What can we learn from TLIF about how to support schools in challenging circumstances?

By Matt Walker, NFER Senior Research Manager

Thursday 27 October 2022

The Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund (TLIF) was a three-year funding programme designed to support high-quality continuing professional development (CPD) for teachers and school leaders in areas in England identified as social mobility cold spots.

Ten projects were commissioned, each with a differing focus, with the intention of testing and learning from different approaches to CPD.

The fund was launched in February 2017, with most projects ending in March 2020. CPD was intended to lead to improvements in leadership and teaching quality in social mobility cold spots, with the overall aim of improving the outcomes of children and young people, thereby making a significant contribution towards tackling social mobility.

As part of a DfE-commissioned evaluation, a team from NFER and the Sheffield Institute of Education assessed the impacts of eight of these projects to explore what worked well, and less well, in the delivery of CPD and implementation of learning. The evaluation also explored the impact of the fund on participating teachers’ intentions to remain, and progress, within the teaching profession.

This blog post draws out key findings about ‘what worked’ in supporting school improvement, and provides valuable learning for future place-based initiatives, such as new Education Investment Areas.

What were the impacts of the fund?

The evaluation found strong evidence that TLIF contributed to positive changes in individual participants’ personal teaching and leadership practices. It also found moderate evidence of impact on whole-school practices and culture change, and some evidence that TLIF contributed to improving participants’ job satisfaction, which is associated with whether or not teachers remain in the profession.

Analysis of School Workforce Census (SWC) data showed that the TLIF projects had a positive association with teacher retention, with direct-project participants significantly more likely than teachers and leaders not participating in TLIF projects to remain in the teaching profession. However, we found no observable impact on teacher progression, or on the retention or progression of teachers in TLIF schools as a whole.

There was perceptual evidence from some of the projects of improved pupil learning behaviours or progress that might, in the longer-term, lead to improved progress and/or attainment for some pupils. However, it was not possible to explore this through the analysis of the National Pupil Database due to the cancellation of Key Stage 2 assessments and GCSE examinations for the 2020 cohort of pupils.

Interestingly, there was no clear relationship between the relative cost of a project and the achievement of outcomes or impacts. In other words, high project cost was not always positively related to effective outcomes.

What worked well

The TLIF evaluation findings provide some useful learning about effective and impactful CPD projects, which can inform the decisions of future funders, CPD providers and school leaders sourcing CPD. Projects that were associated with more positive outcomes:

  1. Offered a long duration of two terms or more: where projects were most successful, long duration was combined with high-quality delivery and support for implementation. Some short duration projects were also found to be effective where their goals/scope were tightly defined.
  2. Incorporated specific delivery approaches: such as audits; face-to-face coaching, mentoring, training and/or workshops with individual schools and groups of schools.
  3. Supported the implementation of learning: projects that incorporated time for participants to practise what they had learnt were more successful. Some projects also provided teachers with practical 'off the shelf' resources to use in lessons which helped them to embed changes in their practice. Some projects incorporated ‘plan-do-review’ processes which also helped to embed learning.
  4. Gained the full commitment of senior leaders: who helped to create the climate for professional learning necessary to support and sustain new learning and practices.
  5. Involved several staff from the same school: to support the embedding and sustaining of practice change across the school and to help ensure that learning and practice change remained even if staff moved elsewhere.

What worked less well

  1. Providers which struggled with recruitment: lacked existing relationships with schools; targeted their offer poorly; briefed intermediaries insufficiently; did not time the recruitment well (e.g. recruited during rather than prior to the start of an academic year); and allocated insufficient resources. Additional external factors which were a barrier to recruitment included: challenging school circumstances; competing with other funded initiatives; and schools needing to fund or find supply cover.
  2. Factors which hampered CPD delivery included: the use of inexperienced facilitators; online elements, including self-directed learning modules, which sometimes suffered from low levels of teacher/leader engagement; and cross-phase/subject delivery, which was sometimes perceived to be less relevant or tailored to the needs of participating teachers.
  3. Factors that hindered implementation of learning and practice change included: a lack of senior staff commitment; participants not being effectively empowered to make changes to their practice; workload/capacity issues; competing priorities; and high staff turnover. The COVID-19 pandemic also limited implementation of the learning from TLIF CPD as staff energies were diverted elsewhere.

Learning from the past to inform the future

TLIF’s approach of using evidenced-informed CPD that is adapted to local needs reflects a shift in government funding mechanisms over the last two decades, and it also provides valuable learning for future interventions.

While post-2010 saw the withdrawal of top-down interventions as policy moved to the creation of a school-led system, the government’s current approach recognises that schools in challenging circumstances can benefit from additional support. This led to the creation of evidence-informed place-based approaches, such as TLIF, the Strategic School Improvement Fund and Opportunity Areas, which were designed to meet local needs.

If new initiatives such as Education Investment Areas are to be successful, we must draw on the collective learning from TLIF and other similar programmes. School improvement can be a complex process, and an approach that works for one school or trust may not necessarily work for another. However, TLIF provides valuable insights into the features associated with successful programmes and provides ‘best bets’ for how we should design and implement school improvement interventions in the future.