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Building teaching and leadership development programmes at scale

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Date published 11 January 2024

Last updated 21 March 2024

Since their launch in 2021, over 25,000 teachers and school leaders have studied for a National Professional Qualification (NPQ) with Ambition Institute. This makes it one of our biggest programme offerings to date.

The research shows that professional development is the most cost-effective and sustainable way to help teachers and school leaders develop their skills (Zuccollo & Fletcher-Wood, 2020).

The NPQ programmes allow educators leaders to gain specialist qualifications across a range of teaching and leadership areas. They are informed by the best available evidence and focus on what educators need to know and be able to do to lead sustainable improvements in their schools.

But building programmes at this scale required careful planning, and we needed to take an innovative approach towards learning design and delivery. How do you turn a set of frameworks into a living, breathing programme, that educators can apply in their day-to-day work?

Our programme designers Katy Patten and Katie McHugh shine a light on the thinking that goes into creating a programme at scale, from design, to application and contextualisation.

Why NPQs?

The NPQs are flexible professional development courses for teachers and leaders to improve knowledge, progress careers and deliver improved outcomes for schools. They cover ten disciplines, ranging from early years leadership to mathematics.

They’re developed in collaboration with the sector, informed by the best available research and evidence, and endorsed by the Education Endowment Foundation.

Becoming a provider of the programmes presented both a challenge for us to scale up to this level, and an opportunity to provide children in disadvantaged areas with the best possible start in life.

Katie McHugh, Associate Dean of Learning Design is responsible for the production of learning resources for the NPQ programmes, ensuring participants get the best experience when engaging with our materials.

She says: "It's been really exciting to see how keen so many people - even those who have been teaching and leading for years - are to engage in the NPQ programmes and develop their knowledge base, and exciting for us an organisation to reach more participants than ever in pursuit of our charitable mission."

Bitesize materials

As a programme provider, our role is to take the government’s evidence-backed frameworks and create a curriculum that is ready for teachers and leaders to access and apply in their classrooms across the country. And there are lots of considerations involved in making that happen.

“We think hard about sequencing” says Katy Patten, a Dean of Learning Design who led on the design of the NPQs.

“We think about how we’re going to support participants to build strong mental models around content that deepen over time and apply that learning to their context. It’s about taking a detailed framework of requirements and making a programme that is engaging and applicable”.

Cognitive load is the amount of information the working memory can hold at a given time, and the capacity of working memory is limited. Our programmes are designed with this in mind, breaking each piece of learning down into manageable steps. They take participants gradually from bite sized knowledge acquisition, all the way through to supporting them to apply these learnings in their setting.

In practice, this might look like participants spending one hour per week building mental models around a particular theme, such as assessment. Learners will then choose from a range of small tasks depending on their role, such as reading some further research or reviewing a related aspect of their work in their school. They then attend peer group sessions to help make sense of the material that they have learnt.

“We hope this sequence of learning will enable them to apply their learning in their schools in a meaningful way” says Katy Patten.

“The intended result is teachers and leaders who are well prepared and knowledgeable in their roles, through programmes that are carefully designed to fit around their busy lives, without unnecessarily increasing their workload".

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A further priority of the Learning Design team is ensuring learning resources are accessible to all learners.

"When we approach accessibility within production, we know that we want participants to be able to access materials, and we also want participants to want to access materials", says Katie McHugh.

One way in which the team approach accessibility is to follow industry-wide accessibility guidelines, such as Web Consortium Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and prioritise them within all stages of their production process. The materials are designed to be accessible for all participants, including those who may have specific and additional needs and disabilities.

"I think it is important that we try to model best practice and take an 'inclusion by design' approach. This means considering the needs of our participants at the point of designing and producing our materials. It is a proactive rather than reactive approach to accessibility."

Blended model

We couldn’t develop a programme at scale alone. We work with a large network of delivery partners across the country. With their support, we can provide a blended model of learning, split between face to face and online resources.

Katy Patten says: “we needed to think really hard about which parts of our design lend themselves best to online learning, and what would be better further contextualised by our partners”.

By factoring in online learning, our design team were able to build continuity into the programme, to ensure that the thousands of participants are accessing the same evidence-informed resources.

Online learning also allows participants to learn in a way that suits them.

Katy Patten expands on this: “Participants can access their programme materials on multiple devices and at a time and place that works for them. Some schools organise specific times for their staff to complete their online study, which can help to build effective habits for professional development.”

“The content is also released in chunks. This means participants can get ahead and adjust around their working lives.”

"We think about how we’re going to support participants to build strong mental models around content that deepen over time and apply that learning to their context."

- Katy Patten, Dean of Learning Design at Ambition Institute


Our partners don’t just deliver the face-to-face portion of the programmes. They also provide crucial context that allows us to fine tune programmes to different school and trust settings.

“On these larger scale programmes, we increasingly try to show lots of strong examples in different settings,” explains Katie McHugh.

“We'll present a scenario from an early year’s classroom, and then a scenario from a secondary French classroom. Teachers can then explore the different examples and see the underlying principles in action in different ways."

She adds: “And we've worked with different leaders across the country, in a range of different settings, to capture their insights and share them with participants. We want teachers and leaders to see themselves in our materials."

Keep getting better

Our Learning Design team is motivated by the belief that teachers deserve better support, so that they can make an even bigger difference to children and enjoy a long and fulfilling career.

By adapting and innovating, the NPQs have presented an opportunity to improve the development of teachers and leaders on a whole new scale.

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