Supporting professional learning through action research

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Teachers at Castell Alun High School have worked in teams to evaluate teaching looking at different themes as part of the school’s wider continuous professional development programme. Success can be attributed to a collaborative ethos that has generated high quality learning in the classroom and beyond.

Number of learners: 1,360
Age range: 11  18
Date of inspection:  September 2017

Information about the school

Castell Alun High School is an English-medium, mixed 11 to 18 comprehensive school located in the village of Hope, Flintshire.  There are 1,360 pupils on roll, including 300 in the sixth form.  These figures are very similar to those at the time of the previous inspection in December 2013. 

The school serves a wide area made up of mainly rural communities.  Around 7% of pupils are eligible for free school meals, which is much lower than the national average of 16.5%.  Fewer than 2% of pupils live in the 20% most deprived areas of Wales.  Around 14% of pupils have an additional learning need, and just over 1% have a statement of special educational needs.  Both of these figures are below the Welsh averages of 22.7% and 2.2% respectively.  Most pupils are from a white, British background.  There are a very few pupils who are fluent in Welsh or have English as an additional language.

The headteacher has been in post since September 2013.  The senior leadership consists of a deputy headteacher and four assistant headteachers.  At the time of the inspection, the deputy headteacher had been in the role of acting headteacher for the previous three months. 

Context and background to the effective or innovative practice

As part of the senior leadership team’s vision for professional learning, the school decided to focus on improving teachers’ ability to evaluate their practice in light of its impact on pupils’ progress.  They wanted to encourage their staff to consider and improve their teaching approaches continuously.  Leaders feel that professional learning is most effective when colleagues are given ownership of their development through the personal selection of appropriate training opportunities.  There is also an expectation that all staff will volunteer their services to facilitate the learning of others. 

Description of nature of strategy or activity

All teaching colleagues are members of an ‘enquiry team’.  Teams undertake research-based subject or learning area projects.  Each of these undertake specific initiatives to evaluate particular teaching approaches.  This happens during scheduled subject meeting times and training days.  Colleagues set performance management targets with their ‘enquiry team’ focus in mind and, towards the close of the year, teams and individuals showcase their projects in an annual ‘speed-learning’ event to other staff teams during whole-school training time.  Over the last three years, action-research themes of the enquiry teams have included:

  • improving extended writing
  • building better learners through resilience and reflection
  • making more effective use of technology
  • helping learners to become better critical listeners and thinkers through problem solving tasks
  • flipped classrooms/learning
  • the use of social media in teaching and learning
  • getting students excited about numeracy
  • peer-led learning
  • stretching and challenging students through higher-order thinking skills development
  • increasing student engagement in homework
  • making the language of learning visible in classrooms – increasing students’ awareness of their own thinking (metacognition)

Programmes for newly qualified teachers (NQTs) are run entirely by school staff and cover all key themes for colleagues at the earliest stages of development.  These supplement external courses funded by the Education Workforce Council (EWC).  A high number of NQTs receive either promotion or extra responsibility within the first three years of their career.

The school provides surveys to all staff to determine the professional development themes that would be of most use and interest to them.  Leaders then organise a series of after-school training sessions, with all full-time colleagues attending at least four of the six evenings provided.  Four different sessions are provided per evening, allowing the school to cover the majority of requests in a year.  Sessions are led by in-house specialists and, in a small number of cases, by externally sourced (usually free of charge) providers.  The sessions are very well attended by teachers.  Governors and support team members also show a genuine and growing interest.

The school has also set up a ‘Leadership Training Forum’ (LTF), open to all, which meets once per half term over lunch.  This is essentially a relaxed environment for sharing good practice, which colleagues attend voluntarily to receive input and challenge on key leadership skills.  The LTF also forms a ‘think-tank’ for how interested colleagues can become more centrally involved in driving forward whole-school themes in order to develop their skills and the school further.

The school additionally sources relevant training from specialists, either in other schools or organisations, who will normally cover supply costs at least (for example GwE, WJEC, local authority partners, local trainee leadership mentors and local universities).  School training days are used to provide updates and discussions on whole school developments in line with the school development plan and self-evaluation report. 

What impact has this work had on provision and learners’ standards?

The success of the model is perhaps most evident through the dynamic ‘working buzz’ about the school.  There is a sense of everyone collaborating to help each other and be helped by others in the school.  Training is evaluated through questionnaires, on-line surveys, scheduled feedback slots in meetings and anecdotal evidence.  However, an ongoing programme of lesson observations and the use of focused learning walks provide strong evidence of the direct link between professional development and high quality learning in the classroom and beyond.