Schools want outstanding teaching, but how do you go about improving practice? Suzanne O’Connell discusses a new document that sums up the research into what works best.


There is general agreement that regardless of the structure of the education system, it is the teacher in the classroom that makes the difference. The White Paper The Importance of Teaching is based on that assumption: “The evidence from around the world shows us that the most important factor in determining the effectiveness of a school system is the quality of its teachers.”

However, it is easy to be sidetracked into debating the structure of the school system itself rather than looking more closely at how it might enable teaching and teachers to improve their practice.

The document, What Leads to Positive Change in Teaching Practice? tackles this issue and looks directly at what factors within a school can provide the right culture and environment for teaching to improve. The research was carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research and focused on the following questions.

  • What factors influence teachers to develop their teaching practice?

  • Are there forms of initial teacher training, continuous professional development, leadership, peer support or accountability structures that are most likely to encourage teachers to develop their teaching practice and contribute to positive change?

  • What evidence is there of positive change in teaching practice leading to improved outcomes for students and schools?

  • Is there evidence of the value for money of the different factors that lead to change in the classroom?

  • Is it possible to produce a map of the different factors influencing change and the interactions between the factors, as supported by the majority of evidence?

  • What gaps are there in the research about further work needed?

The report refers consistently throughout to previous research and documentation.


The report refers to three types of positive leadership.

  • Strategic leadership: where school leaders establish a clear and realistic vision for teachers to take ownership of.

  • Operational leadership: provision of activities to achieve that vision, a culture which supports innovation and in-depth learning opportunities for teachers.

  • Distributive leadership: others within the school support the change and it is not driven by the Head alone. A strong sense of direction and vision will help prevent competing reforms existing within a school.

The school community needs to see the purpose of the change and evidence that it will make a difference. Defensiveness can be a problem, and constructive problem solving that encourages ownership can help. New ideas need to be contextualised and appear relevant to the needs of the school.

Planning and preparation

The report identifies three themes around planning and preparation.

  • The strategic context: local and national policy and the impact this has.

  • Involving and listening: ownership of the change process and involvement of the entire school community.

  • Resources and systems: having the right resources and operating protocols to implement changes effectively.

There is general agreement that effective planning and preparation require school leaders to make their aims clear and be aware of in-school attitudes. Teachers can be particularly individualistic and need to be worked with realistically and respectfully.

It is important to acknowledge individual talents and allow self-expression, while balancing this with being ready to challenge “private” approaches to classrooms. Schools should consider involving members from across the school community in any development activity.

Partnership working should not just stay within the school. The report emphasises the role of combining research and practice development with researcher-school collaborations. Development should be built into all aspects of a school’s everyday activities, and the active and visible support of initiatives by school leaders is crucial.

The report draws attention to the insufficient use of pre- and post-initiative testing, and stresses how important this will be to back spending decisions.

Types of practice development

Practice can be developed through the influence of school leaders, peers or individual teachers themselves. The school needs to be committed to developing practice with plenty of opportunities to learn and implement ideas.

The Office for Public Management has identified three building blocks common to innovative schools.

  • Structures to encourage reflective practice.

  • Time to engage with the structures.

  • Culture allowing and expecting trial and error.

It is essential that teachers continue learning themselves in order to enhance pupil learning. They should be encouraged to develop a deeper understanding of the theories that underpin their skills.

The report warns against a “one-size-fits-all” and standards-driven approach, and emphasises the importance of models that can be adapted to the context. Leadership has a key role in creating the right conditions for innovations, but a combination of practitioner-led and leader-led innovation is advocated. Collaborative practice not only improves teaching but also leads to an element of peer accountability.

Monitoring and evaluation

It is important to know how well the changes are working and what impact they are having. This contributes to a sense of progress, and commitment to proposed changes is increased when there is evidence of success.

Monitoring and evaluation can be:

  • school-wide: the systematic collection and analysis of information, usually including exam scores

  • teacher-led: self-regulation by teachers

  • student-led: with students being involved in understanding what the change means for them.

Monitoring and evaluation should form a clearly understandable programme of activities within a common framework. Not all teachers agree that the success of innovative teaching can be measured through improved pupil performance in exams and tests.

Main factors to positive change

Finally, the report identified some of the main factors identified that lead to positive change, including:

  • community ownership, cohesion and commitment

  • clarity of purpose

  • use of evidence

  • coherent and realistic planning

  • adaptation to take contextual factors into account.

Last reviewed 5 November 2012