According to the Working Lives of Teachers and Leaders survey, the median reported time spent on continuing professional development by teachers in England is 21-30 hours per year—approximately half an hour a week (Adams et al., 2023, pp 36-46, p 124). That compares with their average working week of about 50 hours in total, about half of which is spent actually teaching. So, if we believe these surveys, roughly 1% of an average teacher’s working time is spent in professional development (PD).
On the one hand, any call to get teachers to spend more time doing anything has to be made very cautiously. Workload for many is far too high and contributes to challenges of wellbeing, recruitment and retention. On the other hand, half an hour a week on the thing that has the most potential to improve the experience and outcomes of young people does seem pathetically little. Our response is that we do need to increase the time teachers spend on professional development, but also reduce their overall workload.
The rationale for professional development and its strategic importance
There is plenty of good evidence that teachers vary in the amount of learning that happens in their classrooms, that this effectiveness grows with experience, especially in the first few years of teaching, and that the growth can be accelerated by high-quality professional development (for example, Chetty et al., 2014; Fletcher-Wood & Zuccollo, 2020; Kraft & Papay, 2014; Sims et al., 2022). However, talking about the impact of ‘professional development’ as a thing is probably not very helpful. The reason for this is threefold: because PD covers such a range of different things; because most educational interventions will include some component of PD; and because the quality of different programmes varies so much.
Nevertheless, taken as a whole, research evidence supports the view that high-quality professional development for teachers gives a substantial boost to student attainment—so much so that it compares well with other interventions that schools might choose. Crucially, this boost is not a one-off impact that then washes out when the intervention ends; skills, knowledge and habits acquired through professional development keep giving benefits for every student that teacher subsequently teaches. And there is some evidence that PD can have wider benefits, including on teachers’ job satisfaction and retention (Fletcher-Wood & Zuccollo, 2020; Sims et al., 2022).
It follows that for a school leader who cares about student outcomes and has even a passing interest in evidence, investing in professional development of staff should be a top priority. Strategy is about finding ways to deliver an organisation’s goals by matching its available resources to activities with high leverage. If the long-term goals include student learning and teacher wellbeing, then PD should be prominent in the strategy.
All this is hard to reconcile with conversations amongst teachers and school leaders who say, “We have no time for PD.” Allocating 30 minutes from a 50-hour week does not scream ‘top priority’. For a strategic leader, time is a resource, not an excuse; you make time for the things that matter.
Explaining the anomaly
How do we explain the mismatch between the evidence that professional development should be a top priority, and the priority (as measured by time) that it typically gets?
One explanation is that teachers and school leaders do not believe that PD will be effective (and perhaps do not know how to make it so). Actually, that might be quite a rational position to take; common experience (and a fair bit of evidence) is that PD often isn’t great. So, to make the case for more time on PD, we have to ensure that what we use that time for has the most chance of leading to teachers becoming more effective. That is a core design focus of the Great Teaching Toolkit—and the subject of a future blog.
Another reason is that leaders concentrate more on short-term rather than long-term goals. Accountability pressures and a focus on current students could lead us to think that this year’s results matter more than those in three (or five, or ten) years’ time. For sure, some tactical quick fixes could have more impact on short-term outcomes than the slower burn that is PD—and for a school in acute crisis, a quick fix is needed. But as a strategy for most schools, rotating quick fixes is a toxic, inefficient way to go.
A third explanation is that there are indeed a lot of things teachers do that have more immediate drivers than PD. If teachers don’t spend time on PD, no one is obviously going to suffer—or even notice. By contrast, if teachers have not prepared their next lesson or marked the work from the last one, the consequences can be immediate, obvious and painful. As human beings, we are all motivated more by pain or gain that is immediate. By choice, teachers will tend to fill up all their available time with these necessary tasks, and find it hard to replace the immediate gratification they provide with the promise of delayed gratification offered by PD.
How can leaders find more time for professional development?
A key principle is that schools can’t just add professional development on as an extra thing; something must be taken away. Fortunately, most schools should be able to find plenty of time-consuming things that add less value than professional learning. Exactly what these things are and how to stop doing so much of them is a key focus in the support for school leaders in the Great Teaching Toolkit. The three top things that teachers report spending time on are marking, lesson preparation and ‘admin’ (Adams et al., 2023).
All of these can be important and necessary. All are hard to reduce. But all can be done more efficiently than they often are, freeing time for other things that have more impact (Hamilton, Hattie, & Wiliam, 2023).
To give just one example, where a group of teachers teach the same content, particularly if they are likely to teach it more than once, it makes no sense for each of them to develop resources and schemes of work independently. In many cases, there will be high-quality resources available externally that they could all use. If not, collaboration—provided it is done well—is both more efficient in time and produces higher quality outputs. That does not mean that individual teachers cannot then adapt their lessons to their context; they should not have to, and certainly should not start from scratch. Many other suggestions and resources to help schools reduce workload can be found in the DfE’s Workload Reduction Toolkit.
Professional development is the strongest lever school leaders hold for increasing long-term student outcomes. Great leaders find ways to implement PD to maximise its impact, to prioritise long-term benefits over shiny quick fixes, and to make time for PD by reducing the time teachers spend on less effective things. Because we know that all these things are really hard to do, we have designed the Great Teaching Toolkit to offer PD structures and content, feedback tools for teachers and leaders, and a focus on effective classroom teaching and learning interactions that help all leaders to be Great.
References & further reading
Adams, L., Coburn-Crane, S., Sanders-Earley, A., Keeble, R., Harris, H., Taylor, J., & Taylor, B. (2023). Working lives of teachers and leaders – wave 1.
Chetty, R., Friedman, J. N., & Rockoff, J. E. (2014). Measuring the Impacts of Teachers II: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood. American Economic Review, 104(9), 2633–2679. https://doi.org/10.1257/aer.104.9.2633
Fletcher-Wood, H., & Zuccollo, J. (2020). The effects of high-quality professional development on teachers and students: A rapid review and meta-analysis. https://epi.org.uk/publications-and-research/effects-high-quality-professional-development/
Kraft, M. A., & Papay, J. P. (2014). Can professional environments in schools promote teacher development? Explaining heterogeneity in returns to teaching experience. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 36(4), 476–500. https://doi.org/10.3102/0162373713519496
Sims, S., Fletcher-Wood, H., O’Mara-Eves, A., Cottingham, S., Stansfield, C., Goodrich, J., Herwegen, J. van, & Anders, J. (2022). Effective teacher professional development: New theory and a meta-analytic test. (EdWorkingPaper: 22-507). https://doi.org/10.26300/rzet-bf74
Hamilton, A., Hattie, J., & Wiliam, D. (2023). Making room for impact: A de-implementation guide for educators. Corwin.