This article, by Teacher Development Trust Chief Executive, David Weston, originally appeared in the Teaching Leaders QuarterlyThis is one of the articles in our National Teacher Enquiry Network Easter 2013 newsletter (sign up here).

Improving the teaching profession

Teaching is one of the great altruistic professions. We join it to help others: to nurture their talents, to overcome the disadvantage of their backgrounds, and to share with them our joyful love of learning. We grow as teachers as we become more successful at helping our students and yet the recognised career pathways in our profession take us, in general, further away from the reason we joined in the first place.

Measuring great teaching

It is always controversial to try and define ‘great teaching’ because it is equally (if not more) controversial to attempt a definition of a ‘great education’. Unlike medics with their stark binary measures of life and death, we can only deal with proxies such as exam grades, but it’s important that we keep fighting for clarity around teacher quality if we want to be rewarded for being good at our jobs rather than simply taking on ever-longer lists of responsibilities.

Teacher quality is an unclear and often-contradictory area in research. While some studies suggest that good teachers can be spotted from characteristics of leadership, perseverance, sense of mission and prior academic achievement, the evidence is weak. Subject knowledge appears to make little difference in most areas, and there are few practices that every great teacher appears to share. Single-person observations have been shown to be relatively unreliable and even measures of ‘value-added’ in test scores appear to be unstable and poorly correlated with quality of teaching.

Nevertheless progress is being made in this area. The multi-million pound research project, Measures of Effective Teaching carried out by the deep-pocketed Gates Foundation showed that when student perceptions are mathematically combined with value-added indicators and two or more observation-ratings from trained observers then we begin to reach a reasonable level of reliability. With ever-improving understanding of how to judge teaching quality we now need to focus on how to help teachers improve.

How to foster great teaching

Three ways of looking at this problem produce identical conclusions. The first is to consider the growing body of literature on general expertise that suggests that mastery is gained through thousands of hours of deliberate, focused practice combined with clear feedback, expert advice and time for reflection.

The second is to look at the literature around how effective practices identified in research become embedded in every frontline practice. In medicine, education, criminal justice and social care the conclusions are consistent: sustained cycles of implementation over long periods, constant interaction between professionals, rigorous and on-going evaluation, feedback, adaptation and refinement.

The final approach is to examine the growing research around the types of teacher professional development that result in improved outcomes for students. Once again this shows that these processes are sustained (at least 50 hours in repeated cycles), supported and challenged by experts, targeted at improved learning outcomes (rather than solely on changed teacher behaviours), collaborative and constantly evaluated.

These lessons are unambiguous, and yet the vast majority of teacher professional development remains superficial, isolated and one-off, and almost always lacking the sustained challenge and on-going evaluation and feedback that is called for. As a result, teachers rarely make significant improvements in skill and schools barely ever undertake the rigorous analysis that would enable them to notice.  Indeed some research suggests that as few as 7% of schools attempt to evaluate the effect of Continuing Professional Development on pupil attainment.

A need to reform career structures

With such a lack of emphasis on rigorous improvement in teaching quality it is perhaps little wonder that career progression is centred on the easily quantifiable: how many additional responsibilities, what magnitude, and how many people are being line-managed. Teachers are rewarded for taking on longer lists of tasks instead of being recognised for their teaching prowess. Attempts to introduce recognition for general and specialist expertise (in the form of Advanced Skills Teacher, Excellent Teacher and Chartered Teacher statuses) did not catch on in any widespread and systematic way – even at their peak only 1% of the teaching population were ASTs or ETs. The results of this imbalance are clear. Around 4 in 5 teachers at or beyond their 4th year of teaching have taken on some form of administration or leadership responsibility.

Teachers got in to the job to help children learn and grow, so when they are forced to take on ever more managerial tasks to get any sense of growth there is an inevitable tension. Indeed, the main reasons cited for leaving the profession (ignoring issues around personal circumstance) are workload and stress along with wanting change and wanting new challenge.

Moving in a better direction

We need to ensure that we can nurture and retain the talent in our profession while improving outcomes for pupils. It seems very clear that in order to do that we need to make significant changes to career progression and professional development:

Firstly reform professional development so that it is focused on helping pupils learn and so that it is collaborative, sustained, evaluated, and aimed and achieving teaching mastery.

Secondly we need to introduce new models of career progression where administrative and leadership roles are only one of three main strands, the other two being a succession of increasingly senior general teaching practitioner levels and a similar succession for specialist teachers (e.g. mathematics, geography, literacy, SEN, assessment, etc.).  These levels of skill could be linked to membership of the new proposed Royal College of Teaching, perhaps something like this:

Royal College of Teaching Membership

General Practitioner Strand






Certified Classroom Teacher
(e.g. QTS plus further evidence of impact and growth)


Senior Teacher (e.g. Chartered)Department or Year LeaderSenior Specialist (e.g. Chartered)


Master TeacherSenior LeaderMaster Specialist


National Leading TeacherNational Leader of EducationNational Leader of Specialism

There are some encouraging signs that the system is gradually moving in the right direction. Teaching Schools are a welcome addition to the education landscape by ensuring that clusters of schools can develop specialist leaders of education, focus on research and development, carry out collaborative professional development, identify untapped talent and potential and find more opportunities for progression within a large and more flexible alliance. Moves for a Royal College of Teaching suggest that there may be changes to the career structures in the coming years, and the combining of the Teaching Agency and National College for School Leadership hint at a renewed focus on improving professional development by the Department for Education.

The sooner these strands come together the better. Other countries such as Korea, Canada, Singapore and Australia are much further along the path of CPD and career reform than we are, but our need for great teachers to reduce educational inequality is even greater given that the gaps in attainment between our most and least disadvantaged pupils are larger. It’s time for organisations across the educational spectrum, whether charities or unions, schools, subject associations or government agencies, to come together and move decisively toward a better and more effective teaching profession.