5 ways to crack the 5th year ceiling

There have been more welcome sounds from government recently that improving QTS (entry level qualification of teaching) is a priority for workforce development. This has been an area of much policy intervention of the last few years; Teach First has driven the agenda in the teacher recruitment arena, government responded with Schools Direct, Gove made noises about taking universities out of the process, then it turned out that school-based provision was largely being outsourced to universities anyway so ‘the blob’ was oozing into through the backdoor, and now Justine Greening is talking about looking at it again. However, whilst teacher recruitment is important there is a growing consensus that this is only part of the solution- we need to keep the excellent teachers we already have.

The third year plateau has been blogged about extensively- by way of summary; experience is not a significant differential in teacher performance after about the first three years. After that point, teachers don’t really improve. I also sometimes refer to the fifth year plateau. This is different- this is the point at which teacher retention rates for all routes (PGCE, Teach First etc) drop dramatically. I would suspect this drop off is a combination of marginal improvements in teaching practice combined with an assessment about career progression and pay- either SLT or bust. (Warning: that is just a theory!)

So; how to overcome the fifth year drop off? Research would have us believe two things. Firstly, teachers need to feel effective to be effective. Secondly, a great way to foster this sense of self-efficacy is through professional learning communities. However, whilst many schools have boldly walked into the world of professional learning communities too few pay close attention to how to implement them effectively. Here is a summary of key features of PLCs/TLCs drawn from the readings below:


  1. Strategic

Teacher learning communities cannot be artificially created simply for the sake of it if they are to help teachers improve. The group must be responding to a real need within the school community that is of strategic importance. Need to improve the sixth form? Set up a TLC with teaching and learning for catering to that group of students. This will ensure all actions are meaningful in the context of the school. (See this graph based on Timperley, Kaser & Halbert 2014 for what this might look like)

2. Specific

Outcomes need to be measurable and group action will only be powerful if being driven at the same problem. Avoid generic attempts to improve learning wholescale e.g. ‘increasing challenge’. What does ‘challenge’ mean? In the curriculum? In assessment? Both? The risk is that vague wording leads to limited actions e.g. a teacher tries ability groupings in one lesson to target challenge at some students… Focus the group on concepts that are (relatively!) easy to define e.g. metagcognition, academic literacy, or effective homework. This allows for better actions and better sharing between individuals.

3. Linked to the individual practitioner

Participants must also recognise that membership of the community will be of personal benefit. In the English educational context one way of doing this is to link membership to performance development targets; that way it just becomes part of the fabric of professional development. Outside of the English educational context, or where such targets have been abandoned, participation in a community needs to be linked to an authentic goal- the participant needs to tackle underachievement of a particular group in their classes etc and this community will support in that.

4. Facilitative not directive

Teachers three years into the job come with a lot of prior knowledge and experience. It is likely they have seen every PPT slide on Duckworth and Dweck there is going. They are therefore less likely to respond to direct instruction, not least because if criteria 1 is met then they may well be dealing with a complex problem that won’t be solved by one approach alone or the unthinking application of a particular programme. They will need to negotiate, to be challenge and to tweak. Meetings should therefore be designed to spark a discussion and structure meaningful collaboration. Yes- share recent insights from relevant research but discussions are they key to harnessing the best of the group. Direct instruction is only effective under the assumption that you are delivering to people with little prior knowledge who need a scaffolding of basic ideas.

5. High trust and pro-risk

This seems to be an incredible important feature of effective professional learning communities. If professional learning communities are to improve teaching practices they need to challenge practitioners to change rather than simply sustain. If a school has a low trust, closed-door atmosphere, the effectiveness of the community will be limited; individual teachers are more likely to maintain a defensive stance towards their own work. It doesn’t matter if there are strong disagreements between individuals and a lack of consensus- an environment in which individuals feel able to challenge each other without shutting anything down shows that people can trust each other and are happy to be honest. In fact, observations of teacher learning communities suggest that teachers are too polite and as a result rarely move into the challenging, critical discussions necessary for the building of knowledge. How did they find this out? By comparing meetings discussing assessments and those discussing instruction; the former was much more likely to lead to the kind of (gently) argumentative and critical discussions necessary for genuine learning among adults. This needs to be replicated when discussion teaching practice.

Resources not hyperlinked:

Day, C. and Gu, Q. (2014), Resilient Teachers, Resilient Schools, Abingdon: Routledge.

Knowles, M.S., (1970). The modern practice of adult education (Vol. 41). New York: New York Association Press.

Munoz, Z.J., (2008). Exploring the Impact of Teachers’ Sense of Efficacy Upon Hispanic High School Students’ Academic Achievement. ProQuest.

Porritt, V, Spence-Thomas, K. and Taylor, C., 2017 “Leading professional learning and development” In: Earley, P. and Greany, T., School Leadership and Education System Reform, London: Bloomsbury, pp. 121-130

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s