education system and the persistence of a strong tradition of top-down decision-making, perhaps reinforced by the current inspection regime which played its part in distorting the professional development of school leaders.

Our discussions resulted in a White Paper containing key recommendations for tackling these challenges. A key recommendation was that there must be a greater commitment to meaningful reflection and development for all leaders and teachers, with changes in structures and accountability to enable this on a large scale.

Dame Reena Keeble, formerly head of Cannon Lane Primary and now an education consultant, 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," she said. "When I was doing my doctorate I started to understand what it was really like to be a professional learner.

"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."

Peter Earley, professor of education leadership and management at the Institute of Education, agreed that school leaders had a crucial role in creating a culture of professional learning.

"There is a crime in not wanting to develop professionally," he said. "Not only is it the responsibility of the teacher, it's the responsibility of the headteacher as well. If headteachers and other school leaders are not concerned about the growth of their people, the children will get a worse deal."

But there were concerns about the practical aspects: "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," said Debbie Barkes, headteacher at St Faith's Infants School in Lincolnshire and CPD lead of the Kyra Teaching School Alliance.
"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 key question for me is how practically can we do this? Most school leaders recognise the value of developing collaboration but making it happen is another challenge. School leaders feel so accountable for everything so it is as much about empowering leaders as empowering staff."

Philippa Cordingley, chief executive of the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE), said collaboration had an important role to play in helping schools to promote a professional learning culture. "We should be thinking about work-based professional learning, not CPD, and provide this through collaboration between schools," she said. "When teachers take risks together that is when they build-up trust."

She added: "Schools have rarely shared their understanding of what constitutes professional learning. Pupils are given increasing responsibility for their own learning but this hasn't been pursued in the same way for teachers."

Evaluation of the professional practice of teachers was crucial to the development of a climate of professional learning, said Ms Barkes.

"When teachers are going through initial teacher training they evaluate every breath they take but when they get to school there is no commitment to reflection," she said.

"Teachers need to use systems to help them record their practice so that they can go to performance management meetings with a clear idea of what they need to develop and what the school needs to develop too."
The discussions were wide-ranging and impassioned and included several other important areas, including the creation of a new set of accountability measures for schools and the creation of structured, systematic approaches to spotting and nurturing future leaders and talent in all schools. 

  • Keith Wright is managing director of school information management business Bluewave.

Further information

There is a detailed account of the discussions in the White Paper, Making a Difference: How can schools empower every professional to play a part in school improvement? – available at

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