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It's not what you learn but how you learn that matters. And that goes for teachers too. Nic Barnard finds out how schools can benefit from sustainable and effective education

As jargon goes, effective professional learning community (PLC) doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. But it could be a concept whose time has come.

A major three-year study conducted by academics at Bristol, Bath and London universities has produced the first strong evidence that wiring professional development and training into the way a school operates can raise standards and improve teaching and learning.

The concept of teachers as "lead learners" has been gaining currency for some time, but the report, "Creating and Sustaining Effective Professional Learning Communities", takes it a stage further by describing how schools can pursue it in a more systematic way.

Among its findings is a recognition that creating a supportive atmosphere for professional development in a school can be as important as the work undertaken. And it concludes that for maximum benefit, professional development should embrace all members of staff, including teaching assistants and non-classroom support staff.

Effective professional learning communities can be described as schools which promote and sustain the learning of all professionals with the aim of enhancing pupil learning. The report identifies eight defining characteristics of an effective PLC, which include the need for shared values and vision, and for staff to take collective responsibility for pupil learning. Such a community should involve collaboration between individuals and between groups of teachers. Networks and partnerships are important; but the work must be inclusive, and take place in an atmosphere of mutual trust, respect and support.

"Trust is important, especially when you are taking risks," says Ray Bolam, visiting professor of education at Bath university and one of the five co-directors of the project. "If you're experimenting with new ideas and practices, you've got to have the confidence that your colleagues are going to pull their weight and not let you down."

The report states: "The more fully a PLC expressed (these) characteristics, the more they impacted positively on pupils' attendance, interest in learning and actual learning , as well as on the... practice and morale of teaching and support staff."

Many of these features are already seen in schools - although the report found them more common in primary and special schools. It is the big picture that matters, though, the report suggests. "Essentially, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts," says Professor Bolam.

However, the findings suggest most schools rarely take such an overview.

Nor do they get much support from governors or their local authorities.

They cannot, therefore, make the mostof it.

In other words, although teachers agreed that professional development was not an end in itself - it must always lead back to the pupils - it needs to be considered as an important activity in its own right if it is to be effective.

"All the parts matter, and the more explicitly aware of it and the more they explicitly focus on it, the more likely schools are to be successful," says Professor Bolam.

The study included a survey of practice in 2,300 schools, and case studies of 16 nursery, primary, secondary and special schools, followed by a series of residential workshops with teachers to test the findings. It does not propose an identikit effective PLC, saying schools must identify their own priorities. But the concept can be useful in schools about to undergo major change - for example, becoming a full service school or a children's centre.

"Context is all," says Professor Bolam. "The other really important thing to stress is that professionals learn best from other professionals. We can provide strategic research findings but when schools collaborate across networks and partnerships, they learn best."

Dr Lesley Saunders, policy adviser for research at the General Teaching Council, which co-funded the study, says a coherent picture is now starting to emerge of what works, "something strong and dependable that people can act upon with confidence".

"The report says that being a PLC is not an end in itself, it's a means to an end. But in order to have the best possible pupil learning, you have to have a good sense of adult learning. It's a symbiosis," she says.

A joint conference held with the Institute of Education will this month attempt to start a dialogue about the findings and make the 200-page document's findings more accessible. The research team is already developing a toolkit and case studies, based on their findings, to help schools understand what an effective professional learning community might look like, see how they measure up and suggest ways forward.

There are signs the concept is taking root. Dr Saunders notes that schools'

continuing professional development co-ordinators are now often called CPD leaders - a small change, but indicating a more dynamic approach. "Their job isn't just to pin up a list of courses in the staffroom but to go round stimulating interest," she says. "I think we're seeing the beginning of a sea change.

"In the 1990s, even in the early 2000s, school improvement was one academic discipline and professional development was an entirely separate one. Now nobody would dream of talking about one without the other."

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