Following its first inspection cycle in 2015/16, Dubai's Victory Heights Primary School (VHPS) was rated Good by the KHDA's Dubai School Inspection Bureau an impressive result for a school's first inspection.
One area of improvement recommended by the DSIB team was consistency of teaching. According to VHPS, the feedback from an English DSIB inspector noted "in the best lessons there was evidence of everything that you would want to see in a lesson. The thing to work on is improving the consistency of teaching, to ensure that all teaching is at a similar standard, or near enough".
In order to continue driving improvement, the school restructured its professional development programme for teachers. While the school's CPD strategy previously included weekly workshops on Tuesday afternoons, as well as a triad system with teams of teachers in three conducting peer observations, it left some teachers feeling they didn't have enough time to meet their colleagues or observe as many lessons as they'd like, VHPS principal Sasha Crabb tells Education Journal Middle East.
Overseeing the restructure of the school's CPD programme were VHPS assistant headteacher Matt Hawley and head of technology and innovation Ben Rothwell.
The new teaching and learning support structure in troduced in early 2017 makes wider use of middle leadership to ensure that subject teaching and learning aims and initiatives are more widely embedded across the school.
As part of the new structure, subjects have leadership "teams" who meet regularly to discuss teaching and learning and curriculum in their subject areas. The teams include one "subject expert" from each key stage. Each key stage team now has several leaders the year leaders for day to day leadership, and subject experts to support subject delivery. One representative from each subject team also sits on the "innovate team". Under the new system, subject experts are accountable to the subject teams to implement and evaluate strategies and concepts and bring back key findings to the subject group. In order to do so, they will need to collaborate and reflect alongside teachers in their key stages, thus enhancing collaboration and reflection.
While the core teams include Maths, Science, and English, other subject areas such as Arabic aren't ignored.
Crabb explains: "We've never kept our Arabic department separate to our training. We've always included them, if for instance, we're doing a session on critical thinking or if we were doing something about the use of particular apps in a session. They were always part of our weekly sessions. With the new model, if there is a need for translation and understanding pedagogy, then they can do it at their own pace in a less intimidating environment than the whole school being together. And even within the Arabic department, we've got different skills and experience."
Rothwell adds: "Another useful thing that's come from aiding Arabic learning is they've highlighted that when the Arabic lesson stops, the Arabic learning stops, which isn't the case with English. So as part of the VHPSU, the Arabic department are offering basic Arabic lessons once a week that people have the option to go to and they'll learn about what the students are learning in the lessons so that they can support Arabic learning as well. Also a major piece of feedback that we got from our last inspection was the use of assessments in Arabic. So they're currently trying a new assessment model."
While the teaching and learning support structure encourages collaboration among teachers, Rothwell acknowledges that a great deal of learning goes on beyond school walls. To recognise and encourage this, the team wanted to create a bespoke CPD programme that catered to the differentiated needs of VHPS' teachers.
To this end the school introduced VHPS University, which puts the onus on the teachers to carry out at least 50 hours of self-directed CPD per year, and 15 hours for teaching assistants.
While some teachers were apprehensive about the minimum hours required, Rothwell explained that weekly workshops that were nearly an hour and a half long would add up to 50 hours anyway. Teachers could now use that time to learn things that were relevant to their subject area or could help improve their individual skills.
Hawley explains: "The thing with workload is if you do the work and see it as a benefit, then you're happy with it. But it's the unnecessary workload when you go to an hour and a half meeting that really has had no impact on you, that's when people feel resentful. And I think over the course that VHPSU has been running, people are starting to realise that that's never happening to them anymore. So they're happy to give up their time because they're not having to go to those pointless meetings that weren't relevant to them."
The self-directed professional development can take the form of internal training, master's or higher education courses, action research, peer observations, writing blogs, or taking accredited courses.
When it comes to topics to focus on, Rothwell notes: "There's a limited amount of handholding. Certainly the more mature teachers would need less of that compared to teachers who have been in the profession a shorter period of time. We tend to let them have free will, but we may observe some areas they might need to focus on, so a lot of the performance management gives examples of areas for development. And we also have an online website where we have information about upcoming courses that we share in a weekly email as well, so we try and direct staff in that sense.
The team also encourages the teachers to focus on research projects during their 50 hours of self-directed CPD.
Crabb is keen to highlight the importance of action research and the role it plays in improving teaching practice. She explains: "Action research is particularly important if we want to have an impact within the school. At the moment, for example, we're focusing on the language of learning. It's not just about the teacher's performance but how all of their training and the things that they are researching has an impact on the children themselves. We've been looking at how to embed that within the school and how that impacts the children so can they talk about what they learned today rather than what they did.
"We were quite inspired as a leadership team when we went to see John Hattie speak at Hartland in February, and we're now working with Visible Learning to get them to do some training as well and how to look at learning through the eyes of a child. So there's a lot of things that we wanted to see that will actually have an impact, for which I think the action research is quite relevant."
Rothwell adds: "Research is a big part of what we're trying to do. If at the end of this we evaluate what staff have done over the course of the year, and the research projects take up 50% of the total time, that would be a good number for us, because teachers are putting what they've learned into practice and coming up with quantitative data to prove whether something works or doesn't. So that's the golden milestone really for us."
While teachers will now have more time to focus on CPD that's relevant to them, VHPS will still hold whole-school sessions when relevant.
Rothwell explains: "We do have some sessions we still run for the whole team. There might exceptional speakers that may be available that we want to bring in, or we might have a session on something that concerns the law, for instance child protection, and we have to deliver these to the whole staff. So I'm not saying we are going to completely eliminate staff meetings, but we're trying to minimise them to let teachers have bespoke options as much as they can."
At the end of the 2016/17 academic year, the team conducted a survey to see what the staff thought of the VHPS University CPD model. These results were then compared with the results of the teacher survey in 2015/16. Given that VHPSU was only set up in early 2017, the findings were largely positive.
According to Hawley, when asked whether the new model had improve their teaching, there was a 128% increase in positive responses to the previous year. When asked about teacher voice and leadership opportunities, there was a 700% increase in positive responses. When asked whether the CPD was inclusive and well-planned, there was 250% increase in positive responses. Furthermore, 96.2% of teachers believed the new CPD model was a positive step forward for VHPS, while 84.6% would recommend a similar programme to other schools. And while some teachers initially believed that 50 hours were excessive, 61% of respondents believed the number of hours were appropriate.