If you had to pick your favourite sports coach, who would it be? Would it be the suave and successful Pep Guardiola? Or perhaps it would be the charismatic Team GB netball coach Tracey Neville? Maybe you like a bit of controversy and your choice would be the interminably annoyed Jose Mourinho.
No doubt every reader can recognise a famous sporting coach, but if you are really lucky, you’re a teacher who has benefited from some high-quality coaching of your own from a trained colleague.
Over the past year and more, research evidence has been stacking up in the corner of coaching in education that may signal it as vital support to stave off a crisis of teachers leaving the profession.
And yet, despite decades’ worth of evidence for coaching in education, you would be hard-pressed to find many school leaders who could agree on what it means for our work supporting teachers.
Back in 2015, Gary Bloom and his researcher colleagues stated that “coaching is all the rage, yet it enjoys no common definition”. The truth is that we are likely to see any renewed interest in coaching run aground if we don’t dig into the important evidence about how it may work best.
In their new working paper that controversially challenges the status quo on teachers’ CPD, Sam Sims, of the Centre for Education Improvement Science at the UCL Institute of Education, and Harry Fletcher-Wood, who leads the Fellowship in Teacher Education programme at the Institute for Teaching, pose “instructional coaching” – described helpfully as “sustained, one-to-one, deliberate practice with an expert mentor” – as an improved avenue for teacher improvement and better CPD.
They cite the growing US evidence on instructional coaching in schools from Matthew A Kraft, associate professor of education and economics at the renowned Brown University. Kraft has argued persuasively that school approaches to ongoing teacher training, dominated by Inset days, should move to “a customised, smaller-scale approach”, with expert coaching that offers a “steady stream of feedback” that is “based on frequent classroom observations”.
We should ask hard questions about how such customised support can thrive when schools are skint.
Alongside this, we must ask how the feedback described in coaching fits into the high-stakes performance management systems that are alive and well in too many schools. Too easily, in a rush to follow the latest fad, we can miss the obvious question, like”‘what is being coached?”
In Putting evidence to work: a school’s guide to implementation, Professor Jonathan Sharples and Stephen Fraser, both of the Education Endowment Foundation, and Bianca Albers, of the Centre for Evidence and Implementation, helpfully root instructional coaching within a broader whole-school framework for making successful changes. We need to ensure that we share a good understanding of coaching, possess a shared language, and work out where it fits into existing school improvement plans.
Crucially, we need to see past coaching as a silver bullet exemplified by famed sporting coaches like Guardiola. Our understanding needs to be rooted in how such practices work best in schools, which will likely prove nothing like Mourinho’s histrionics. Then we can properly dig into the messy evidence that might just show us the way to ensure that coaching makes a positive, lasting difference for teachers in our schools.
Alex Quigley is a senior associate for the Education Endowment Foundation, a former teacher, and the author of Closing the Vocabulary Gap