Rebecca Underwood spent 21 years as a teacher and senior leader before becoming School Improvement Lead for Teacher Development at Avanti Institute.
She remembers the “ineffective and 'one size fits all' continuing professional development” (CPD) she received earlier in her career. “It was a process that was done to you, rather than alongside you or with you.” This is why, in her role overseeing professional development at 12 schools across the country, she is determined to promote teacher agency and ensure that all staff are motivated to succeed when it comes to accessing quality CPD.
Rebecca has supported over 50 teachers and leaders through National Professional Qualifications (NPQs) delivered by Ambition Institute. This is made possible by the strong belief within Avanti Schools Trust that everyone can improve. This process of continuous improvement is very important to the trust and key to retaining quality teachers and improving pupil outcomes.
Avanti Schools Trust set up Avanti Institute in 2021 with the aim of enabling teachers to thrive through professional development. The results so far have been very positive, with big changes in staff culture and an important growth in understanding of the need for CPD for leaders.
“Before we began engaging with Ambition's NPQ programmes a couple of years ago, there was a misconception of what CPD was,” says Rebecca. “It was perceived as uninspiring and rarely led to positive change. Now, staff feedback linked to CPD opportunities has vastly improved. Staff are listened to and encouraged to access evidenced informed research linked to the range of NPQs available.”
Embedding a culture of effective CPD
Rebecca herself has completed the NPQ in Leading Teaching Development (NPQLTD), which has supported her in embedding principles of effective CPD across the trust’s schools. “My role initially was to embed that culture and to ensure that we had the right mindset when it came to what effective CPD looks like,” she comments.
“Of course, first there’s the planning and the listening stage, and then the processing. I did a lot of needs-based research in each of the schools to really understand their requirements, because the schools are all at different stages of professional development.”
She notes that Ambition's emphasis on the theory of change and the importance of careful implementation heavily influenced her approach. “Everything is carefully and meticulously planned, ensuring that teachers’ prior knowledge and expertise is captured.”
It’s not been without effort. “It’s taken a while - at first there was negativity around change and something new,” she explains. “But now there’s a shared language around learning mechanisms, active ingredients and cognitive science in CPD,” all of which are core to the NPQs. Rebecca says, “Ambition, and that whole NPQ approach, really influenced my delivery.”
One of the trust’s aims in engaging with NPQs is to motivate, value and retain staff. It wants to offer them ownership of their future learning and development. And so far, Rebecca notes, staff have fully engaged with the NPQs.
“There’s been a shift in staff culture,” she says, “because of the agency and autonomy that we’ve given to teachers. They’re on their own CPD journeys, and we’re supporting them in different ways. For example, we’re giving each of them £100 to buy books to go alongside their programmes.”
Improving outcomes for schools and pupil
Rebecca says there have been some excellent success stories from schools that have engaged with the NPQs. “Avanti House Secondary comes to mind. They are now in the top 20 schools in London with a Progress 8 score in 2022 of 1.17% (meaning grades were higher than the national average).”
“The use of high-quality CPD there has been key to the school's success,” she continues. “It’s certainly benefited from Avanti's wider initiative to appoint CPD leaders in each school. I work really well with the CPD lead at Avanti House Secondary because of that shared language Ambition has given us, as well as the NPQ approach of delivering smaller chunks of CPD.”
Rebecca feels this has been replicated across the trust. “All our CPD leaders recognise that professional development needs to be sustained, collaborative, evidence informed and have full buy-in from all staff, while drawing on external expertise where possible. They are really helping to drive change that improves pupil outcomes.”
This change can also be seen in many other Avanti schools, such as Avanti Park School in Frome. “Avanti Park has made huge strides in improvement over the last three years,” she says. “Staff culture has completely changed. The Principal, along with her senior leaders, have a strong visionary outlook. She has empowered the teachers so they’re more willing and open to embrace new ideas, and I think that's important.”
A framework for future development
Avanti has now tailor-made its own learning and teaching framework using a range of highly effective strategies and methods of research gained from Ambition's NPQ programmes.
“We gather staff feedback from those who have participated in NPQs. We then select the active ingredients that resonate with us and incorporate them into our own CPD programmes. The emphasis on cognitive science and the evidence available through the NPQs is very important to us and our educational strategy. Our new Learning and Teaching framework also incorporates many strands from the NPQLTD and the National Professional Qualification in Senior Leadership (NPQSL) programmes.”
Inspired by the NPQ programmes, Avanti has also developed professional learning networks across the trust. These take various forms, including networking which allows teachers to collaborate and problem solve. There are also 15-minute online sessions. Both external experts and Avanti staff lead these introductory sessions which aim to motivate staff and deliver key messages. Participants can then break off into subject or phase groups to discuss successes and barriers linked to their role.
This, Rebecca says, promotes understanding, compassion and empathy between staff. “It’s particularly important for our small schools that have only one class in each year, as they can speak to other schools within the same year group.” Avanti is now also running these 15-minute sessions with its staff as a whole.
Overall, Rebecca feels the NPQs have allowed the trust to fully realise the benefits of professional development. “For me and colleagues within my team, it revolves around initiating a cultural transformation. It’s about understanding what constitutes effective professional development and recognising its influence on a school's culture. It entails a shift in perspective towards the adoption of a common language and I believe this is one of the most significant advantages.”
She also highlights the effect this has on resource planning for the future. “It assists Avanti in preparing for future leadership transitions and, ideally, retaining staff across our schools. We really encourage them and provide support throughout their NPQ journeys. Given the current challenges we all face with recruitment in education today, retaining staff and nurturing them is highly important to us.”