Why professional development is the key to schools’ coronavirus recovery

Reopening schools is, naturally, at the front of everyone’s minds right now. Ambition’s executive director for school leadership, Tom Rees, argues for the importance of professional development in the year ahead

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Ambition 

As we continue to deal with the fallout from the pandemic, it is essential that the professional development of teachers and school leaders is at the heart of the conversation.

The quality of teaching is the most important lever schools have to improve outcomes for disadvantaged pupils (EEF 2019) and evidence tells us that high quality professional development for teachers has a significant effect on pupils’ learning outcomes, and a greater effect on attainment than other interventions schools may consider (EPI, 2020).

If catch-up is indeed a ‘long-term endeavour’, to borrow the words of Leora Cruddas, it is vital that we retain a focus on high-quality professional development as part of the system’s recovery.

On the eve of lockdown education secretary Gavin Williamson announced significant reforms to the professional qualifications and standards for teachers and school leaders in a speech to the ASCL conference. This announcement  built on the commitments laid out in the 2019 Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy, where the Department for Education committed to investing in ‘new and existing’ leadership qualifications, focusing attention on the most challenging schools to encourage great teachers to work, develop and stay in the schools that need them most.  

You can be forgiven for missing the details of this announcement over the last few months, for obvious reasons, and so here are three of my highlights, in case you missed them: 

  • Three new specialist national professional qualifications (NPQs)  
  • A new suite of leadership NPQs  
  • Underpinned by evidence   

1. Three new specialist NPQs

“We are creating a new, specialist National Professional Qualification in Teacher Development for teachers with responsibility for supporting the training and development of others, including early career teachers. And today I can announce that we will launch two further specialist qualifications. One will be to train and develop teachers who are subject leads or responsible for improving teaching practice in a subject or phase. The other will be for those whose role includes ensuring schools are calm and orderly places, by focusing on behaviour management and pupil wellbeing.” Gavin Williamson, 2019.

Creating specialist qualifications is a positive step and will allow middle leaders and senior teachers opportunities to develop further specialist expertise once they have become established in the classroom. We know that effective school leadership relies on a great deal of domain-specific knowledge; being a pastoral leader, for example, requires different knowledge to having responsibility for teacher development or running a maths department. I also hope that, by developing further expertise in this way, classroom teachers may see professional growth as an extension of their practice as a teacher, rather than a jump ‘into leadership’ as the only career progression.

2. A new suite of leadership NPQs

“We are reviewing the full current suite of leadership NPQs to make sure they cover the specific knowledge and skills that school leaders need for the future.” Gavin Williamson, 2019.

The four existing qualifications for school leaders in the NPQ suite (NPQML, NPQSL, NPQH and NPQEL) will be reviewed ahead of September 2021. I’m optimistic about this, and the opportunity to learn lessons from the development of the Early Career Framework (ECF) and be more specific about the body of knowledge that school leaders should acquire through training and professional qualifications. By adopting a similar format to the ECF (‘know that’, and ‘know how’) this could help to spell out more clearly the specific things that school leaders should know and be able to do – necessary in underpinning the development of expertise.

3. Underpinned by evidence 

“These measures will create a golden thread running from Initial Teacher Training through to school leadership, rooting teacher and leader development in the best available evidence.” Gavin Williamson, 2019.

Connecting up different qualifications within the profession is important – our existing professional qualifications and standards feature several different formats and frameworks which can make them hard to navigate. The existing Headteacher’s Standards, for example, are built on a different framework from our NPQH, which is different again to the Teacher Standards. Having had the privilege to sit on the Headteacher’s Standards Review Group last year I am positive about the rigorous way that these were developed and, by rooting future NPQs in the same structure and language, there is an opportunity to build coherence across the professional frameworks at every career stage.

The content of the new NPQ frameworks will also be independently reviewed and assessed by the Education Endowment Foundation; this will be helpful in ensuring that all new qualifications are underpinned by the best available evidence.

Investing in school leaders  

Lockdown has highlighted the centrality of schools to our communities – the critical role they play in children’s development and how much joy, security and reassurance they can bring to young lives. 

Through the last few months we’ve seen countless examples of how important effective school leadership is to society but the pressures on schools and their leaders is likely to continue for some time to come.  

Effective school leaders create the conditions in which children and adults in their schools can thrive; they help teachers to develop and create space so they can do their best work. An investment in leadership development is not a quick fix, but a long-term investment in future generations of school leaders who are both passionate and committed to their communities, and highly skilled and knowledgeable in their fields.

So, as schools face up to, possibly, several years of additional challenge as a result of coronavirus, we must ensure the system preserves a special place for the role of high-quality professional development.  

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