One step at a time – could incremental coaching work in your school?

June 9, 2017
James Toop

James Toop

CEO, Ambition School Leadership

James Toop takes a closer look at our incremental coaching report, published today, and weighs up the pros and cons.

The most important job of a school leader is to ensure the highest quality teaching in every classroom in the school. Research shows that the best way to improve outcomes for every child, especially those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, is to improve the quality of teaching.

Finding effective ways to develop your teaching staff is the holy grail for every school leader, especially at the moment when every penny invested in CPD needs to deliver better outcomes for staff and pupils alike. At Ambition School Leadership we look for new approaches which are underpinned by research. That’s why we commissioned research into an emerging form of teacher development - incremental coaching. Based on an approach advocated by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo in Leverage Leadership, incremental coaching combines short sessions of observation and action-based feedback to help develop teaching practice.

A small number of schools in the UK have implemented incremental coaching as a means of CPD. Our evaluation looked at six schools over a number of months to gain insight into the pros and cons of this approach for teachers, pupils and schools.

The findings of the evaluation were a fascinating insight into how frequent but short development sessions can make a significant difference to daily teaching practice.

Investing in teachers

A major finding from the evaluation revealed the considerable commitment required from the whole leadership team of every school involved if incremental coaching was to work. In most cases, incremental coaching became a full-time position for the instructional lead, and time had to be put aside for each teacher to be observed and to receive feedback. Planning was a crucial element to the success of incremental coaching, as it is a complex addition to a school timetable.

When observation and feedback were given low priority teachers became less engaged. It was most effective when the leadership team was fully invested in it – incremental coaching certainly isn’t something you can do superficially.

When put into place correctly, the approach saw positive outcomes. Incremental coaching was found to promote the consistent application of teaching principles, and many teachers felt it had helped to make their school a more open professional learning community.

"Incremental coaching was found to promote the consistent application of teaching principles"

Not another tick box

We all know that teachers have huge workloads and plenty to do outside of the classroom as it stands. Incremental coaching is time-intensive, and teachers need to feel they are getting something out of it. When coaches were also line-managers, coachees could feel that incremental coaching was just one more aspect of performance management, which added unnecessary work and stress. Incremental coaching worked best when it was developmental and non-judgemental. This was achieved when a school was immersed in a supportive incremental coaching culture.

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Building on incremental coaching

We found that incremental coaching received mostly positive reactions from staff. Teachers found it useful to develop skills one step at a time, and found that it made improvement easily digestible.

There were a number of ways that those surveyed in our evaluation thought incremental coaching could be improved however. These included more training for coaches, ensuring feedback happens as soon as possible, and peer observation of the coach by the coachee.

In theory, the developmental goals of incremental coaching are exciting and it appears to be a great way to embed best practice in schools. The idea that teachers are constantly striving to improve and are being helped to do this by their peers also speaks of a school that is open to, and desirous of, professional development for its staff.

In practice, things like time and perceptions of performance management can get in the way of the noble intentions of incremental coaching. But if a school is invested in teacher development, and willing to put aside the time for it, then incremental coaching can be a practical tool for improving the effectiveness of teaching.

Find out more

You can find more information about our incremental coaching report, including a download of our 12-page summary and the full report, over on our incremental coaching webpage.

For further discussion, read Peter Matthews’ ‘The power of incremental coaching – improving teaching quality’ in issue 19 of Professional Development Today on page 40.


This article originally appeared on the website of the Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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