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Support the individual and develop the whole

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The DfE standard for teachers’ professional development (2016) states that effective professional development should have ‘explicit relevance to participants’ and account for ‘individual teachers’ existing experience, knowledge and needs’. Whole-school, one-off INSET days where all staff are expected to follow the same activities are unlikely to improve student outcomes and can be an inefficient use of ever-precious resources (Cordingley et al., 2018; DfE, 2016; Weston and Clay, 2018). It shouldn’t be surprising that we need to account for staff experience when we want them to develop – after all, the way in which we approach ‘novice’ and ‘expert’ students is different, and we need to bear this in mind when educating adults.

Our challenge

Working with our multi-academy trust to develop continuing professional development (CPD), and researching ways to approach professional development in more depth, I was drawn to evidence around meeting the individual needs of staff.

When developing programmes of CPD, research shows the benefit of a subject-specific focus (Cordingley et al., 2018). However, in my own setting, a seven-to-16 academy for students with social, emotional and mental health difficulties, we run a primary model of ‘class teachers to class groups’ for the majority of lessons, and teachers are required to teach multiple subjects. Providing high-quality, ongoing CPD for all staff in every subject is not possible; where we have specialist teachers, they are in ‘departments’ of one or two staff, and the process of deciding where to direct our CPD resources is challenging.

I appreciate that this experience is not unique to us. Special schools, alternative provision and primary schools can experience similar challenges when trying to align with research that seems geared towards a secondary, mainstream environment, and of course it’s worth reflecting that every mainstream secondary is also individual.

An individual experience

Weston and Clay’s (2018) ‘Depth of Practice Framework’ illustrates how leaders of professional development should consider pre-existing knowledge and skill when planning activities. Kennedy (2016) offers strategies for implementation that can be aligned with Weston and Clay’s framework, in which initial introduction and awareness may require one-off input and prescribed instruction, and as expertise increases, so too should opportunities to gain insight through practice and collaboration. As teachers achieve automaticity, challenge and engagement with programmes of deeper knowledge are appropriate. For any given topic, needs will be different for different members of staff and will require flexibility.

Knowledge and skill are not alone in determining whether professional learning will result in a change to individual beliefs and practice. Kennedy (2016) discusses the conflicting roles of teachers from the perspectives of society, policy, self and students, and all teachers will view what they believe is important through their own experience (as will leaders making decisions about professional development).

Clarke and Hollingsworth’s (2002) ‘Interconnected Model of Professional Growth’ proposes a non-linear model of teacher professional learning that considers the effect of these external influences on the process of learning for individuals. Through reflection and enactment in four domains – external, personal, practice and consequence – they show how achieving the same outcome from professional learning may be a very different experience for each member of staff.

In building and maintaining a programme of professional development, I felt that it was important to work with leadership to facilitate this process of identifying and meeting the needs of individual staff as much as possible in order to build and support the whole.

Change in practice

Whilst whole-school professional development has a place, there is recognition that as we introduce more specialist teachers, we will need to provide different options. Aware of the potential that by trying to meet everyone’s needs we risk not meeting anyone’s, we initially chose to focus on promoting professional development culture in a low-stakes way, to separate the process from performance measures (Weston and Clay, 2018). This includes an element of choice, as staff are supported to identify a personal learning focus for the year.

In order to embed change in practice, leadership and I discussed potential barriers such as resistance to change, with an awareness of change-management practices including communicating our vision for change and celebrating positive engagement (Heath and Heath, 2011). Where staff are new to a topic, they may focus on gaining an overview using our staff CPD library, with the potential to engage more deeply if they feel it is appropriate. More experienced staff have the opportunity to engage in programmes of more intensive study.

There will be individual support, including ongoing evaluation points and coaching conversations. If there is reluctance to participate, we have the flexibility to focus on our bright spots and ‘shrink the change’, working with colleagues to find something that will work for their individual needs (Heath and Heath, 2011, p. 124). By recognising that embedding change takes time and introducing new procedures slowly, we hope to avoid returning to the status-quo, as has happened in the past.

Central to our programme is feedback of learning though presentations or written pieces, in order to establish a culture of professional learning and challenge. As I expand my trust role, I will be working with each academy to promote internal support and exchange of expertise from individuals across the trust, to help build the whole.


Clarke, D and Hollingsworth, H (2002) Elaborating a model of teacher professional growth. Teaching and Teacher Education 18(8): 947–967.

Cordingley P, Greany T, Crisp B et al. (2018) Developing great subject teaching – rapid evidence review of subject-specific continuing professional development in the UK. Wellcome Trust. Available at: (accessed 18 November 2018).

Department for Education (2016) Standard for teachers’ professional development. London: Department for Education. Available at: (accessed 18 November 2018).

Heath, C and Heath, D (2011) Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard. London: Random House Business.

Kennedy, MM (2016) How does professional development improve teaching? Review of Educational Research 86(4): 945–980.

Weston, D and Clay, B (2018) Unleashing Great Teaching: The Secrets to the Most Effective Teacher Development. UK: Routledge.

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