School-to-school collaboration to deliver effective CPD

Written by: Maria Cunningham | Published:
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The benefits of school-to-school collaboration for effective CPD delivery can be far-reaching. Maria Cunningham looks at some practical steps schools might take to overcome the barriers and make inter-school CPD collaborations work

Recently the Teacher Development Trust (TDT) put out a rallying cry to hear from school leaders across the country about what is currently at the forefront of their minds. We wanted to hear about what schools are prioritising in terms of organisational development, particularly when it comes to improving teaching and learning.

Over a couple of weeks in January, we had in-depth conversations with more than 70 headteachers, assistants, CPD leads, chief executives of MATs, Teaching School directors, trustees and many others.

One of the main outcomes of this research was to note the patterns that emerged around key priorities related to school improvement and staff development.

Many of the people we spoke to referred to similar challenges – no prizes for guessing that funding came out tops.

Curriculum was high on the agenda in light of the new Ofsted framework, carving out enough time for staff to engage with CPD was also a struggle, as well as ensuring that staff can collaborate in a meaningful way not just within schools, but also externally, and within MATs or groups.

This widespread appetite for meaningful collaboration was a welcome finding. After all, if there are teachers across the country grappling with similar pupil learning issues, and leaders in various schools focusing on similar priorities for development, then it is only right that we move away from being a profession that works in silos.

We see a shift in culture in schools when teachers adopt an open-door approach to their practice, which when paired with trust and constructive support can vastly improve teaching and learning – but how can we scale this up to create the same effect at a school-to-school level?

Needless to say the general level of inter-school collaborative activity has heightened significantly over the last decade following the proliferation of academy groups and formalised school partnerships. But on an informal level specific to staff CPD, there is still plenty that colleagues at all levels – NQT to SLT – can be doing to look outwards and collaborate externally for the means of developing themselves.

The most important aspect of this is that it is student-driven. The Standards for Teachers’ Professional Development (DfE, 2016) state that “CPD that aims to change teachers’ practice is most effective when it includes collaborative activities with a focus on the intended pupil outcomes”.

We know it is not always as easy as it sounds. Reluctance for schools to reach out to their colleagues down the road can be based on a range of factors, often highly contextual. When we at the TDT interview staff in schools as part our CPD audit process, people cite geographical logistics, rivalry or competition, resentment (or perceived resentment) due to Ofsted ratings, and lack of release time, among others. Yet it is important to focus on the exceptionally powerful long-term benefits that can arise from trying to overcome these barriers, which include the following:

Value-for-money CPD

At a time where budgets are ever-stretched, many schools are beginning to join forces with other local schools to pool resources and jointly commission an expert to come and work with them as a group, accessing expert input that they would not otherwise be able to afford alone.

The most effective collaboration arising from this also includes shared opportunities for follow-up and evaluation over a sustained period of time – e.g. based on joint-planning or sharing examples of pupil work.

New ideas

Peer visits to other schools to observe practice (either to refine an approach already taken, or to view a highly contrasting approach) are quite common and can be crucial in preventing schools or practitioners from becoming too insular or unchallenged in their thinking. It is a wonderful way to build awareness and collect new ideas, though be aware that it is always important for you and your colleagues to maintain a healthy ounce of professional scepticism and critical thinking when exploring practice in other institutions.

Joined-up thinking

One large secondary school we worked with in Rochdale was recently inspired by the work of Professor Andy Hargreaves and professional learning communities in Canada.

Not only have they begun to collaborate with other local schools to share expertise and evaluate the impact of using a Lesson Study-style model for CPD, but by forming relationships with another two schools serving a particularly challenging community faced with high levels of gang violence, powerful new dialogues have opened between pastoral leaders in each school, who report back to one another and are better placed to notice patterns of behaviour (for example, attempts to bring knives to school), as well as jointly consult public services, including health workers and police officers.

Developing local subject experts

One group we worked with in the South West came up with a particularly powerful approach involving 12 primary schools jointly contributing to the time of a teacher in one of their schools to become an expert in teaching geography.

This teacher now spends two days teaching at her own school and three days working across the others. Her work includes developing curriculum and lesson resources, developing high-quality assessment, leading CPD and visiting conferences and leading centres of excellence elsewhere.

Connecting the lone-rangers

In smaller schools or faculties, external collaboration can be invaluable for the on-going professional learning of individuals who might not have a team of their own in school – e.g. an exams officer, or a single-handedly run art or drama department.

For these teachers, coming together with local colleagues (for example, to peer observe, share student-focused issues and explore curriculum or subject-specific pedagogy) is vital to prevent them from feeling over-whelmed, isolated or stuck-in-a-rut.

Stimulating local CPD

Where the TDT has set up CPD Excellence Hubs in areas around England, we have noticed that as schools in a particular region come together to understand the aspects of effective professional learning and increasingly prioritise this as a means to drive school improvement, leaders become more effective commissioners of CPD based on what is likely to have a long-term impact on their pupils. As a result, local training providers and Teaching Schools are compelled to “up their game”, enhancing the quality of CPD opportunities on offer to staff in that locality.

Improved culture and self-efficacy

This month, the very first TDT Regional Hub launched in Dover at Astor College, with more than 25 senior and CPD leaders coming together from across the South East coastal regions after school on Wednesday evening.

Some of these colleagues had previously worked together in the past, but for most this was the first venture into external collaboration specifically based on improving CPD.

Despite coming from a range of contexts – from primary to secondary, requires improvement to outstanding, and even single-sex selective grammars – the collective sense of trust and drive in recognising that all of these schools serve a highly disadvantaged community was palpable, as well as the ultimate realisation that effective CPD in any institution is underpinned by senior leaders providing the conditions for teachers to focus on their core purpose – great teaching.

In this safe environment, teachers explored evidence-based approaches for optimising professional learning culture, using the Developing Great Teaching (TDT, 2014) report and the DfE’s 2016 Standards for reference, feeding back what had and hadn’t worked in their schools.

Leading a similar initiative in Blackpool, local hub leader and TDT expert advisor Phil Naylor reflected: “We’re in very early discussions about what success would look like, but it’s amazing that leaders never seem to get the chance to be strategic about CPD together. I think that’s why they enjoy and benefit from the process.”

What can I do next?

  • The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has a great resource called the Families of Schools Database, which allows you to pair up with a school facing similar challenges to help both parties learn from one another.
  • Link up with your local Research School, whose aims are to lead the way when it comes to evidence-based practice and bring research closer to surrounding schools.
  • Suggest that your department or faculty engages with a subject association – better still, one that runs its own collaborative networks or hubs. Examples include the NCETM Maths Hubs, the Chartered College Teaching Networks, or the IoP Physics Teacher Networks.
  • Get in touch with the TDT to find out if you meet the requirements to set up a Regional Hub in your area, or join the TDT Network to connect with other like-minded schools.
  • Maria Cunningham is network development leader for the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for effective CPD in schools and colleges. She also leads on the development of the charity’s government-funded CPD Excellence Hub programmes in six Opportunity Areas. Visit www.tdtrust.org/network

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