This blog follows my talk given at the Westminster Briefing ‘Narrowing the Gap’ event in Leeds on Thursday 27th June, 2013. I will be delivering a similar talk at the Westminster Briefing London event on Tuesday 9th July.

When narrowing the attainment gap, Sutton Trust research highlights why we should be focusing on the quality of teaching:

Sutton trust graph

We can see that the average student makes significantly greater progress as we improve the quality of teaching, but that this effect is magnified for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, for school leaders to simply take this as grounds to be increasingly prescriptive about how their teachers should be delivering lessons would be a mistake, as research from Viviane Robinson shows us:

Vivane Robinson graph

This research clearly shows that the most important role that a school leader can play is to be a leader of teacher learning and development. That is, both model and encourage teachers to be reflective, collaborative, self-improving practitioners. Robinson shows that monitoring and evaluating teaching quality and lesson planning is important (effect size 0.42) but that this should not be at the expense of a focus on teacher-led professional development (effect size 0.84).

But where should teachers be focusing their efforts when engaging in professional devleopment? The Sutton Trust-EEF Toolkit gives some ideas as to the strategies that are both impact and low cost:

sutton trust toolkit

It’s important to note that this isn’t an exhaustive list – there will be many effective (and ineffective) approaches to improving outcomes which haven’t been listed simply due to a lack of research. It’s also very important to understand that these results only show the average effectiveness of each approach in previous studies at other schools; there may be very different results at your school in your particular context.

Possibly the most controversial finding in the Toolkit is that the introduction of teaching assistants had, on average, no improving effect on learning. There are a number of caveats about this. First is that this was based on a more limited range of research than some of the other toolkit interventions, and secondly this is an average which masks the fact that some studies demonstrated positive influences of teaching assistants on learning while others demonstrated negative effects. On the whole, if teaching assistants (TAs) became the primary source of teaching for children with special education needs then their pedagogical skill and subject knowledge became key – the negative effects tended to occur if SEN pupils routines received lower quality teaching from TAs than the rest of the class received from the class teacher. The Institute of Education’s Maximing the impact of teaching assistants book goes in to more depth on this.

So how should teachers go about deciding on which area of professional learning to focus on, and how should they undertake this learning? I suggest six principles:

  1. Focus on learning, evaluate learning
  2. Ensure teacher (and governor) buy-in
  3. Start with high-probability ideas
  4. Sustain intense, sharp focus on improvement
  5. Enquiry learning: theory –> refined practice
  6. External support and challenge

1. Focus on learning, evaluate learning

The key idea here is to focus on the ends and not the means. That is, start out by focusing on a specific area of learning or behaviour that you wish to improve, rather than a specific teaching method or approach. For example, rather than choosing to focus CPD (continuing professional development) on differentiation, feedback, behaviour for learning or use of voice, you might choose some combination of:

focus on learning

By choosing a specific focus you can be clearer about who is supposed to be improving and how they are supposed to be improving. This makes it significantly more likely that you can evaluate the impact of the CPD and ensure that progress is genuinely being made.

Evaluating impact is very hard to do, and without a clear focus then it is easy to fall back on one of the following dubious measures of effectiveness that have been listed by Professor Robert Coe at Durham in his outstanding paper Improving Education.

poor proxies for learning

Instead it is important to select a range of evaluation tools. The following guidance is taken from the National Teacher Enquiry Network (NTEN)‘s enquiry model:

nten evaluation grid

2. Ensure staff buy-in

Effective professional learning takes place when staff feel connected to the process and have ‘bought in’ to the underpinning logic. This can be encouraged if you:

  • Involve teachers in evaluating needs of FSM pupils
  • Involve teachers in value and impact judgements
  • Give some room for flexibility of CPD focus
  • Lead by example – take the first step and ask colleagues to observe you trying out new ideas first
  • Build trust & relationships
  • Connect to values – keep a focus on why this process is taking place, not just about external pressures and data

It’s similarly important to keep governors in the loop and connected to the process. Make sure you explain:

  • How you identified the needs of the Pupil Premium eligible pupils
  • How and why you chose the interventions
  • Your implementation plan
  • Your evaluation plan
  • How your approach compares to best practice – you may wish to give case studies from other schools (e.g. from Ofsted)

3. Start with high-probability ideas

It’s key to remember that there are no guarantees when implementing new approaches. Just because an idea has worked elsewhere doesn’t mean it will work in your context with your staff. As an example, from the following diagram you can see that while ‘learning to learn’ interventions tend to, on average, be more effective than reducing class sizes, that it is entirely possible that an ineffective approach to the former could end up being less effective than a targeted and careful implementation of the latter.

effect size distribution comparison

However, if you play the probabilities then it is clearly more likely that a ‘learning to learn’ intervention will have a greater effect, based on previous findings. You might use the Sutton-Trust EEF toolkit, Hattie’s Visible Learning, and the C4EO guide when selecting strategies although there are many other sources of evidence.

4. Sustain an intense and sharp focus

Schools are under pressure to do a hundred different things at any one time but effective professional learning only takes place when teachers are able to maintain a sustained and regular focus on one area. You may be surprised to know that research estimates suggest anything from 30 to around 50 hours as a minimum required to change existing classroom practice in to something more effective. These hours include time discussing, planning, teaching, evaluating and researching the idea.

One might pithily summarise this ideas as the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

5. Enquiry learning

The most effective approach to professional development takes an enquiry approach, i.e. one where teachers go through cycles of trying, evaluating and improving a teaching approach in order to achieve improved learning and/or behaviour.

enquiry learning

One particularly effective example of this approach that we use in our National Teacher Enquiry Network is Lesson Study, where a triad of teachers takes the following approach: 

lesson study

6. Use external support and challenge

It is very dangerous to run a process entirely in-house. There is a risk of groups mis-understanding theory, failing to apply best practice and falling foul of group-think:

group think

It’s important that teachers work with an external expert at some point in their learning process. This expert should be:

  • Someone who genuinely understands the intervention
  • Someone who has experience of solving the problem
  • Someone outside your institution (or possible department)
  • Someone you all trust and respect

Next steps

The Pupil Premium can be a powerful tool to improve outcomes for children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Professional development of staff (teachers, assistants and others) is a powerful way to raise attainment and close gaps, but it is a challenging thing to do well. I would recommend that your school:

  • Audits your approach to spending the pupil premium and compares to best practice examples
  • Audits your approach to professional development (e.g. through joining our National Teacher Enquiry Network and undergoing the free peer audit)
  • Identifies expert partners – local schools, HEIs and consultants who are able to give solidly evidence-based advice. You may wish to look at our free database of CPD,
  • Creates a focused action and evaluation plan.

We will be providing more support for using CPD to narrow attainment gaps as part of our National Teacher Enquiry Network‘s programme of events.