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Achieving a professional learning culture: Issues, improvements, impact

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This reflection describes the development of a trust-wide professional learning culture where ‘professionals [are] continually developing and supporting each other so that students benefit from the best possible teaching’ (DfE, 2016), at Prince Albert Community Trust (PACT), a group of five primary schools in Birmingham. Specifically, it captures the impact of professional learning and development (PLD) at Highfield Junior and Infant School (one of PACT’s schools), which moved from ‘special measures’ to ‘good’ in three years.


The Head of School initially described development for all staff as ‘generic, irrespective of their role, phase in school or individual development needs’. He believed that a fundamental shift in approach was needed. Interrupting behaviour to achieve improvements in practice and outcomes requires an understanding of the values and beliefs underpinning teachers’ practice (Robinson, 2017). Moving from a prescriptive approach to professional learning to one of purposeful collaboration requires careful consideration.

How could we:

  • move away from superficial consultation to conversations grounded in trust?
  • achieve buy-in from leaders and staff?
  • plan for systematic improvement and impact?


To answer these questions, the authors worked together to test an approach based on Guskey (2000), as adapted by Earley and Porritt (2009, 2013). Building on work with London schools, it was clear that establishing teachers’ professional needs and students’ learning needs (the baseline) before designing specific PLD was invaluable. Our focus was on intended impact as ‘an integral part of discussions during the earliest stages of professional development planning when… goals are defined’ (Guskey, 2000, p. 250).

This is a simple concept to agree, yet it requires a shift in an organisation’s understanding of what constitutes PLD: a move from a knowledge transmission model (teachers as passive receivers of isolated learning) to one in which acquired knowledge can be applied, trialled and evaluated against baseline and impact indicators. The focus becomes PLD with ‘overt relevance of content to its participants and their day-to-day experiences and aspirations for pupils’ (Cordingley et al., 2015, p. 5).


Our trust-wide approach became an impact model:

  1. enquire: needs analysis, baseline/impact evidence
  2. research and programme design: learning opportunities designed from evidence-informed practice and for impact
  3. learn: expert input (internal/external)
  4. develop: experimentation, practice
  5. improve practice: formative assessment of knowledge, behaviour, skills and learning
  6. impact evaluation: assess to what extent intended difference is achieved
  7. iterate and repeat.


Rather than a model based on inputs (a menu of learning activities), the intended impact on learning and practice became the design tool, offering ‘a powerful method to raise both the quality of learning – for adults and students – and student outcomes’ (Earley and Porritt, 2013, p. 1).

This required a forensic needs analysis to gain clarity on the desired improvements to student outcomes, classroom practice, teacher efficacy and job satisfaction. To assess the extent to which a change in a PLD process has made the intended difference (impact), we needed to know what usual practice looked like beforehand (baseline). We also needed to know what success might look like: robust indicators of impact so that teachers have clear and tangible goals.

Applying Guskey (2000) further, once clear on the desired improvement, we asked: what are the practices, strategies, techniques and bodies of knowledge needed to implement those improvements? From there, it was important to consider how to implement this, along with the support that the organisation needed to give to ensure that it took place. For Highfield, the desired impact was ensuring that colleagues had quality and protected time to learn, develop and improve.

What did this look like in practice?

At Highfield, whole-school data analysis had identified writing as a significant area of need. Subsequently, their PLD baseline involved surveys for students and staff, followed by professional conversations exploring theories of practice. To add further clarity to the process, examples of student work were collated, and collaborative peer observations were carried out by teachers, teaching assistants and leaders.

The baseline process took place over several weeks, ensuring sufficient evidence to identify a specific area of need, which, in Highfield’s case, was to close the vocabulary gap. Once co-constructed plans were put in place, implementation teams consisting of teachers, TAs and leaders embarked on their programme of development over a term and a half.

Two of the biggest challenges that emerged were confronting individual and collective barriers to change, and expectations from the usual input model of professional learning. Articulating baseline and impact evidence requires respect; it is a process of deep reflection requiring a significant commitment to teachers’ development (Robinson, 2011). Teachers needed time to learn about their practice, develop insights, test these and reflect on evidence of impact. Leaders had to resist simplistic solutions to address complex problems. We resolved to focus on what we could improve, rather than prove (Porritt, 2010).


When Ofsted visited in January 2019, they commented on ‘the very strong and focused professional development’ (p. 1). Highfield is now a school where on-going discussions with staff about their own classrooms and students feed into the strategic planning of PLD, where individual and collective need informs the direction of provision (Ofsted, 2019).

Highfield shifted to a genuine professional learning culture, one that ‘improves the quality of both the CPD activity and the outcomes achieved’ (Earley and Porritt, 2009, p. 147). The headteacher stated that ‘PLD is now multi-layered, driven by need and sustainability rather than top-down decisions.’

Such a change has implications for organisational processes due to the significant impact on staff buy-in, development of expertise and school culture. At the close of the project, colleagues at Highfield felt satisfied and empowered. The Head of School commented that ‘all staff are involved… leaders, teachers, teaching assistants and inclusion support workers’.

Colleagues at Highfield believed that their learning and development would impact directly upon their students, which will be the next stage of this project. Their ownership and investment in developing their expertise became something that they sought within the new culture for professional learning and improvement. 


Cordingley P, Higgins S, Greany T et al. (2015) Developing great teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development. Teacher Development Trust. Available at: (accessed 27 March 2020).

Department for Education (DfE) (2016) Standard for teachers’ professional development. Available at: (accessed 27 March 2020).

Earley P and Porritt V (eds) (2009) Effective Practices in Continuing Professional Development: Lessons from Schools. London: Institute of Education and TDA, Bedford Way series.

Earley P and Porritt V (2013) Evaluating the impact of professional development: The need for a student-focused approach. Professional Development in Education 40: 1.

Guskey T (2000) Evaluating Professional Development. New York: Corwin.

Ofsted (2019) School report, Highfield Infant and Junior School. Available at: (accessed 30 March 2020).

Porritt V (2010) How do we know we are making a difference: Evaluating the impact of professional development? London: National Union of Teachers conference.

Robinson V (2011) Student-Centered Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Robinson V (2017) Capabilities required for leading improvement: Challenges for researchers and developers. Research conference keynote. Available at: (accessed 27 March 2020).

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas