Creating a self-improving school and the right environment for your staff to thrive


How can school leaders create a culture of professional development and an environment in which all staff can thrive? David Weston describes five steps toward a self-improving school.

Every school leader wants to create an environment in which staff members are thriving. However, the endless pressure of accountability, new regulations and the everyday challenges of school life can easily drive top-down management with teachers feeling over-burdened rather than supported.

Below are some key principles for creating an aligned, positive culture of powerful professional development where children succeed and teachers thrive. I draw upon some examples seen in schools within the National Teacher Enquiry Network (NTEN).

1, Create time and space

Change is a time-consuming process, and spare time is something that is a rare commodity in schools. Creating space in the work schedule for professional alignment and learning is vital if you want to make any progress and take staff with you.

Schedule time for formal, whole-staff meetings as well as opportunities for individual teams to meet. Workload pressures need to be carefully monitored and balanced to ensure that individuals and small groups are able to have discussions. 

Many secondary schools in our network are creating protected collaboration time every week by modifying the timetable of one day to close the school early or start the day later. Commonly, schools are finding one to two hours of extra time every week this way. 

Another approach we often see, sometimes in combination, is hiring one or more additional cover supervisors to make it easier for teachers to leave their classrooms and observe others. Departmental and pastoral team meetings are carefully structured to reduce administrative discussion and focus on pedagogy.

In terms of physical space, we’re seeing schools create formal meeting rooms with tea/coffee facilities as well as more informal café-style meeting spaces and quiet self-study areas. Where possible, these are well away from interruption and noise to allow sustained discussion or work.

2, Joint vision development

As a school leader it is easy to forget how privileged you are to be able to “zoom out” and see the big picture. Most staff are working at ground level, aware of the personal pressures on them but less able to see how their work contributes to the big picture. It is vital to give staff regular opportunities to get this larger perspective and feel they have contributed to the strategic vision of the school.

Some of our NTEN schools are starting this process by asking one or more of the following questions to all staff and students, both in formal surveys and focus groups as well as more informal discussions.

  1. What would the ideal student be like when they finish at this school?

  2. What does the ideal learner look like, both inside the classroom and outside it?

  3. What does an ideal lesson look like at this school?

  4. What makes excellent teaching at this school?

It is best to start with formulating a student vision as this then drives a helpful discussion of the sort of teaching and lessons required. 

This process will require whole-staff facilitated discussion time with plenty of groundwork in preparation. It also requires several iterations so that everyone feels listened to and buys in to the final vision. The first statements are likely to be less clear and open to interpretation in different ways. The ultimate aim is to have a clear, shared vision for each student and each lesson, rather than one imposed by management (although some steering may be required at first).

3, Joint assessment development

As the school’s mission and values are clarified and aligned, the next priority should be to deepen the collective understanding of the current strengths and needs of students, as well as those of the staff. 

As before, this process requires a combination of larger, one-off sessions as well as an on-going process within teams. Much of the discussion will be driven by data (such as RAISEonline or other national data systems) to pinpoint the relative performance of different groups over the last few years.

However, it is important that this process is driven by the valued outcomes identified in the joint vision development, many of which won’t be captured adequately in existing data.

At this stage it is vital to listen directly to pupils. Pupil voice, in this context, means speaking to individual and small groups of students, observing them in lessons, and reflecting with them on examples of their work. You may wish to construct surveys to identify how they think, behave and feel about the valued outcomes that were identified. 

Teaching assistants are skilled observers, especially of the more vulnerable and needy students, and are an excellent source of judgements about student needs. Parents and the wider community may also be involved in this process.

Teachers should also refer to their own assessment data. Question-by-question analyses can pinpoint subject-specific issues for classes and groups of pupils. This is not only a useful process for national exam data, but also for internal tests. Many schools will wish to focus particularly on the needs of children from more deprived backgrounds and tie this to Pupil Premium development plans. It is useful to consult research about common issues facing these cohorts and then check for these in your own school.

Finally, all staff should undertake regular audits of the knowledge and skills they need to be an effective practitioner. This should be combined with survey and discussion data about career aspirations.

4, Joint practice development

With a growing understanding of what needs to be achieved and a clearer understanding of the common issues and needs of students, the next step is to jointly develop practice to make the most efficient progress.

It is helpful to identify which practitioners within your school are consistently more successful with certain types of students.

While peer observation is a helpful starting point, this is unlikely to lead to a significant impact on its own unless observers have a chance to be coached by, or reflect with, the expert over a sustained period. It is also key to focus peer observation on the pupil learning and the effects of pedagogy on pupils, rather than teacher behaviours.

Lesson study is a particularly valuable approach which, while time-intensive, is effective at helping teachers to refine their practice in order to improve the learning of specific pupils. 

It is a process where triads of teachers co-plan a lesson, predict its impact on target pupils, observe, and then discuss what they saw and how to refine their practice for next time. Many schools in the NTEN are piloting this popular approach with volunteers then rolling it out more widely as part of the core CPD programme. 

5, Career and personal learning

In order to be a self-improving school, all staff should be engaging in reading and discussion of leading theories and practices in their area, as well as continually updating and deepening their subject knowledge. This needs to be supported and resourced by the school and given adequate time.

Finally, the school needs to provide opportunities for career development. A common issue is adopting a reactive approach where only employees that actively request an opportunity are helped to find one.

In addition, schools often forget about support staff and teaching assistants in planning their professional development. Ideally, career development goals should be part of regular performance management conversations, and paths, training and accreditation mapped out to suit everyone.

  • David Weston is the chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for effective professional development in schools, which runs the National Teacher Enquiry Network. Find out more at


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