Lee Elliot Major argues that professional learning must be a joint enterprise

“Teach less, teach better.” John Tomsett’s impassioned words prompted immediate applause from the assembled teachers gathered from around the world. It was for me one of the ‘aha’ moments during the Sutton Trust-Gates Foundation summit on teacher development in Washington last November.

John was explaining how his school had restructured its timetable to make room for proper professional learning. Every other Monday afternoon the school day ends early to free up two hours for teachers to improve their practice. Observing and feeding back to fellow peers has become the norm at the school, with 63 hours dedicated to professional development throughout the academic year.

What’s more the school has monitored the impact on student results. And despite less than the recommended contact time with students, results have steadily improved. Of course Huntington School in York is not alone in this. During the summit we also heard similar stories from teachers from Singapore and Finland. Both countries outperform the UK in the international PISA rankings. They approach education in fundamentally different ways, with divergent views for example on high stakes testing and performance pay. But what unites them is an unrelenting focus on the continuous improvement of teachers.  In Singapore, every teacher in entitled to 100 hours of professional development per year.

The Sutton Trust’s report on the summit out this week sheds light on the great collaborative work teachers are doing to improve their teaching. It debunks the myth that teachers work in isolation behind a firmly closed classroom door.

This is a topic that is gaining attention not only among practitioners but also policy makers and politicians. The current Government launched a major consultation in December outlining its plans for a College of Teaching that will champion career-long teacher development. Meanwhile the Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt has raised this as a key issue, arguing for example that every school should embrace the findings of the Sutton Trust’s recent report, What Makes Great Teaching.

Improving teaching practice promises to be one of the central education priorities of the next Government after May 2015 whatever its political hue. This is long overdue. We know that good teaching – more than school type, curriculum reform or class size – has the sole biggest impact on the learning of pupils, particularly those from poorer backgrounds.

But the key challenge will be to replicate the truly effective professional learning witnessed at schools such as Huntingdon across the entire school system – particularly in schools in challenging circumstances.

The dilemma for whoever is sitting in Whitehall is how to give schools trust and freedom so that teachers themselves feel empowered to develop professional learning, while providing the incentives, checks and balances to ensure it does indeed happen. The school system has moved a long way since Blairite programmes drove through education reforms from central Government. And yet there are nagging doubts about how to scale up and implement education improvements under the Govian regime of increasingly autonomous schools anxious about high stakes accountability.

If a newly created College of Teaching is to be the answer it will need to pull off one of the most difficult balancing acts imaginable – serving the interests of teachers while mollifying the various political factions that divide the education landscape.

This has to be a joint enterprise. One promising development is that a group of UK head teachers who attended our international summit are meeting with senior advisers and political figures to start a proper discussion on this important topic. Whatever else, professional learning reforms will need to be of the teachers by the teachers for the teachers.

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