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We've got the expertise. Now we must share it

It is undeniable that the Welsh education system faces challenges, and that improving standards is now the top priority. The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results sent shock waves through the system, but after much analysis and wringing of hands it seems there is both bad and good news.

The bad news is that the system is not performing as well as it could and that things need to change if we are to secure our rightful place in the international tables next time around. The good news is that there is a renewed energy and focus upon improving teaching and learning, and a deep commitment to changing classroom practice.

A real opportunity exists for the profession in Wales to work together much more effectively to raise standards. While it is evident that there are excellent examples of teaching and learning, the challenge is to ensure this is not isolated practice, but is shared more widely.

If we want better outcomes for every young person in Wales we need to change classroom practice, which means putting professionals in the driving seat of change. But how do we make this happen? If we are to secure success for every child we need an infrastructure for connecting the profession and changing classroom practice, sharing that which is most effective.

Enter professional learning communities (PLCs). In the past academic year, the Welsh Government has invested in the development of PLCs across the country. To date, approximately 1,900 schools and all local authorities and consortiums have engaged in the initial training programme, which outlines how schools can establish PLCs within and between schools. Yet we are naive if we think that the job is done just because this programme is coming to an end.

But let's backtrack a little: what exactly is a PLC? How does it differ from a network, a working party or any other type of professional collaboration?

Essentially, a PLC is established when a group of professionals work collaboratively to address specific learner needs assisted by the analysis of data. Through a process of action enquiry and trialling new teaching strategies, the PLC focuses on how these learner needs can be met most effectively.

For example, let's imagine that the learner need is the issue of boys' writing in Year 2. What follows is a process of enquiry where the PLC investigates why they are not reaching the expected standard. The PLC then identifies and trials new teaching strategies to improve their writing. Finally it presents its outcomes to other staff and, if appropriate, disseminates its findings to other schools.

The PLC approach is not a top-down model of professional learning; it engages professionals in the process of collaborative enquiry and improvement. The configuration of the group, its approach to enquiry, and its responsibility in identifying teaching strategies and sharing its findings are all powerful ways of improving learner outcomes.

However, unless PLCs are properly established, supported, challenged and sustained, their impact will be diminished. To ensure they are not relegated to the status of yet another initiative, it is imperative there is further investment in their sustainability.

No other country has made such a significant, contemporary investment in PLCs as a mechanism for large-scale reform. The next challenge is to go deeper, to ensure that each school is using data to inform the enquiry process (this is related to education minister Leighton Andrews' three priorities: literacy, numeracy and closing the poverty and achievement gap) and to move PLCs beyond the school gates.

The power of PLCs will only be realised if they link with other PLCs and share outcomes. If PLCs are not to be ad hoc or exacerbate variability in performance, there needs to be more support but also more challenge provided to ensure they make a positive difference to learning.

You cannot coerce classroom change or force professionals to work together; to do so would be counter-productive. Effective change means winning hearts and minds. We have all the expertise we need to improve the system in Wales - we just need to make deeper and better connections.

PLCs are one answer, but they cannot be a panacea for all the system's shortcomings. Through PLCs we have the opportunity to change the system from within by empowering professionals to learn from each other and make a positive difference to the learning and life chances of young people. We should grasp this opportunity with both hands - it is unlikely to come around again.

Professor Alma Harris is pro-director at London University's Institute of Education. She is currently on secondment to the Welsh Government as a policy adviser.

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