Are struggling schools doing the wrong CPD?

16th February 2018 at 00:00
A new report from the Wellcome Trust highlights the need for more funding and support to stop the gap between schools growing wider, argues David Weston

Are we creating a CPD “Matthew Effect” where the successful become subject-richer and the poor become subject-poorer? A new report suggests that this is the case.

The Wellcome Trust has just released Developing Great Subject Teaching, a report which finds that teachers in struggling schools are less likely to get subject-specific CPD than teachers in flourishing schools.

And yet, the 2015 predecessor research, Developing Great Teaching, found that subject-specific CPD is more effective, in terms of its impact on pupil outcomes, than generic pedagogic CPD. Not only that, this new study finds that while teachers tend to be more interested in subject-specific development than school leaders, teachers in struggling schools have much less influence over their CPD than their peers. When they do manage to get any subject-specific input, it tends to be limited to one teacher, who is supposed to “cascade” the knowledge back to colleagues.

This is not good enough. It’s feasible that turning around a struggling school requires additional focus on some of the basics, but this should be in addition to a regular diet of quality training. We need to make our most-challenged schools into places that are steeped in professional support and development opportunities.

Developing Great Subject Teaching explores subject-specific support for teachers. There are findings that should give policy makers and school leaders plenty to think about.

Weakening schools and systems

Across the UK, but in England in particular, the weakening of local authorities appears to have been associated with a weakening of subject provision. The school-led model is, the report suggests, leading to a prevalence of generic and whole-school approaches, reducing the likelihood of subject-specific training for teachers.

Primary schools seem to be particularly hard-hit. Given their scale, they tend to focus on English and maths. In Wales at least, primary schools intend to keep a focus on science (and Welsh), but across both countries the provision beyond this is much weaker. Despite this, primary teachers seem to value the small amount of subject-specific support they get.

Scotland comes out well, with schools reporting valued relationships between local-authority subject specialists, higher-education institutes and schools. In Wales and particularly in England, such specialist roles have broadly disappeared.

To some extent, support from local authorities has been replaced by private providers, government-funded networks and school-led provision, though this is mainly found in the “core” subjects. There is evidence that some multi-academy trusts have invested in subject-specific expertise in their core teams, although this is not yet common across all MATs.

A particularly fascinating finding from the research review is the emerging differences in what makes effective development across subjects. The study explores maths, English and science. The effective approaches to CPD in each seem to mirror the dominant approaches to teaching those subjects.

In maths, the most effective CPD often began with explicit, direct teaching and modelling of key principles. In science, effective teacher development often involved experimenting with classroom tools and equipment. In English, some of the most effective approaches involved teachers delving into challenging texts about pedagogy, followed by in-depth debates and discussions.

Insufficient attention

In all areas, the two least-effective subject-specific development approaches were programmes that tried to enforce change in practice and the introduction of new knowledge with insufficient attention to how it can be applied in the classroom.

Developing Great Subject Teaching ends with a few bright spots and challenges for all of us. It highlights impending curriculum and policy change in Scotland and Wales as a great opportunity to make improvements – and flags up England’s recent investment in professional and curriculum development.

Across the UK, the authors note an urgent need to strengthen approaches to teachers’ professional development and subject-specific support. This is impossible without investment in training for school leaders.

We need a new national network of CPD leadership experts who can ensure teachers get access to the support they need – through courses, consultants, internal collaboration and joint-practice development.

The challenges are large but the opportunity is great. The evidence is clearer than ever: the subject-rich are getting richer all the time. The divide is getting wider.

David Weston is chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust. He was chair of the Department for Education’s CPD Expert Group. Follow him on Twitter @informed_edu and the Wellcome Trust @WellcomeTrust

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