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Is your school getting professional development right?

The head learning leader at a 'thinking school' sets out his advice for making sure that teachers have the chance to learn – just like their students

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The head learning leader at a 'thinking school' sets out his advice for making sure that teachers have the chance to learn – just like their students

The biggest single factor that impacts on the quality of pupil learning experiences in our primary schools is the quality of teaching. And the biggest single factor that impacts upon the quality of teaching is the quality of teacher professional development. It is ironic, therefore, that in the very workplace where the core business is learning, the quality of teacher learning experiences is often very poor.

As head learning leader in a "thinking school", my core responsibility is to coordinate professional learning. I believe that there is potential for every school to improve the learning experiences of all staff.

When we enable better learning experiences, all staff bring their brains to work and see themselves as leaders. Every school should be continually striving to improve, and this improvement should be facilitated through staff engagement in research and reflection upon practice.

If we buy a new car, we expect it to be an improvement on the manufacturer’s previous model. Yet I often see school leaders who are happy to accept teachers using the same strategies that they learned during their training year, without ever questioning whether there could be an alternative approach that would be more effective. Learning, change and improvement should be seen as fundamental to the role of the teacher.

'Community of practice'

So, how do we make this happen in the "thinking school"?

There are a number of activities that we can implement in schools that will support the development of informal learning amongst staff. The ideal is to develop a community of practice where all staff engage in professional dialogue and collaborative learning both formally and informally. Examples of these activities include:

  • All staff engage in research-based learning, where they get opportunities to investigate their own practice, to think creatively and take risks, and to make changes to their practice.
  • All staff get the opportunity to select their own focus for their professional learning, matched to their individual learning needs.
  • Staff learning activities should be contextualised and relevant to children’s learning and their day-to-day practices. This would signal a move away from the traditional model for teacher learning (off-site one-day courses) to a more rigorous focus on learning over time.
  • All staff have opportunities to work in teams and within different groups across the school. This will enable collaborative professional dialogue and a greater shared understanding amongst staff.
  • Formal opportunities for teachers’ CPD should include every opportunity to support collaborative learning, including: collaborative planning; peer learning within and across schools; opportunities to model and team-teach; lesson studies.
  • Non-judgemental lesson observations focused on professional and collaborative learning.
  • Making time available for staff to engage in formal professional learning activities during the school day – to conduct research, for example.
  • Making professional learning activities intellectually challenging.


If we implement these activities, this will support informal workplace learning in the following ways:

  • Reflective practice is seen as part of the role of the teacher and staff are encouraged to take risks.
  • Staff are motivated and committed to engaging in their own learning.
  • Professional dialogue is directly related to children’s learning.
  • Staff feel valued, working in a culture of high trust and high challenge.
  • All staff model learning behaviours.
  • The workplace is seen as a place where staff learning is as important as children’s learning.


Kulvarn Atwal is headteacher at Highlands Primary School in London

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