In the jargon-filled world of Welsh education, teachers might be forgiven for overlooking the importance of something called professional learning communities.
To the Welsh Government, they are the flagship policy that will improve the quality of teaching. But according to a new poll, more than a quarter of teachers have never heard of them, prompting fears that staff are missing out on vital training. And the research by union ATL Cymru found that even teachers who are members of the so-called PLCs do not reap many benefits.
The initiative was launched with the aim of bringing teachers from different schools together so they could share best practice and go back to their classrooms with new ideas. It is a key part of the Welsh Government's school effectiveness framework, and around 1,900 schools and all 22 of Wales's local authorities have gone through the training programme.
But the lukewarm response from teachers in the ATL poll has fuelled concerns that some teachers regard the communities as continuing professional development "on the cheap". More than one in four (27 per cent) of the 150-plus teachers questioned by the union had never heard of PLCs, and more than 40 per cent did not belong to one. Even staff who were actively involved were not necessarily seeing the benefits; 42 per cent said being part of one had not improved their teaching.
The findings build on longer-held fears, even among supporters of the scheme, that there is too much variability in the quality of PLCs and a widespread lack of awareness about their importance. Respondents to the ATL poll also commented that they were badly organised, poorly funded, lacking in focus and had increased their workload.
Professor Alma Harris, pro-director of London University's Institute of Education, who is spearheading the initiative for the Welsh Government, has already warned that, without adequate funding and commitment from heads, the initiative is at risk of failure. "The survey shows that there is more work to be done to ensure that all schools understand PLCs," she said.
"It is particularly encouraging to note that two-thirds of the sample relate their PLC work to improvements in their learning. This is exactly what the PLC work is intended to achieve as evidence shows that improved professional learning leads to improved learner outcomes."
The Welsh Government said it is continuing to raise awareness of the scheme and is working with practitioners to provide high-quality resources to support schools in implementing their PLCs, which will be available by the end of the year.
ATL Cymru director Dr Philip Dixon said the survey contained mixed messages, but that the Government could draw some consolation. "Nearly three-quarters of teachers have heard of this initiative and more than half who responded are engaged," he said. "(Education minister Leighton Andrews) has said we need an unrelenting focus on standards, but for that to become a reality some of the detritus that surrounds the classroom needs to be swept away to make space for PLCs.
"We would like the minister to give a clear indication as to what he thinks schools can stop doing in order to provide the time for this promising initiative to take off."