What does 'professional capital' look like in your school?

Written by: Ben Solly | Published:
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Do you recognise and develop the professional capital of the staff in your school? Drawing on research evidence, Ben Solly discusses his take as a school leader on the three key elements – human, decisional and social capital

I have always encouraged members of my senior leadership team to take an active interest in reading up on current educational research so that our strategies are founded upon robust findings from the world of academia.

For many senior leaders, online platforms such as Twitter provide an easy-to-access resource where educators from around the world share ideas, articles and examples of good practice. Additionally, the emergence of the Chartered College of Teaching has provided teachers and leaders with a plethora of educational research resources which is very welcome indeed.

Professional capital

While education seems to move at a rapid speed, the requirement of senior leaders to keep up-to-date with current developments is critical. However, there are some timeless aspects of leadership that are enduring features of successful schools, none more so in my opinion than that of the concept of developing the professional capital of staff within your school.

I first read about professional capital back in 2012 when I was reasonably new to senior leadership. I was hooked and I have since devoured just about everything Hargreaves and Fullan have published.

If you are a school leader and you haven’t read any of the work of Professors Michael Fullan or Andy Hargreaves then you need to add several of their books to your bookshelf.

Their thorough, evidence-based, no-nonsense approach to translating the theories of educational leadership into practice are essential reading for anyone with leadership responsibilities within a school context.

Since becoming a headteacher in 2014 I have used the concept of developing the professional capital of my colleagues as a key principle that has underpinned our school improvement strategies and our approach to leading our school. Here is my simple five-step guide to developing professional capital in your school.

What does it mean?

If you consider the term “capital” in a business context, it refers to any value added to an organisation that increases its net worth. In educational terms we can easily understand the term “value-added” in relation to student progress, but my experience has shown me that we do not always implicitly understand how to recognise and develop the professional capital of the staff in our schools.

Hargreaves and Fullan helpfully dissect professional capital into three distinct components: human, social and decisional capital.

Human capital is the talent, ability and skill of the staff within a school – essentially I interpret this as how effective your teachers are in the classroom in terms of their subject knowledge, understanding of pedagogy and their ability to unite these into high-quality lessons.

Decisional capital is the capability of your teachers and staff to make effective judgements within their work – judgements on how to deal with situations, on the quality of student work, on how to manage and lead individuals and teams. I think of decisional capital as something that evolves and develops over time as we accrue experiences and learn from mistakes.

And perhaps most important is the concept of social capital – the way in which teachers and other members of staff within a school collaborate and work together in a collegiate and supportive culture. There is powerful research that points towards schools making significant and sustainable improvements due to an investment and dedication towards developing the social capital within the school. The more teachers are encouraged to work together, learn from each other and collaborate in research-based learning activities, the more effective the school becomes.

Developing human capital

How do we make our teachers more effective? How much time do we dedicate to improving the things that actually make a difference to our schools?

School life is so busy and often unpredictable and as a result teachers and leaders can become distracted from the most critical aspects of their jobs. Far too often I see schools focusing on strategies that have no impact, taking up the time of teachers and leaders in pointless exercises because it might tick an Ofsted box, or because “we’ve always done it this way”.

Therefore, the precious development time that we have in schools should be focused on refining our approaches in the areas that do have impact. How often do we focus on developing teacher subject knowledge or honing our instructional delivery of content? Teachers across the country are crying out for the opportunity to spend more time working with their colleagues on developing their classroom craft in these two crucial areas, but as school leaders how much time do we dedicate towards this? If we are serious about investing in the human capital of our staff then this needs to be reflected in our strategic plans for improving the quality of teaching across the school.

Developing decisional capital

This is far less straight forward as you cannot develop the decisional capital of your staff quickly. It takes time and as a strategic development principal it is a real slow burner that will yield results over a longer time-frame.

If you need to improve results in your school rapidly then you are probably better off investing time, energy and resource into other strategies that will have quicker impact, however this aspect of professional capital should not be ignored.

In terms of long-term sustainability and the authentic growth of the school, developing decisional capital among the staff is extremely powerful, but how do we achieve it? It is not easy to improve the decision-making abilities of teachers across a school – as individuals we all deal with situations differently and life would be very boring if this wasn’t the case.

However, we should consider what schools can do to help their staff develop their decisional capital. For me, the answer has to be to invest in coaching. By developing a framework of peer-to-peer coaching across the staff a school can develop a supportive framework that enables individuals to become more reflective practitioners, more thoughtful in the way they teach and the way in which they conduct themselves professionally. Done in the right way, coaching can be transformational for a school, especially if the leadership team is committed to developing it as a fundamental component of the school improvement strategies.

Developing social capital

Where human capital focuses on the talents and skills of individual teachers and decisional capital draws upon their capacity to make effective judgements, the concept of social capital is concerned with the way in which teachers work together within an organisation.

For me, schools can structure their CPD programmes and internal meeting structures to allow teachers to work more effectively together and as a result social capital can develop. We should ask ourselves questions such as:

  • How much time do we give to staff to collaborate on joint planning, or joint evaluation activities?
  • How much time do we spend discussing things that don’t make the difference in unnecessary meetings. Could we use this time together more effectively?
  • Do we use Lesson Study as a mechanism for developing social capital within our teachers?
  • Are our CPD programmes focused on harnessing internal expertise within the school or do we rely on buying in external resources?
  • Do we engage in action research and do we allow teachers to work collaboratively on joint projects focused on school improvement?


Ultimately, we can condense the concept of professional capital into the simple question that school leaders should keep front and centre – how serious are we about developing the professionals entrusted with educating the young people in our schools?

If we truly believe that investing in our staff will result in a better education for our students then we need to consider this question with the utmost respect and ensure that developing professional capital within our school remains a key strategic priority.

  • Ben Solly is principal of Uppingham Community College in Rutland. You can follow him on Twitter @ben_solly. Read his previous best practice articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/2oAl8PE

Further reading

  • Professional Capital: Transforming teaching in every school, Professor Michael Fullan & Professor Andy Hargreaves, Teachers College Press, 2012: https://michaelfullan.ca/books/professional-capital/
  • The Power of Professional Capital, Professor Michael Fullan & Professor Andy Hargreaves, article in JSD, June 2013: http://bit.ly/2oCcro8
  • Professional Capital: Transforming teaching in every school (YouTube video), Professor Andy Hargreaves, April 2014: http://bit.ly/2Fd1G5O


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