Don't let budget cuts drain our lifeblood
You'd have thought we'd know by now how to help all schools succeed. And we do. "It's staff development, stupid." And that means all staff, not just teachers. But too frequently we underestimate its importance. It's the elephant in the room when we discuss school improvement - not often defined or identified; implied but not explicit. But ignore staff development, or treat it casually, and your school will soon suffer.
The 1977 "Ten Good Schools" report by Her Majesty's Inspectors and the recent Ofsted publication on how 12 schools in challenging circumstances are succeeding against the odds act as outstanding bookends to three decades of research into how schools succeed. Both make the importance of staff development utterly clear.
Let's focus on the teachers first. Judith Warren Little, professor of education at the University of California, once pointed out four ways in which school improvement is most surely and thoroughly achieved. Teachers have to engage in frequent, continuous and precise talk about their practice, building up a shared language adequate to the complexity of the job. They must frequently observe each other teaching and give each other feedback. They must plan, organise, monitor and evaluate their work together. And they should teach each other the practice of teaching (Judith wrote this 20 years ago. Now we'd probably substitute "staff" for "teacher" and "learning" for "teaching" to reflect our certainty that all staff, not just teachers, are engaged in the learning task of the school.)
To make this happen, there are various practical steps that schools can take and three general conditions that I believe need to exist.
First, teachers need to work in "permitting circumstances". That is to say an environment that is conducive to growing their intellectual curiosity, where they can develop and refine their skills and where they know they won't be criticised when they make a mistake in trying something new.
Schools can achieve this in a multitude of ways. It should start even before a teacher joins the staff. The school's job advertisements should be overt about the opportunities - and responsibilities - available for staff development. Induction is then key and should involve visits to other schools before the teacher starts their new job. Performance management should give heavy emphasis not to mundane and threatening targets but to individual and collective development needs and commitments.
There should be regular staff training meetings, taken by staff for staff. Not only should a member of the school's leadership team take a lead on staff development, they should see it as their responsibility to establish a staff library and a learning platform with links to external sites such as those of the subject associations and the recently established continuing professional development (CPD) database of the Training and Development Agency for Schools.
A school with "permitting circumstances" would be one where teachers see all their colleagues taking their development seriously, especially at the level of headteacher, head of department and head of phase.
The second precondition for success is to give staff plenty of opportunities for "new experiences". Some of these will be external day courses - although these are too often stiflingly synonymous with CPD. Few are valuable - even less so if attended alone. New experiences should include opportunities for secondment to leadership teams, a regular change of responsibilities and, crucially, the chance to visit other schools in twos and threes to observe and then evaluate together other practice.
Of course, there might be objections that this is too expensive. But some schools are cleverly using one of their in-service training days to visit other schools, then arrange return visits and joint discussions. One primary head I know rotates her day of teaching to enable her staff to visit other schools.
Advanced skills teachers are also playing a role in facilitating shared staff development. Some secondaries are earmarking small sums to fund mini action-research bids from staff, subsidising new teachers' subject association fees or paying for them to attend subject association conferences.
Of course, new experiences also include supporting staff in gaining further qualifications, including degree courses sometimes organised on school premises. Finally, staff are entitled to timely coaching, especially for developing ICT skills, an area in which they often want extra training.
The third pre-condition for successful staff development is "respect and recognition". This ranges from starting every day with free toast, tea and orange juice in the staffroom through to group meals out and other social events to celebrate school achievements. It is seen in the private note of thanks and, more publicly, in recognition at annual awards days, through governors and school newsletters. It is recognising the "burning interest" - often, though not necessarily, subject-focused - that creates an individual staff member's energy. It also means the school protecting its staff development budget and ensuring that its policy covers all staff, not just teachers.
I have visited enough of Ofsted's 12 outstanding secondaries to realise that staff development is a vital common factor. Imagine, just by being on the staff of such schools one becomes a better practitioner.
Impending budget cuts always see the knife taken to CPD, even though developing staff is the lifeblood of successful schools. Within a couple of years, we will all be facing cuts. This time we must not make the mistake of letting staff development suffer.
The TDA database of best practice can be found at: www.cpdsearch.tda.gov.uk. For further guidance, see www.tda.gov.ukcpd
Tim Brighouse the former London schools commissioner is championing continuing professional development for the Training and Development Agency for Schools and is a judge of 'The TES' Schools Awards.