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Could a professional learning network help your school to improve?


How many years of experience are there in your staffroom? A hundred? Two hundred? 

That’s a good start when it comes to school improvement, but Professor Chris Brown reckons it’s not enough. 

“You need other points of view: the danger is that your school becomes a closed knowledge loop. Within a staffroom, you can access 100 to 200 years of knowledge, maybe more, but across five or six schools that magnifies. You can tap into a lot of knowledge that way,” he says. 

Chris, Professor of Education at Portsmouth University, is talking about professional learning networks (PLNs), which he has been supporting and researching for several years with schools in England and the US. He’s interested in how networks of teachers and academics using research can lead to better teaching, school improvement and improved outcomes for children, and he is presenting his latest findings at the BELMAS academic leadership conference in July. 

His latest research investigated how school leaders’ involvement is crucial to successful PLNs and school improvement. “One of the most important things is being committed to it and not letting the PLN disappear under other priorities. Often, we sign schools up, they see the purpose, but when people return from network meetings it goes out of sight,” he adds. 

How can school leaders support professional learning networks? 

Chris says school leaders need to do the following:

  • Stay involved. Make sure you know what’s going on. If you can participate yourself, even better
  • Understand the impact – make sure you report the effects back
  • Support the staff involved. Be clear that a part of their role is to help the school to improve by engaging in learning networks, introducing and developing effective practice in their school
  • Support the most effective integration approach to make a return on your investment and create effective change: approaches during the research varied from further within-school joint practice development and trialling to simply introducing innovations. “People need to understand and embrace any new approach. Without prior knowledge, people will ask ‘What’s wrong with the way we’re currently doing it?’ explains Chris.”

Which member of staff should participate in professional learning networks? 

School leaders should choose the person joining the PLN carefully. Who are you picking and why? “You need absolutely the right type of people. They need significant experience of the issue in question and enough gravitas, so they can make the change happen in their school. It’s not appropriate to send NQTs and probably not appropriate to send people without enthusiasm and drive.” 

Middle leaders are probably the best option, he says, providing they can galvanise colleagues into making changes. In the past, Chris worked with schools on staff maps to find influencers, but he has seen school leaders can usually identify those accurately: they’re often middle leaders with additional responsibilities, such as SENCos. 

They are at the centre of a web of connections and colleagues are used to approaching them for advice and support. “If you’ve got a new approach to teaching and learning, you need to make sure people are going to be able to ask about it and seek support,” continues Chris.   

How can school leaders use professional learning groups for school improvement? 

  • Having a network of professionals who don’t usually work together is important. Primaries can work with others, and large secondaries can work across departments
  • Make sure everyone gets effective feedback
  • Consider having an academic involved during the initial year or two. They can arrange meetings, and help participants to use research, develop an intervention and support good change management. 

How effective are professional learning groups in helping schools to improve? 

A major randomised control trial found key stage two outcomes improved when teachers were supported to use research: it didn’t conclusively prove the value of PLNs because participating schools were so keen to benefit, they all started using research, skewing the results. 

Chris’s smaller-scale projects showed dramatic results in writing outcomes for reception children in one school, where teachers also reported they felt empowered and professionalised. Recent work in US schools suggests PLNs are a rigorous way to engage with research to help teachers to develop and implement different classroom approaches. 

“I have a positive sense we are doing something well, and the teachers’ feedback I’ve been getting during the last four or five years is that the discourse changes in their classrooms and they are engaging in a much more professional way. We still have work to do to prove it definitely, but I am fairly confident about this. 

“If we’re expecting teachers and schools to identify and share best practice, we should think about this type of networking. Where schools are trying to bridge the gap of not having a local authority to support them, approaches like this can be meaningful,” concludes Chris. 

Understanding the role of school leaders in maximising the impact of professional learning networks is being presented by Professor Chris Brown at the BELMAS conference during the weekend of 7 July 2018. 

BELMAS is an educational leadership research association open to school and college leaders at all levels as well as academics, and it encourages members to generate and share ideas, and good practice. BELMAS is an independent voice supporting quality education from effective leadership and management. Find out more at

Susan Young

Susan Young is a journalist who has been specialising in education for more than 20 years. She was news editor and an assistant editor on the TES, where she created and edited a section for school leaders, and has also worked for the Observer and the Express.

As a freelancer, Susan writes for and works with a range of educational organisations, including the British Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society (BELMAS) and English UK.

She's interested in most things in education, from politics to practicality, but particularly loves hearing from professionals about the initiatives they're putting in place in their schools to make things better. Do get in touch.

First published 25 June 2018