GAYNOR BAHAN AND CHRIS DALE, PROJECT COORDINATION TEAM, MATHS HUB LLME COMMUNITIES PROJECT, NCETM, UK
This article explores the role of professional learning communities (PLCs) in improving retention rates and career progression opportunities for teachers of maths. The National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM) coordinates the Maths Hubs programme, which brings together mathematics education professionals in a collaborative national network, with a view to supporting maths-specific professional development and sustaining teachers. This is particularly important due to the rate at which teachers are leaving the profession. Exit rates are especially high for early career teachers, with research from the Education Policy Institute finding that five years after starting training, only 60 per cent of teachers remain working in a state-funded school in England, and this retention rate is just 50 per cent for high-priority subjects like physics and maths (Sibieta, 2018, p. 6). We have been considering whether an evidence-informed design of PLCs might offer a way to address this.
Within the Maths Hubs programme there are 40 PLCs of local leaders of maths education (LLME), which have grown at different rates since their inception. Until recently, this growth could be described as organic, with communities at different stages of development. In 2019, with a coordination team in place for an LLME Communities project, we considered:
- How might we use existing research to inform their explicit design and balance prescription – ensuring clarity – with autonomy, to allow enough freedom for innovative practice to flourish?
- Might the opportunity to belong to an LLME Community also help to sustain and retain maths teachers in England?
An evidence-informed approach
A body of literature exists that attempts to classify key elements of PLCs, but there are fewer studies using key characteristics to inform future design and development. We therefore synthesised a range of evidence to produce a framework that is underpinned by five design principles. They are:
1. Establish, develop and revisit a common meaning and purpose
A shared vision and sense of purpose has been found to be centrally important (Andrews and Lewis, 2004).
2. Explicitly plan for professional growth
It is highly unlikely that a PLC will be active and vibrant after several years without consideration of the key differences between an emergent community and a mature community. Bolam et al. (2005, p. i) identify ‘[t]he idea of three stages of development – starter, developer and mature’.
3. Model and expect high levels of professionalism
Hoyle (1975) identified professionalism as being status-driven, whereas professionality implies personal improvement. Macbeath et al. (2018, p. 149) ‘apply their Leadership for Learning Principles to the question of teacher professionality. This entails enabling teachers to… participate in dialogue about learning, leadership, and the connection between these.’
4. Design for push and pull
Hargreaves and O’Connor (2018, p. 13) recognise that a key lever is a shift ‘from comfortable or contrived conversations to challenging yet respectful dialogue about improvement’.
5. Develop collective and collaborative leadership
MacBeath et al. (2018, p. 106) suggest that a key feature of sustainable and vibrant communities is the ‘movement towards the idea of leadership emerging in the flow of practice. Freed from hierarchical mindsets, communities of practice can become a reality.’
The intended outcomes for the LLME Communities project were divided into themes associated with:
- professional learning (e.g. LLME have shared and further developed their knowledge of mathematics for teaching)
- leadership practice (e.g. LLME incorporate new professional learning into their leadership practice)
- community culture (e.g. LLME value the opportunity to connect with their community and build wider professional relationships).
The design principles provide an evidence-informed architecture to maximise the possibility of achieving these aims.
Each Maths Hub designed or refined its own LLME Community plans and activities, which took place throughout the year alongside ongoing central support through an online community, providing opportunities for practice exchange. Many planned activities utilised themes introduced through a national workshop but innovative practice, in response to local need, emerged and flourished.
The LLME Communities project has an independent lead evaluator, who used the following sources to evaluate the experience of approximately 1,600 community participants:
- attendance at three national workshops and six planning sessions
- 37 Maths Hub LLME plans and 21 evaluation reports
- field visits to a range of Maths Hub LLME events
- informal interviews with LLMEs
- a small sample of individual LLME case studies.
In the context of the current pandemic, it is worth noting that the design principles continued to provide a sturdy and relevant framework when Maths Hubs were faced with challenges associated with the partial closure of schools from March onwards. Maths Hubs were able to adapt their work and continue to support schools and colleges remotely, hence it was also necessary for Community Leads to adjust their plans. For example, there was an immediate need for LLMEs to work together on the use of video conferencing platforms in the design and delivery of professional development.
Overall analysis suggested that, whilst there was a need to continue to develop Community Leads’ understanding of the design principles, there was evidence that the principles had a positive impact, with many of the intended outcomes fully met. A common purpose was defined through the vision for each community, which in some cases had been developed collaboratively, truly establishing shared ownership. Evidence of planning for professional growth was visible, with some Community Leads using a baseline at the start of the year to support planning. Activities that created push and pull using provocative research led to an interrogation of practice and challenged thinking.
In most communities, LLMEs were given the opportunity to participate in dialogue about learning and leadership. The five design principles could provide a framework for the effective design
and growth of LLME Communities. Whilst high levels of professionalism was the least understood principle (a narrow definition of ‘professional behaviour’ was occasionally interpreted as ‘be smart and polite’, rather than the professionality of personal improvement), there was an indication that professionalism had been evident in practice. Reflections such as ‘[it was] fantastic to be the learner again’ were common. Where there was strong evidence of collective and collaborative leadership, LLMEs had a collective sense of responsibility, with each individual feeling valued as a contributor to the community:
‘I have been amazed by the community feel and professionalism of the Hub and the support they have offered me in not only developing my own practice but in supporting others to do the same too. I now feel like I make a difference.’ (LLME reflections Padlet)
Sustaining and retaining teachers of maths
Emerging evidence from our evaluation suggests that members of LLME Communities feel valued and developed and have a sense of belonging that reaches beyond their own institution. There are examples of LLMEs holding leadership positions within Maths Hubs, whilst retaining part of their time to teach.
‘Many of our LLMEs have not been able to progress to the next career step within their own school due to long-standing members of staff being in roles they would naturally progress to or because of the staffing structures in place, but they have seen their Maths Hub LLME role as an opportunity to progress their career, albeit in a different way.’ (Turing NW Maths Hub, Greater Manchester – LLME Community Lead)
‘Many teachers testify to their enjoyment of leading a Work Group. I have lost count of the number of teachers who have said to me “I would have left the profession if it wasn’t for the Maths Hub”. They appreciate being part of a learning, dynamic community.’ (Cambridge Maths Hub – LLME Community Lead)
Stripp (2020) considers the role of local leaders of maths education and suggests that ‘this career path could improve maths teacher retention… too many of our talented expert maths teachers feel forced to leave the classroom in order to progress in their careers… In high-performing jurisdictions the expert subject specialists’ role is revered.’ If we now return to our two initial questions, we can offer the following conclusions based on our evaluation:
- We have seen early indications that the five design principles could provide a framework for the effective design and growth of LLME Communities. Although findings are very much emerging, our initial work suggests that the concept of design principles provides guidance to shape an effective LLME Community with enough autonomy to experiment and innovate where appropriate.
- Several interesting examples suggest that belonging to an LLME Community can offer maths teachers a rich, intellectually stimulating experience that enhances their work and increases their job satisfaction.
- There are signs that membership of a thriving LLME Community may result in maths teachers staying in the profession longer. Membership of the community seems to provide an alternative perspective from day-to-day school life, and the opportunity to work with fellow teachers across schools is especially valued. We believe that further consideration of the career pathways that LLME Community membership might yield is needed, and that there is scope for further longitudinal research in this area.
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