Thursday 15 December 2016

Professional learning and staff effectiveness

How do you promote Professional Learning for all staff?


At Canons High School, an inclusive 11-19 academy in North West London, with 140 staff, we had already moved to a more holistic approach towards staff effectiveness. We wanted an approach that focused less on outcomes, more at looking at inputs and learning.


In looking at what this future approach might be, we returned to research evidence, an important strand for us as a Teaching School Alliance. The research we used, came from London Challenge and its impact on student outcomes across London. In this research, what was striking to us, was the role that professional development and leadership played (see below), this gave us a direction for the future of professional learning, leadership and links to school improvement, at Canons.




  • The importance of data and data literacy
  • The need for a new culture of accountability
  • The power of highly effective practitioner-led professional development



  • A shared concept of leadership
  • Exceptional personal leadership

The other area we had already developed was a different leadership model, prior to becoming a lead school in the Canons Park Teaching School Alliance, using what we had called ‘Pedagogy Leaders’ (implemented in 2012). The key outcome from Pedagogy Leaders was driven by a school improvement priority, to improve teaching and learning. The leadership model itself (taken from a research basis as well) focussed on ‘highly effective practitioner led professional development’, with Pedagogy Leaders driving professional learning across a range of mechanisms. This was an approach that promoted opportunities for staff to learn and develop practice, with an important element of taking risks.  

This was an approach to pedagogy that was used successfully and developed in 2014 to a new role beyond pedagogy, which we called Grassroots Leaders, who are now being used to develop school improvement across a number of teams. These Grassroots Leaders are recruited from all roles within Canons, providing the staff concerned have the skills and aptitude for the role.

The key final theme that we have incorporated in our new direction, was the idea of ‘Professional Learning Communities’ (PLC’s). This was a development which built on the Teaching and Learning Communities (TLC’s) at Canons, which had slots in our Monday meeting cycle, but were for teaching staff only and started in 2011/12.

So what is a Professional Learning Community?

‘There is a broad international consensus that PLCs are groups of people sharing and critically interrogating their practice in an on-going, reflective, collaborative, inclusive ,learning-orientated and growth promoting way’[i] [2](Bolam et al, 2004)

Who should be thought of as a member of a professional learning community?

The literature around this concept is mainly American and assumes members as only teachers. However in a UK context, the research we used, identified PLCs that rightly included support staff, and also highlighted the introduction of the Workforce Agreement, which made it crucial that support staff be viewed as potential members.

What makes Professional Learning Communities effective?

The literature suggests 5 key characteristics:

  1. Shared values and vision – ‘this would be an undeviating focus on all students’ learning’ [3](Hord , 2004)
  2. Collective responsibility- this would be for student learning ‘assuming that such collective responsibility helps to sustain commitment’ [4](Newman and Welhage, 1995)
  3. Reflective professional enquiry- this would include reflective dialogue, conversations around educational issues or problems, discussions round how knew learning can be applied, joint planning and development for the curriculum, and applying new ideas and information to problem solve and address students’ needs [5] (Louis et al, 1995 and others)
  4. Collaboration – namely developmental activities that have consequences for more than one person, and ‘go beyond superficial exchanges of help and support’ (Hord, 2004)
  5. The promotion of group as well as individual learning – all staff are learners with their colleagues

We were clear that we needed to connect professional learning, staff effectiveness and performance appraisal (PA). Our proposal was that:

  1. All staff continued to develop three PA objectives (as they had previously), but that one of those should include a professional learning objective
  2. Staff were invited to volunteer to join a pilot group of staff who will develop three PA objectives, one of which would take the form of a research question or enquiry

The PLCs were drawn from the evaluations of TLCs (2014/5), and a pattern of areas for development emerging from the NTEN CPD Audit and our own analysis of PA objectives.  The first menu of PLC’s starting in September 15, is shown below;

[1] Baars, S. Bernardes, E. Elwock, A. Malortie, A. McAleavy, T. McInerney, L. Menzies, L & Riggall, A. (2014) Lessons from London Schools: Investigating the Success. CfBT and Centre for London.
[2] Bolam, R. McMahon, A. Stoll, L. Thomas, S. and Wallace, M. with others (2004) Creating and Sustaining effective Professional Learning Communities.
[3] Hord, S. (2004) Professional learning communities: An overview. In S Hord (ed), Learning together, leading together: changing schools through professional learning communities. New York: Teachers College Press.
[4] Newmann, F.M & Welhage, G.G. (1995) Successful School restructuring: A report to the public and educators by the centre on organization and restructuring of schools. Madison, Wisconsin: CORS
[5] Louis, K.S. Kruse, S. D. & Associates (1995). Professionalism and community: Perspectives on reforming urban schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press Inc.


The content was as follows;
Discussion forum – Each session led by a variety of staff who had completed an MA. Discussion focussed around their MA research with an opportunity to learn and discuss.
Research design (JPD/Lesson Study) –Led by Karen Smith (University of Herts). Staff looked at how to design research around the model of lesson study or JPD
Leadership 2020 – developing self and others – With a focus for developing the skills for System leadership in those aspiring towards SLE status, leading and developing teams or individuals at every level.
Teacher Journal Club
Coaching– Within these sessions staff were able to form developmental and supportive coaching pairs that enabled them to explore and learn
Supporting student learning – Sessions in this PLC were developed to allow staff to explore and develop specific skills that enhanced the way their roles impacted student learning. For example an introduction to learning walks, lesson observation, behaviour management and the role of the form tutor
Well after positive evaluations from the last academic year, September 16 sees a new set of PLC opportunities for all staff, including lunchtime drop in sessions and an additional slot in our Monday meeting cycle, which we have identified as being an opportunity for collaborative work and joint practice development, for all staff.
Our next test is using technology to capture professional learning and enhance knowledge capture, to make us a learning organisation which delivers for our students.

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