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How can school leaders maximise the benefits of being part of a Professional Learning Network

Written By: Jane Flood
10 min read

Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) represent any group engaging in collaborative learning with those outside their everyday community of practice, in order to improve teaching and learning in their school(s) and/or the school system more widely (Brown and Poortman, 2018). Effective leadership is a fundamental requirement for PLNs to meet the current school improvement agenda and ensure sustainable change within schools (Harris and Jones 2010). In the first instance, leadership is required of the networks themselves to ensure they function effectively (Briscoe et al., 2015). However, it is also the role of senior leaders to ensure that there is meaningful engagement from their teachers in network activity and that this engagement makes a difference in participating schools. It is the latter aspect of what leadership actions might provide this support that is less well understood in extant literature. For example, it has been suggested that for PLNs to be most effective, school leaders need to develop a culture that is collaborative, encourages risk taking and shows an enthusiasm for continual improvement (Godfrey 2014). To address this knowledge gap, this paper presents a brief summary of a case study of how senior leaders have attempted to maximise the effectiveness of participating in PLNs for the New Forest Research Learning Network (RLN) – a specific type of PLN designed to facilitate research informed change at scale. In-depth, semi-structured interviews with RLN participants, as well as impact data and policy documents, were used to ascertain the types of practices adopted by school leaders to maximise the benefits of PLN engagement to their schools.

What makes PLNs effective?

Research evidence suggests the use of PLNs can be effective in supporting school improvement, but that such impact is not guaranteed (ibid). Correspondingly, a number of supporting conditions need to be in place before PLNs can be successful (Hubers and Poortman, 2018). These conditions include: focus, collaboration, individual/group learning and reflective professional inquiry. For example, networks must have a common shared focus and work on clearly defined topics. Collaboration is required both in the network and in the respective schools. Continual professional development must be encouraged as part of school improvement, whilst teachers challenge and innovate existing practice through joint professional development activities such as lesson study. Leadership is a key driver to establishing, maintaining and maximising these conditions both within the PLN and back in their own school (Briscoe et al., 2015).

The role of leadership in Professional Learning Networks

As Hubers and Poortman (2017) note, for long-term and sustainable change to occur in schools, a two-way link needs to be established between the work of the PLN and the day to day teaching in individual schools. This link comprises two aspects; firstly, to maximise the benefit of being part of a learning network, PLN participants need to engage effectively in networked learning activity. Secondly, all teachers within the wider community of practice will need to know about, engage with, apply, and continue to improve upon the work of the PLN, with the ultimate aim of improving pupil outcomes. To achieve such a link requires leaders to understand how to meaningfully support both participation within PLNs and the mobilisation of PLN activity by teachers in their own schools. For example, school leaders need to formalise PLN participation through by releasing teachers from timetabled commitments to ensure PLN work is considered an integral feature of, rather than an addition to daily work (Farrell and Coburn, 2017; Hubers and Poortman, 2017: Rose et al, 2017). Leaders also need to understand how the work from the PLN can be mobilised and embedded as part of school culture (Farrell and Coburn, 2017); how to ensure that mobilisation is managed through organisational routines (Farrell and Coburn, 2017; Rose et al, 2017) and that appropriate support is available to all involved. To date, how school leaders support this engagement in and the mobilisation of PLN activity within their school is little reported in the literature. The paper examines a case study of a specific type of PLN; Research Learning Networks.

The New Forest RLN – Context and respondents

The specific RLN that forms the focus of this study comprises 21 staff from 8 primary schools situated in the New Forest area of England. In keeping with other RLNs, participants in the New Forest RLN thus comprised 12 senior leaders (i.e. school leaders) of participating schools as well as 9 teachers considered to be Opinion Formers. (Brown 2017). This latter type of participant is defined as teachers not in formal leadership positions but who are often turned to by their colleagues for trusted work-related expertise and advice. Thus, while the choice of senior leaders as participants reflects their formal power to affect change in schools (Earley, 2013), the notion of Opinion Formers, derives from the idea that leadership as influence can be undertaken by more than just those possessing ‘formal’ responsibility (Ogawa and Bossert, 1995). It was hoped that the New Forest RLN would ultimately lead to change amongst some 70 teachers and some 1,470 students overall. This paper focuses on the operation of the New Forest RLN from October 2017 to June 2018. In-depth semi structured interviews with the 12 senior leader RLN participants, were undertaken by Professor Chris Brown from the University of Portsmouth and myself after the first workshop and following the fourth workshop in June 2018. The aim of these interviews was to examine the actions undertaken and policies developed by senior leaders to maximise the impact of RLN involvement in their school and then reflect on leaders’ perceived impact.. Similar semi-structured interviews were undertaken with the 9 opinion formers after the fourth workshop to triangulate the findings as well as looking at impact data and policy documents provided by the schools.

The actions undertaken by school leaders and Opinion Former participants to maximise the perceived benefits to their schools of engaging in the PLN can be accounted for by six broad themes that emerged from the interviews: 1) Formalising RLN activity as a priority; 2) Keeping participating staff on track; 3) Time; 4) Informing non-RLN staff; 5) Providing ‘How to’ support; and 6) Whole staff engagement.

Formalising RLN activity as a priority

The principal action associated with school leaders’ attempts to formalise RLN activity was incorporating RLN into existing policies and procedures. This comprised making the RLN part of the school’s School Improvement Plan (or SIP); including RLN activity in teachers’ performance management targets; and engaging governors with the RLN process. The importance the school linked engaging in the RLN to their School Improvement Plan created a clear focus on priorities relating to the work of the RLN and ensured others see its value. The absence of RLN activity from the SIP was noted as a negative consequence by one leader, suggesting that other initiatives (that were in the SIP) could sometimes take priority.

The inclusion of RLN activity as part of performance management targets was noted as keeping the work of the PLN in focus. At the same time, it is important that senior leaders recognise that there is value to RITP being treated as more than an immediate ‘quick fix’. In other words, there is a danger that should it be included as a performance measure, that engagement in RLN activity simply leads solely to instrumental-type foci involving ‘what works’ type research with narrow outcome measures. Senior leaders did however seem to recognise this, suggesting that engagement in RITP is a long-term commitment.

Finally some schools formalised their engagement in the RLN by involving school governors, which had the possible advantage of increased sustainability. In particular, the RLN was taking place during a period of budget cuts and as such, attaining governor support may provide an effective strategy for guaranteeing that budget and time resource can be allocated to RLN activity to ensure that schools can continue to participate in the future..

Keeping participating staff on track

The importance of school leaders facilitating organisational goals and maintaining high performance expectations encompassed keeping participating staff on track. This involved the empowering of staff to engage in the process, by providing them with the freedom and support to maximize impact. In this case, RLN participants were given freedom and responsibility with the expectation that they would then self-manage. It was also suggested that this approach did mean the RLN and related activity was a consistent priority, because participants felt the responsibility to deliver (and so to repay the trust invested in them). Other approaches to keeping participants on track included checking in on progress through both formal and informal meetings, which kept participants engaged with the PLN. These meetings were reinforced through the use of ambient reminders e.g. use of posters and boards in staff rooms.


The predominant focus of school leaders was how to free up resources to maximize impact. Competing time priorities have been noted elsewhere as being substantial barriers to teachers  engaging with research/ensuring RITP can be a meaningful way of life within a school (e.g. Galdin O’Shea, 2015). School leaders in this sample took a variety of approaches to addressing time constraints. These included having a dedicated member of staff to assist the process who was able to find, read and disseminate research findings; establishing and running in-school Professional Learning Communities using twilight staff meetings to share and replicate RLN with the whole school staff or the reallocation of PPA time to enable flexibility to participants to work together or from home..

Informing non RLN staff

An example of this was the notion of starting small and was associated with RLN participants wanting to wait until they thought the time was right for full staff involvement. A number of potential benefits were identified with the ‘start small and wait before sharing’ approach, including making it easier to persuade staff to adopt the new practices. It was also suggested that starting small could occur alongside providing more general updates on what is happening, when and why, which might have a positive longer-term outcome because it enabled staff to get gradually used to potential changes to current practices before introducing those changes. At the same time, a certain sense of realism was exhibited in relation to the change process with the recognition that some staff would be barriers to change but that starting slowly and showing positive impact on children’s learning was helping leaders model the benefits of RLN particiaption .

Providing ‘How to’ support

The notion of providing ‘how to’ support involved RLN participants adopting leadership practices to work creatively, empowering others and responding to diverse needs and situations. For example, modelling and explaining new practices to non-RLN staff in order to provide bespoke support to individual teachers who need to understand the practices in question. Within the RLN process, there was a focus on senior leaders (i.e. those in formal leadership positions) ensuring the development of leadership skills through distributed leadership typified by the role of the Opinion Formers. These teachers were carefully selected to be part of the RLN for the influence they have on colleagues and so developing the work of the RLN back in their schools; encapsulating the role of leadership as influence.

Whole staff engagement

Mirroring the characteristics of the most effective PLCs, developing trust and the ability of people to expose themselves to risk has been key to effective whole staff engagement. This involved whole staff twilight sessions to continue the learning within-school, learning conversations with all the staff (including TAs and admin staff) to reflect on current practice, and the use of exercises to encourage reflection (sometimes mirroring the activity of the RLN sessions). For example, scaffolding learning conversations, using props such as lego to make a visual of the problem driving the schools research focus, and introducing research reflection journals for staff to reflect on what was happening in their classrooms.


School leaders need to display a range of effective leadership characteristics to engage in network learning activity and to meaningfully transfer this back into schools through formalising, prioritising and mobilising PLN involvement. (Brown and Flood 2019). Leadership actions to formalise schools involvement in the RLN involved establishing it as a priority. For example, including it as part of the school improvement plan, incorporating it into existing policies and procedures (e.g. making it an integral part of teachers performance management targets) and involving governors. Prioritising RLN involvement included keeping participating staff on track through formal and informal meetings and ambient reminders such as posters and displays in staff rooms and allocating time through staff meetings, flexible PPA timetabling to allow for collaboration amongst staff to undertake tasks required by RLN. Mobilisation of RLN knowledge and practices was approached in a variety of ways including informing non RLN staff through starting small before informing and waiting until the time was right for whole school involvement. In addition providing ‘how to’ support for non RLN staff and modelling and explaining new practices were considered important leadership actions. Finally whole staff engagement included developing trust and promoting risk taking, using within school professional learning communities to continue learning within schools and using learning conversations for reflection. The goal of a PLN is never simply to be a professional learning network, rather, a PLN is a means to an end (Hubers and Poortman 2018).The goal of a PLN is to sustain change over time; to both participants behaviour as well as to practices of those within participating schools. Leadership support is crucial; PLNs provide opportunities for effective school leaders to both use and contribute to the external educational environment for school improvement.

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