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Practising what we preach: The links between learning cultures for teachers and pupils, and school improvement

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For teachers as well as students, actions speak louder than words. A learning culture means practising what we preach and paying careful attention to how our aspirations are operationalised in the real world.

This article describes a research-based approach to building a learning culture for school improvement among schools serving disadvantaged students. The focus was on building a stronger, more research-informed approach to continuing professional development and learning (CPDL).

The approach draws on the evidence from CUREE’s research for Teach First (Bell and Cordingley, 2014; Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE), 2016), to identify the specific challenges experienced by schools at all points of the development journey and the way in which exceptional schools overcome these. The design and analysis of evidence in this case study are organised around the key characteristics of the leadership of CPDL for school improvement in exceptional schools, through securing CPDL that:

  • focuses on students’ learning in subject-specific contexts alongside the pedagogic strategies that support this
  • is evidence-rich
  • enables teachers to develop a deeper understanding of pedagogy
  • organises CPDL around identifying and removing students’ barriers to learning.

The case study

CUREE was commissioned by Right to Succeed (an educational charity) to work with seven Blackpool schools over nine months, to develop capacity for using research and evidence-informed practice (REIP) to support student learning and school improvement. The process integrated the key characteristics outlined above and involved:

  • Working with a teacher and senior leader (Research Champions) from each school.
  • Diagnosing the starting points of each school in relation to its capacity to gain momentum in school improvement through CPDL. The diagnosis used a research-informed framework and benchmarks (CUREE, 2016; Dougill et al. 2011; Ofsted, 2012; Simon and Johnson, 2013) and included focus groups, interviews, extensive documentary analysis, observations and surveys.
  • Consulting with the Research Champions about development priorities so that these responded to student, class and school needs. Literacy across the curriculum and realising the full potential of assessment for learning (AfL) emerged as shared themes.
  • Using a series of workshops and tools focused around aspirations for students regarding agreed priorities to help Champions build REIP in their context. The tools enabled Champions to engage with teaching and learning strategies identified from systematic reviews, explore students’ starting points in relation to the wider evidence, carry out micro-enquiries and collect evidence of student learning. For example, one tool highlighted evidence about effective feedback and helped teachers to collect evidence of a sub-group of students’ related experiences. It prompted teachers to reflect on the resulting evidence with colleagues and to plan strategies to  overcome the identified barriers to learning. The tools were refined collaboratively with the Champions and organised as an online, interactive, research route map  (rather like a tube map) illustrating the connections between literacy and AfL.
  • Helping Champions to use the tools iteratively and on a sustained basis. They modelled their own learning by sharing successes and challenges with colleagues in the school during departmental meetings and CPD sessions. They then helped other teachers to use the tools to explore the implications of new approaches for sub-groups of their students.

Headlines of results

We analysed the data for the schools using the key characteristics and benchmarks derived from the school improvement research (CUREE, 2016). Take up and use of resources was high.

Several schools involved more colleagues than the stipulated two Research Champions, showing their commitment to developing REIP. In all the schools, Champions carried out micro-enquiries, reflected on the evidence of focus students’ learning and started to scale-up use in the school. Teachers in one school asked for an additional route-map line on metacognition to meet specific student needs, revealing teacher- and student-driven interest and initiative.

Interestingly, nine months later, all schools have established a critical mass of interest to create a springboard for new literacy research-based interventions. Research Champions still in post are now confidently leading this second phase of development and are enthusiastically focused on furthering improvement capacity.

Key elements for building a learning culture

This is one of many interventions in Blackpool schools, so teasing out its contribution to building momentum for research-based CPDL is challenging. Nonetheless, we tentatively suggest three foundations for systematising such developments in schools serving vulnerable communities:

  • Working closely and on a sustained basis with the schools to relate content and processes to context through the lens of aspirations for students
  • Creating an evidence-rich learning environment that embeds and integrates exploration of the wider research and classroom evidence
  • Using tools that make engaging with evidence to identify and remove barriers to learning visible, collaborative and sustainable for teachers.

These factors align with the evidence underpinning the standard for teacher professional development (Cordingley et al., 2015) and start to illustrate what those standards might look like when applied holistically.


Bell M and Cordingley P (2014) Characteristics of high performing schools. Coventry: Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE). Available at:

Cordingley P, Higgins S, Greany T et al. (2015) Developing great teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development. London: Teacher Development Trust. Available at:[site-timestamp]/DGT%20Full%20report%20(1).pdf (accessed 9 January 2019).

CUREE (2016) Gaining and sustaining momentum: Accelerating progress in schools project. Coventry: Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE).  Available at: (accessed 9 January 2019).

Dougill P, Raleigh M, Blatchford R et al. (2011) To the next level: Good schools becoming outstanding. Reading: CfBT. Available at:

Ofsted (2012) Getting to good: How headteachers achieve success. Manchester: Ofsted. Available at: (accessed 9 January 2019).

Simon NS and Johnson SM (2013) Teacher turnover in high-poverty schools: What we know and can do. Harvard: Harvard Graduate School of Education. Available at:

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas