Two hundred leaders of professional learning gathered at TDT’s National Conference in January 2024 to explore and reflect on the highs and lows of developing school staff in a demanding but ultimately rewarding sector.  Here, TDT’s Curriculum Designer, Ariana Wells, shares insights from the day.

The research on culture 

Studies demonstrate that school culture is essential for improvement and success. Kraft and Falken (2020) found that amid continuous growth cultures focused on innovation, the very quality of instruction rises as teachers feel empowered to experiment. These environments are characterised by trust, communication, autonomy, and data-driven collaboration.

Bryk and Schneider’s (2002) concept of ‘relational trust’ also emerges as crucial, encompassing personal regard, respect, competence, and integrity. When staff trust leaders and each other, the safety for risk-taking expands. Teachers who feel psychologically safe to try new approaches are more likely to grow and refine their practice.

Insights from serving leaders

At the conference, Sarah Botchway, Director of the London South Teaching School Hub, reflected that in her work, she hopes to see a focus on school culture embedded in a school’s planning and day-to-day running.  She said she would expect to see it as a key part of the School Improvement Plan (SIP) and that when done well, “It is woven into the very fabric of the school and the building.”   

With regards to how you might see that tangibly in a school, Sarah summarised some key expectations around what good culture looks like in a school:

  • Wellbeing: Colleagues’ wellbeing is being addressed; you should be able to talk to any teacher or leader, and they are very clear about how their wellbeing is being met.
  • Support: Strategies are in place to support teachers.
  • Planning: Meetings, curriculum, or planning time are all planned very carefully; they’re not just something that happens.
  • Communication: Communication in the school is apparent, and it goes both ways. There is no guessing, so teachers and leaders feel secure.  When teachers and leaders feel safe, it helps with their wellbeing.

Mistakes leaders could avoid

Sarah added her views on some critical mistakes that have been seen.  Top of the list is the one-off activities like cake in the staffroom.  She exclaimed, “I’m not anti-cake; it’s my favourite food!  It’s a nice thing to do, but it doesn’t enhance the school culture.”  Her other key takeaway mistake is leaders being inflexible in their thinking.  She urged leaders to remember that their colleagues in school also have families and responsibilities.  They are responsible for the pupils in their classes but also have alternative responsibilities at home.

Ella Roberts, Director of Learning and Development Network, TKAT  spoke about two vitally important areas surrounding leadership and culture:


Ella reflected upon the important part that the  mindset of the staff and the mindset of the school play and that colleagues should feel that “We are all in this together.” Ella emphasised that we should share our challenges and successes as it’s all too common to share the latter but not the former. 

Psychological safety

As teachers and leaders, accountability is necessary, but with professional development, Ella urges leaders to notice some of the language used.  Preferring the word ‘evaluation’ instead of ‘monitoring’, she explains that “evaluation means giving staff time to learn, practice, take risks, and have professional conversations about how things are going.” staff won’t engage in these professional development activities fully if psychological safety isn’t in place.  

 She posed three questions for leaders to consider:

  1. Where is that psychological safety in your school? 
  2. When can staff take risks, try things out, and give ideas without worrying about the response?  
  3. When can they have feedback without judgement? 

She left us with a final note about the changing landscape of CPD over the years. “CPD has changed dramatically, but the school day hasn’t changed.  We need to start thinking about the school day more creatively instead of just using school meetings or INSET days for professional development.”

Panellist Ben Levinson OBE, Executive Headteacher at Kensington Primary School and the Chair of Well Schools, believes that whatever you want to do with your staff and children in that school starts with wellbeing.  He began with two questions for us:

  • If you want better outcomes,  how will you support teachers to support the children?
  • How are you going to support the children?

Ben stresses that “if the children are physically and mentally not well, they are not going to learn; they are not going to be coming to school, and they are not going to be able to regulate their emotions and therefore behave in that school environment.  If they are physically and mentally not well, how will they succeed?”

He acknowledged that we know that investment in our teachers makes the most significant difference to our children.  Ben believes that professional development is a crucial part of that difference, and how teachers turn up daily to their jobs makes the most significant difference.

“When I turn up as a leader, I’m good at what I do! Humble right?!  But only when I’m feeling relaxed, confident, and rested.  I’m not very good when I’m stressed, anxious or exhausted.  I know I have been counterproductive when I’m in that mindset.”

Ben explained that if we want our teachers to show up for the children, build those relationships and understand those challenges, they can’t do any of that if they aren’t well themselves in the first place.

A lack of trust in the system

Ben worries that excessive scrutiny from the system severely constrains teacher agency. He argues that Ofsted’s rhetoric relies on trusting educators’ expertise, yet intense accountability practices communicate deep distrust. 

Teachers lose intrinsic motivation when autonomy, respect, and space to solve problems creatively are stripped away. Ben asserts that restoring staff ownership constitutes an imperative priority amid the recruitment/retention crisis. 

Although external accountability has merits, leaders must push back on restrictive structures to ensure teachers retain latitude over significant decisions. Striking an agency balance proves critical for systemic health.

Sinéad McBrearty, CEO of Education Support, shared that she often observes concerning communication dynamics when visiting schools. She said she frequently enters environments where adults address fellow adults as if they are children. Rigid, hierarchical power structures permeate the culture, draining staff enthusiasm and joy.

Sinéad doesn’t see schools as unique in this stance; she thinks it happens in workplaces around all industries. However, she emphasises that the difference between the education sector and other sectors is that senior staff members are used to speaking with children and young adults.  

The system, not the school

Her next point directed us to the line of enquiry, touching again on the system and not just the schools themselves.  “We can talk about culture in institutions and schools, but we also need to talk about the culture of the overall system, and I think we have a lot of punitivity in the system.  There’s no space for failure in our system, and that is very unsafe.  

Clearly, we can’t just fail children gratuitously, but the consequences of small errors can be too high.  Still, we have to have the sort of kindness and humanity in our systems to allow us to do our job well, take some risks and push the envelope a bit because we want better outcomes.  Currently, I think our system places too high a premium on productivity and too low a level of attention on wellbeing. And I don’t think that’s sustainable in the long run.”

Haili Hughes, Director of Education at IRIS Connect and a Principal Lecturer at the University of Sunderland. When she transitioned from journalism, she was struck by the highly structured hierarchies embedded in the education sector. Having operated in a fast-paced industry where collaboration and creativity were prized, the focus on top-down mandates felt jarring. 

Staffrooms have disappeared, and informal coaching has gone with them

Haili is a huge advocate of instructional coaching but feels a focus on pedagogy and improving instruction is vital. However, there needs to be space for more informal, less structured coaching in schools alongside it.   With the loss of communal school staff rooms in recent decades, she feels that teachers also lost a crucial space to build camaraderie and gain informal support from colleagues.

Most troubling to Haili is the lack of differentiated, needs-based, continuous development opportunities tailored to teachers’ backgrounds, strengths, weaknesses and career stages. While appreciating the introduction of more robust training offerings like the NPQ courses, she advocates for more personalised, responsive, professional learning structures attuned to each teacher’s growth areas. 

Her final point was about what leaders can do to support wellbeing: “I’ve worked in schools where we have had three parents’ evenings in a week, and then cake on a Friday, and those superficial gifts leaders give you are not good enough. Leaders need to look at pinch points in the year and consider how they can practically make things better for staff.”

She quoted Mary Myatt-“Humans first, professionals second.”

In summary

Specific, practical strategies our panel of experts shared included coordinating schedules and planning to support staff carefully; facilitating open, bi-directional communication; creating personalised development opportunities responsive to teachers’ needs and backgrounds; welcoming feedback; and encouraging reasonable risk-taking without severe consequences for failure.

The Bottom Line, According to the Experts?

School culture serves as an essential conduit, either enabling or hindering improvement. Prioritising trust, above all, establishes the conditions in which teachers and leaders can work together towards that unwavering focus, ultimately helping pupils thrive.


  • Bryk, A.S. and Schneider, B.L. (2004) Trust in schools: a core resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Kraft, M. K and Falken, G. T. (2020) Why School Climate Matters for Teachers and Students. National Association of State Boards of Education. Available at: (Accessed: 11 August 2022).

About the Author:

Ariana Wells brings over 16 years of experience in education to her role as a curriculum designer at Teacher Development Trust. She began her career as a secondary English teacher before taking on leadership positions as head of English, Lead Practitioner of Teaching and Learning, and a teaching and learning consultant. Ariana led professional development initiatives in these roles and founded a Teaching and Learning magazine focused on pedagogy and best practices.  As a curriculum designer at TDT, Ariana has leveraged her instructional design and copywriting skills to develop innovative, research-based materials with the Programmes Team. This has created an engaging, effective curriculum that sparks participant interest and understanding. She has worked extensively on the NPQLL and now works across the whole NPQ suite.