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The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Liz Worthen

Collaboration for professional development: what makes it work?

Collaboration sounds great, but how do you make it work in practice? Some thorny questions and success stories from a teaching schools workshop session.

Collaboration was a key theme running through the programme of the Optimus Education Teaching Schools Summit. There was talk about collaboration vs competition, partnerships with HEIs, collaborations between alliances and cross-regional networks.

For the afternoon quick fire session led by me and @TeachingOE, our focus was on ‘engaging staff and improving outcomes with collaborative approaches to developing practice’ – or, to put it more simply, collaboration as a tool for professional development.

Case study questions

To stimulate discussion, we explored four case studies. The case studies outlined the approach to CPD currently being undertaken in a school, trust or alliance. The approaches ranged from very personalised or optional models to much more ‘top down’ models of development, strongly linked to standards and performance management.

Not surprisingly, the differing scenarios gave rise to some thorny questions.

  • How do you get an appropriate balance between meeting whole school or organisation needs and individual needs?
  • Is there a point at which personalised CPD gets too personal? Is there a risk that people work as individuals rather than collaborating with and learning from colleagues?
  • Are we clear and honest in our purposes? If it’s a top-down initiative, is it better to be up front about it?
  • Offering choice may be good for staff engagement, but could ‘optional’ lead to ‘opt out’ for some people? How do you maintain motivation?

Shared practice

Groups moved on to talk about practice in their own schools and alliances. Observations remained a key theme for some, with participants sharing their journey ‘from clipboards to collaboration’. For example, teachers working in triads and observing each other, or NQTs conducting very short observations on a specific development point – an approach now being extended to other staff groups. Linking these observations to performance management or development targets has helped to maintain staff engagement. (See lesson observations: six ways to make them better for more ideas on improving the observation experience.)

Working across an alliance or group of schools extends opportunities for learning. One participant shared their experience of running a work shadowing programme for leadership development. Staff seeking to develop their leadership career or skills can apply for a work shadowing placement; specifying the focus or development need means the member of staff is matched with an appropriate colleague in another school. With costs limited to staff release time, this has also proved to be a financially viable approach and the programme has been extended from senior to middle leaders.

Cross-phase collaboration also featured in discussions. For me this was a particularly interesting area to explore, as I believe that there is much to be gained from primary and secondary colleagues learning together and from each other. Of course, there are many organisational differences between primary and secondary schools – but do children and how they learn magically change overnight in that transition from Year 6 to Year 7? (Interestingly, Joanne Miles, in writing about the lesson observation training day which was taking place at the same time as the summit, noted the positive impact of having primary, secondary and FE practitioners working together.)

So, I really enjoyed hearing about how one alliance has taken a cross-phase approach to their NQT CPD programme. Their SLEs run the NQT training for nursery, primary and secondary practitioners. Since starting to plan the training together, both SLEs and NQTs have gained a deeper understanding of and insight into teaching across the three phases.

Key takeaways for successful CPD

  • Involve support staff, TAs and admin staff: it’s not just about the teachers.
  • Start by auditing needs and plan accordingly.
  • Facilitate sharing across phases and departments where possible, rather than reinforcing divisions.
  • If you want staff to work together on projects, make sure you plan in adequate time for it.
  • Don’t assume that learning will get shared and embedded: structure follow up activity (e.g. from networking events).
  • Be very clear about the link between whole-school and personal development needs.

With our session limited to 30 minutes, we were probably somewhat ambitious in aiming to cover case studies, collaboration, engagement and outcomes all in one go. But we were able to facilitate sharing of experiences, suggestions and strategies, and raise questions for further exploration. Thank you to everyone who took part!

For more on effective professional development, read our blog posts on making CPD meaningful and developing your middle leaders.

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