Teachers and learners will get better together

26th February 2010 at 00:00

The annual report of the Estyn chief inspector last month has reminded us that if we are to continue to make improvements in educational outcomes in Wales, the success of both our most disadvantaged and high-achieving students needs to be addressed. To do this, a range of actions will be required, but the most important will be advances in the quality of teaching in our schools and in school leadership.

The extensive body of evidence we have from around the world on school effectiveness and improvement points to high-quality teaching as being the dominant factor in raising student achievement. It is only through this that system-wide improvement can be delivered. The most powerful factor, therefore, in ensuring that all students, in all settings, can achieve their full potential is high-quality teaching.

We also know that such teaching has to be fostered and supported by school leaders. One of the most significant features of outstanding school leadership is the relentless emphasis that it places on improving the quality of teaching. We need leaders in our schools to model, facilitate, invest in and spread high-quality teaching.

In particular, we need teachers who are in a leadership role to promote and engage in career-long professional learning. The major advances in knowledge that have taken place over the last decade in our understanding of how effective learning and teaching can take place need to be embedded in the practice of all teachers and updated as new knowledge becomes available.

Professional development in teaching has, however, not always had the strongest reputation with teachers or those who generally struggle to find evidence of its positive impact in relation to improved student outcomes. We know, however, what makes for effective professional learning that leads to improved teaching.

It is at its strongest when located in schools. As in other occupations and professions, teachers tend to learn best in their own workplace, alongside colleagues and focusing on real-life classroom situations. The "medical rounds" analogy has been used to suggest what high-quality professional learning in teaching should aspire to. The possibility of teachers working together in their own or neighbouring schools, guided by expert practitioners and investigating good practice to find solutions to "tricky problems", is seen as a powerful model of how high-quality professional learning could be developed in our schools.

This model - which is taking hold in parts of the United States and other countries - also recognises two other features. First, while teachers sometimes benefit from individual development, generally they prefer to work collaboratively with their colleagues and this produces the most beneficial outcomes. Second, that the most effective providers of professional learning for teachers are their fellow practitioners: those who are recognised as being outstandingly accomplished in the classroom. This is a critical leadership role in our schools that is too seldom recognised and insufficiently rewarded. If we are to advance teacher-quality in the way we need to, this situation is in need of urgent change.

None of this should, of course, diminish the value of teachers working outside their schools, whether through events organised by authorities and other providers, in the study of higher degrees at universities or, particularly, in professional networks that bring teachers together to share and build good practice. All have a part to play in promoting teacher professional learning, but the evidence is clear that they are not as powerful as school-based, collaborative and classroom-focused development.

In September 2009, I completed the evaluation I had been commissioned to undertake by the General Teaching Council for Wales, of the Welsh Assembly-funded pilot of the Chartered Teacher Programme in Wales. The team was made up of a secondary head who has, by common recognition, made his school a model of teacher professional learning, and three classroom teachers who are recognised as being outstanding practitioners.

Our report affirms the critical role high-quality teaching, leadership and professional development has to play in a successful education system. If developed in an appropriate way, the status of chartered teacher could provide recognition for outstanding practitioners in Wales and a leadership role in the drive to improve the quality of teaching in our schools.

Providing a career progression for outstanding teachers and allowing them to lead the professional learning of their colleagues at school level, we can fashion an innovative approach to raising teacher-quality in Wales and rise to the challenges identified by Estyn.

Education is often an area where complexity prevails and simple solutions do not work. One of the few certainties we have is that high-quality teaching is the major route to student and system success. Wales should take forward the role of chartered teachers as an investment in that certainty.

David Egan, Professor of education, University of Wales Institute, Cardiff.

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