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CAROLINE BARLOW, BECKA LYNCH AND EMMA SMITH, HEATHFIELD COMMUNITY COLLEGE, UK

Research from the Teacher Development Trust and NFER (Worth and Van den Brande, 2020) found that teachers in England typically have lower levels of autonomy compared to other professionals, and suggests that there is evidence that increasing autonomy over decisions in the classroom would lead to higher job satisfaction and therefore higher retention rates (Worth and Van den Brande, 2020). This is supported by the work of Kelly (2006), who argues that attempting to impose a form of practice on teachers simply drives them out of the classroom. In the immediate educational climate, where teacher recruitment and retention rates continue to be a persistent problem post-COVID-19 (McLean et al., 2023), it is therefore increasingly important that CPD (continuing professional development) is utilised as a tool with which to create a collaborative culture that simultaneously supports teachers’ autonomy. In this paper, we set out what this kind of collaborative CPD approach looks like in a rural secondary school setting, and how it increases teacher expertise and autonomy while also supporting teacher retention. 

At Heathfield Community College, we have been working since 2015/16 (when there was a change of leadership) to embed a model of CPD that aims to improve teachers’ knowledge of pedagogy, build expertise and support teacher retention rates. A notable percentage of teachers at the college are experienced (many on the upper pay scale), which brings both benefits and challenges in supporting ongoing teacher development. In particular, if we are to achieve ‘buy-in’ from an experienced team of teachers, and to overcome any resistance to CPD, it must not be a gimmick or a vehicle for top-down imposition of pedagogical direction. When initially creating our CPD model, we realised that we needed an approach that respected and worked for our staff, based around involvement and participation and with clear communication (Kotter and Schlesinger, 1989) – essentially, true collaboration that embraced the elements that would maximise success: commitment, parity and shared goals that are adequately resourced (Shamberger and Friend, 2013). In this environment, an intentional secondary outcome would be that teachers would feel supported and content to stay in post.

What does a collaborative approach to CPD look like?

Teaching and learning collaboration teams

A key pillar of our CPD is collaboration teams: a protected hour each fortnight, during the school day, for all teachers to meet and collaboratively engage in a professional dialogue. Each member of the teaching staff, from early career teachers to senior leadership, is timetabled into a collaboration team as part of their fortnightly teaching allocation. They meet with a small group of colleagues (no more than six staff) from a variety of subjects, each at various points in their teaching career. No meeting minutes are required, as accountability is to each other and their professional development over time. Teachers are provided with a structured agenda that spans six weeks, providing the time, focus, cross-curricular challenge and professional trust with which to discuss and reflect on pedagogy and practice that has been prioritised in the college improvement plan: 

 

The composition of the collaboration teams has evolved in response to teacher feedback. In 2017/18, the make-up of the teams was amended so that middle leaders and senior leaders formed separate collaboration teams, with slightly different agendas. This amendment recognised the CPD needs that are more specific to those on the leadership scale and provides a vehicle for college leaders to apply pedagogy more specifically to the context of their roles, while sharing best leadership practice. 

While the agendas and materials provided to the collaboration teams are somewhat fixed, for necessary consistency, teachers have options to trial and apply research to classes of their choosing. This approach allows for staff to be intrinsically motivated, as they have the freedom and autonomy to refine practice and plan learning that better meets the needs of their students in their classrooms. In contrast to top-down CPD approaches or training programmes offered by some external providers, our approach ensures that teachers are engaged together and constantly reflective on a shared theme.

Whole-college CPL linked to department CPL

The agendas that provide structure for the collaboration teams reflect the whole-college inset, which is delivered to the whole staff teaching body in 90-minute after-school sessions, five to six times throughout the academic year. The focus of each session reflects the aims of the college improvement plan (CIP). This ensures that CPD is meaningful and transparently fits the wider college vision and current improvements towards which everyone is working; this synergy ensures that not a moment is wasted and there are no overlapping additional initiatives. 

Each whole-college CPD session is delivered by teachers responsible for researching pedagogy and applying it to current practice. They belong to the pedagogical practice team. Provided with additional time, this team immerses themselves in the latest pedagogical thinking, which they then implement within their own classrooms. Their learning and experiences are disseminated via the 90-minute whole-college CPD sessions. In this way, whole-college CPD sessions are authentically led and researched-informed and provide practical context-based examples that other teachers can apply, providing relevance to current classroom practice that some external training providers can lack. 

Subject-specific context

The input from the pedagogical practice team during whole-college CPD sessions is concise (around 35 to 45 minutes), providing time for teachers to then discuss the input within their department. This enables teachers to consider the implications of the pedagogy within their subject-specific context. The time for departmental discussion further tailors CPD to individual teachers’ needs, increasing its authentic application and the likelihood that new learning will be sustained. 

As subject-specific knowledge and pedagogy are equally important to teachers’ development, there is additional time set aside for subject-specific CPD. Heads of department create an annual plan to meet the subject-specific needs of teachers within their department. This plan is enacted in an additional six to eight hours of subject-specific CPD time across the year. The autonomy given to heads of departments to shape the subject-specific CPD ensures that what is delivered continues to be meaningful at a subject level and increases buy-in from teachers. 

What is the outcome?

A joint report by the Teacher Development Agency (TDA) and the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE) suggests that, at best, CPD tends to only have an impact on informing teachers and rarely has a tendency to lead to a transformation in what happens in teachers’ classrooms or in the school more widely (2011). However, there is reason to believe that the impact of teachers working and learning together in the ways outlined here has been transformational, is changing daily classroom practice and is valued widely, perhaps supporting decisions to stay in post. Responses to the 2022/23 whole-teaching staff survey include ‘Collaboration meetings continue to help me personally review and change my teaching practices’ and ‘Our collaboration work has been really effective in getting teachers across departments actively discussing and then enacting practices’. 

Regarding retention, the college now typically loses only five to seven per cent of our teachers each year, compared to the 2022 national rate of 9.7 per cent. The college’s rate was 7.5 per cent in 2013/14. Often, those leaving do so reluctantly but having secured promotion through their learnt practice and experience. The high retention rate also becomes a virtuous cycle. Because teaching staff are retained, the CPD programme moves forward, building on prior knowledge from sessions in preceding years. Constantly starting over is not necessary, although we have come to recognise the importance of providing teaching staff new to the college with additional CPD sessions that equip them with knowledge of past CPD foci. 

A collaborative approach, then, has helped to transform our CPD to create more knowledgeable teachers, provided greater teacher autonomy in the application of pedagogy and led to greater job satisfaction, enhancing retention at the college. While the model described here has been refined over time, and continues to require careful planning so that previous CPD is built upon (and not repeated), the structures of this model help to ensure that collaboration remains central to our CPD.

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