Developing an action research-based model for College-wide Professional Development

Developing an action research-based model for College-wide Professional Development

Bishop Auckland College, SWD Training and Bishop Auckland Community Learning

This “umbrella” action research project encouraged 32 staff (including 13 Learning Support Assistants) across three sites and nine vocational and subject areas to trial improvements to their classroom and workshop practices.

The aims of the project were to:

  1. Encourage new and established teachers to collaborate in practitioner-led research as individually-tailored CPD
  2. Provide opportunities for new staff to establish their professional roles as research-active practitioners

Staff engaged in action research to promote their professional learning.  The project was designed to support groups of teachers to regularly meet and share practitioner research outcomes as the foundation for a culture of organisational improvement.

Staff identified personal improvement priorities and then collaborated in Action Learning Sets in implementing and evaluating change.


Prior to the project, a significant number of recently-qualified teachers did not register for QTLS following achievement of their DET (PG/Cert Ed programmes) and were not building on the significant personal progress they had made when following their initial teaching qualifications.

Local institutional research (Mattinson, 2018) had indicated that some staff were not benefiting from the generic CPD on offer (Scales 2012) which did not address issues that they identified as personal priorities. Also LSAs were not expected to engage in CPD activities.

Through this project, both new and established teachers, trainers and Learning Support Assistants engaged in a college-wide approach to improvements which practitioners had identified as personally important.

Project Activities and Outputs

This action research project encouraged teachers, trainers and support assistants across three sites and nine vocational and subject areas to trial improvements to their classroom and workshop practices. Staff identified their personal improvement priorities and then met in Action Learning Sets to implement and evaluate their chosen improvements.

A series of twilight CPD sessions were arranged to:

  • Introduce the idea of staff doing their own research into important local challenges.
  • Establish Action Learning Sets (ALS) and agree “change activities”.
  • Identify what evidence might be needed to demonstrate the impact of their changes to teaching.
  • Write up their individual research experiments for others to share.

Recently-qualified teachers drew upon personal development points from their initial training programmes to inform their chosen “change activities”, whilst experienced teachers reflected upon feedback from supportive walk-through observations.  The participants from FE College, community learning and training backgrounds critically compared new strategies and approaches to uses of ICT, peer-assessment, setting high expectations and recording learners’ planning activities.   Documentary evidence of their professional learning and changes in practice can be found in their individual reports. (See Appendix 1).

The teams of participants met at fortnightly intervals to plan and evaluate progress through their action research activities, and were also supported through regional practitioner research events.

The project leader encouraged accessible one-side research planning and reporting sheets, using headings of “Background issues”, “Planned changes”, “Findings”, Next Steps” and “Research Consulted”. (See Appendix 1 for a collection of 13 Reports which outlined participants’ action research activities.

The project was led by a teacher-educator (confident with both teaching strategies and inspection requirements) who enjoyed a good working knowledge of participating teachers’ practice.  The supportive relationship was important for encouraging staff to write-up research and to persevere when planned changes met fresh challenges.

The project leader invested time assisting the first-time researchers to produce accessible reports of change that contained meaningful evidence of their learners’ progress. These reports then became valuable for inspiring other participants on the project to write their own reports.

In an extension to the initial project, 11 LSAs working with higher needs learners shared their interests regarding the support they were offering to groups and individual learners.  Working in pairs or threes they identified resources, strategies and activities to meet the needs of individual learners.  The project lead and project mentor met with the LSA cohort every three weeks and additional support was offered during lunch time “drop in” meetings.

Professional Learning

Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices.

The participants from FE College, community learning and training backgrounds critically compared new strategies and approaches to uses of ICT, peer-assessment, setting high expectations and recording learners’ planning activities.

Narratives of their professional learning and changes in practice are detailed in the reports of individual and collaborative research. (Appendix 1)

Documentary evidence was gathered from revised lesson planning and Schemes of Work; re-designed resources together with evidence of learners’ planning, work and learners’ achievement outcomes; minutes from CPD and departmental meetings, departmental SARs for 2016-2017, and attendance and contributions to OTLA CPD events.

Key changes included:

  • vocational practitioners from five areas developed student-centred strategies and resources to promote learner mastery of the assessment process;
  • teachers using digital media to improve learners’ proactive engagement with British Values;
  • learners confidently addressing their British Values’ responsibilities.

21 participants contributed to 13 reports.  Practitioners systematically evidenced their developing research practice by providing samples of revised documents, together with targeted plans to “roll-out” their initiatives for both lower and higher-level learners.

In the extension to the initial project, 11 Higher Needs LSAs planned, implemented and evaluated resources, strategies and activities to meet the individual needs of learners against their Educational Health Care Plans (ECHP) and Vocational qualifications in a supportive environment that was all-embracing in an action research based CPD model.  LSAs and teachers were able to reflect critically on their practice to ensure that sustained improvements were evident for their individual learners.

In this extension project, LSAs described how engaging in introductory action research activities had encouraged them to be more proactive with learners rather than wait to act upon managing teachers’ directions.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisational practices

Vocational specialists from across the organisation planned, implemented and evaluated practical improvements which were often tested and validated in their colleagues’ classrooms and workshops.

Most importantly for organisational development, the separate practitioners’ initiatives were supportively evaluated in the regular twilight CPD sessions which provided a forum for new and experienced teachers to share fresh thinking and to evaluate proposed practical solutions to use in their classrooms.

Following this OTLA pilot, College management has noted the transformational impact on the culture of the college of this collaborative activity and introduced the following enhancements to CPD:

  • A revised CPD model has been “rolled out” across the college based upon the practitioner-led research initiative.
  • There will be an annual bursary to support 6 teachers towards completion of QTLS.

The extension project has given the LSAs a sense of worth, permission to engage in researching their own practice to meet the individual needs of the learners and helped build trusting, professional relationships between themselves and the teachers.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression.

Across all projects, teachers have gathered evidence of “distance-travelled” in improved learner outcomes, through measurable performance in sample assignments and assessed activities, and through observed changes in learner engagement, as evidenced in learners’ outputs.

Level 1 and 2 learners demonstrated improved self-efficacy in these projects which has increased their participation in workshops and classrooms.  These innovative self- and peer-assessment activities have resulted in more rapid independent skill development.

One identifiable benefit and validation of the self-and peer-assessment “change activities” has been the practitioners’ roll-out of successful approaches from their initial research classes to their more challenging classes, thus engaging and motivating learners who might not have been expected to take this level of responsibility for their learning.

 “After experimenting with various techniques, one LSA supported an adult learner to write her name for the first time in her life”

“Two LSA designed a ‘request and reward’ chart to enable a learner develop independence in managing toileting”

“100% of Level 3 BTEC IT students improved grades from Merit to Distinction in a pilot study trialling the use of exemplar assignments.”

Concluding Remarks

Learning from this project

Effective CPD was based upon a commitment from the organisation at all levels.  A supportive rhythm of activities – i.e. meetings based around research processes – ensured that the participants’ individual interest was sustained into action.  The invitation to external specialists to contribute to the in-house CPD programme helped motivate participants to research their own interests.

Several findings from this practitioner-focused project may have wider significance for the FE sector:

  • The project was effectively managed by a teacher-educator (confident with both teaching strategies and inspection requirements) who enjoyed a working knowledge of the participants’ practices from her supportive observations.
  • Vocational trainers were guided through the practitioner research process towards a one-side report detailing aims, ‘change activities’, findings, and evidence from the activity leading to ‘next steps’. They were supported through the writing process when relevant research evidence was discussed. (Examples of the focused one-side research reports are evident in the examples in Appendix 1)
  • Staff across different areas usually collaborated effectively (usually supported by a peer from their specialism).
  • This research activity has improved participating LSAs’ perceptions of their skills and potential. Learning Support Assistants proved to be active researchers when given appropriate support. LSAs would benefit from being given dedicated professional development which recognises their role within the classroom and college setting.
  • The college would benefit from the LSAs’ findings about their work being disseminated to all staff in their organisation. Managers need to draw upon the “craft expertise” of LSAs to educate mainstream staff about ways to maximise the contribution of support staff in teaching sessions.
  • In relation to the supported practitioner research activity, it was found that staff needed support between meetings when learners showed resistance to changes being introduced by their teachers. Some participants needed extra encouragement from the project leader to persist with changes until the participant’s new practices were accepted (and welcomed) by apprehensive learners. (See Trotter and Wade’s reports in Appendix 1)
  • Some staff made changes but did not develop the changes beyond the initial experiment, or they were reticent to gather evidence of change in the long-term, to confirm whether changes had a permanent effect – having tried something which worked, they directed their attention to resolve the next pressing issue.
  • Honest explanations about those interventions that had not been so successful represent valuable contributions to sector research knowledge. (See Appendix 1, Smith’s report on managing an assessor’s caseload.)
  • Very small-scale pilot activities involving one or two learners provided teachers with valuable insights into the potential of new ways of working with larger groups, without risking disruption to students’ existing routines. (See Appendix 1, Staples’ experiments to Increase the number of high grades in level 3 IT programmes.)


Appendix 1 – Bishop Auckland Practitioner Research Reports


Mattinson, E (2018) ‘Just Tell Me What To Do’: The Challenges Of Facilitating Professional Judgement In Vocational Trainee Teachers in Teaching in Lifelong Learning: a journal to inform and improve practice Vol 9 Issue 1 (forthcoming).

Scales, P (2012) The end of sheep-dip CPD?  in CPD Matters, Vol 2, Institute for Learning, London

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