RSA Essays: Licensed to Create? Incentives for improving teacher quality.

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Today, the RSA has published a collection of 10 essays on the theme of improving teacher quality and the concept of licensing.  This has been, in part, stimulated by Tristram Hunt’s policy proposals.   I was delighted to have been invited to contribute an essay and I have included mine in full below.  Interestingly, the content of these essays echoes much of the material that we discussed at the Sutton-Gates Washington Summit, which is encouraging.

The full report can be accessed via the RSA website alongside a new animation created to accompany the report.

What’s the incentive? Systems and culture in a school context.


The article suggests that for a licensing system to be effective, it needs to create genuine incentives at the level of systems and culture.  This should apply to teachers and school leaders such that they work together to develop a strong evidence-led professional culture leading to improved learning outcomes for students.  Picking up on the idea of design – a form of creativity that suggests deliberate, planned innovation built on a foundation of research-informed professional wisdom – the article suggests a model for school-based CPD that would provide cost-effective career-long development for all teachers.


I can imagine a time in the future when a license to teach could be highly prized as a badge of membership of an esteemed profession; a mark of quality signifying that the holder has sustained their engagement in a rigorous programme of professional learning and has the knowledge and skills required to be highly effective in securing student learning. By the same measure, a future school that proudly maintained a staff body comprised of fully licensed teachers, thereby retaining its own licensing powers, would be one with a deep culture of professional learning; a school where teachers are supported by structures that ensure they can and do engage in the process of developing their knowledge and practice on an ongoing basis and where teachers themselves are driving the system. A school leader, running a school of licensed teachers would be someone with a responsibility and commitment to develop each teacher such that their license could be continually renewed at any stage of their career; it would be an embedded aspect of their leadership role that they create and sustain the culture needed to support professional learning at the level required to meet the licensing criteria.

With that future in mind, a licensing system with the right spirit and intent could provide the necessary lever to radically improve the experience of teachers across the country in relation to their professional learning. For this to happen, teachers would need to regard the licensing process as one that guarantees their entitlement to professional learning as part and parcel of their working life rather than as a stick to beat them if they fail. Headteachers would need to understand that too. The central aspect of licensing would be the responsibility placed on Heads to set up the structures required to deliver excellent professional learning for all staff at every level in their schools; it is not merely an additional tool to help remove underperforming staff.

Systems and Culture: the elements of successful professional learning

As a Headteacher, I need to think about what needs to be in place in my school that might lead to all of my staff successfully retaining their license over time – or perhaps that might enable me to retain my own license or my school’s license. As I write this, I am about to take on a new job as Head of a secondary school and I am thinking about this question already. The question I am asking myself is this: What are the features of the school’s systems and culture that will ensure that all staff at my new school are engaged in the most effective professional learning process that there could be? That follow-up question is: What do I have to do to make that a reality?

There are three key components to the system I have in mind, each of which will be in place to some degree already but will need to be built on and developed:

  1. A research-engaged professional learning culture that embraces engagement with research as well as engagement in research.
  1. CPD structures across the school timetable and calendar that give sufficient time for effective individual and collaborative professional learning to take place.
  1. CPD content that provides the foundations for effective classroom practice based around agreed principles coupled with ongoing professional learning determined by the needs and aspirations of teams and of each teacher at every stage in their career.

I will explore each component in more detail:

  1. A research-engaged professional learning culture

There are two aspects to this. The first stage is to ensure that all teachers are engaging with research. Despite the volume of work that is done internationally, teachers are often cut-off from the discourse that emanates from educational research professionals. It doesn’t reach them. I see it as one of my key responsibilities to bridge the chasm. There are various ways to do this: I can help by funding a library of books and creating a role for one or more research champions who could lead the dissemination of contemporary or classic educational research; I can also set up a forum that invites teachers to critically evaluate specific books or pieces of research and ensure that our CPD content is evidence-informed and well-referenced. However, the most important thing is simply to set the expectation that teachers’ practice is evidence-based and that therefore they have a professional duty to engage with research related to their field.

The second stage is to engage teachers in research. These two strands are mutually reinforcing because by doing your own action research, you begin to seek out other evidence and develop a better understanding of the limits of methodology and the problems of extrapolation from one context to another. At my previous school, King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford, every teacher has been involved in their own research project for several years. They select the area of study, the people they work with and the methodology and share their findings at the end of the year. The process leads to various insights but, more importantly, fosters a wider spirit of enquiry that permeates into all the discourse around improving practice. It’s my intention to introduce this model in my new school.

At KEGS we found the National Teacher Enquiry Network CPD framework very useful and, in particular found that their approach to Lesson Study was very powerful. We found that Lesson Study not only yields fascinating insights in the specific areas of exploration but also helps teachers to develop an enquiry mindset that feeds into their wider thinking.   I’d strongly recommend the NTEN framework as a means of benchmarking the quality of CPD with the Gold and Platinum levels representing a strong challenge for any school and the Bronze level, a good starting platform for establishing a research-engaged professional learning culture.

  1. CPD Structures

In practical terms, creating time for CPD to happen is a major consideration. I don’t have any specific research evidence for this but my sense is that, in general, teachers are not given enough time built into their working routines for the professional learning they need, beyond the very early career phase. We need to think beyond the model of INSET days, one-off visits from experts and short meetings tacked onto a full day of teaching. This is especially true if we want professional learning to be social and collaborative (Hargreaves and Fullan, 2012) and if we want teachers to work ‘as a team, not just in a team’ (Wiliam, 2012).

Teachers need to know that there is time built-in to their working routines for them to commit fully to a deep professional learning approach. Dylan Wiliam’s Teacher Learning Community model (Wiliam, 2012) suggests a good structure for generating routine time for professional learning. Using condensed days throughout the year, in addition to INSET days and normal staff meetings, teachers can use the TLC structure to establish routine cycles of planning and evaluation based on rigorous inputs from expert sources.   Lesson Study, whilst highly effective, is also time hungry which requires commitment from teachers and senior leaders alike. My view is that teachers benefit so much that the time is well spent, so teachers who opt into a lesson study approach will need to be given the scope to carve out the time from their teaching schedules.

More generally, it doesn’t always pay to have every minute in a teacher’s time budget pre-allocated in rigid structures. In a high functioning professional culture, teachers ought to simply have time that they use how they wish according to their own self-determined needs.

  1. CPD Content

Finally, I need to consider the content of my school’s CPD programme. We need to ensure that the foundations of effective practice are embedded as a priority. There is a body of wisdom around basic pedagogy and curriculum relevant to each subject area and about classroom management. Teachers should be sure that their subject knowledge is deep and up-to-date; they should also have opportunities to develop their skills of behaviour management long after their initial training. Doug Lemov (2012) advocates more use of practice sessions, where skills are honed before going ‘onto the field of play’ in the classroom. I see value in that, not only with behaviour management but also with questioning and subject-specific expositions of concepts.

Beyond the foundations however, the possibilities are limitless. The ultimate goal for teachers is that they have the capacity to determine their own professional learning needs and the power to then engineer the professional input they need to support it. This suggests multiple learning modes with teachers working in groups, opting into sessions, choosing from a menu of options or simply undertaking their own reading and reflection. There’s little room for one-size-fits-all full-staff training sessions in a highly functioning school.

I very much like Joe Hallgarten’s idea of teachers as designers – creating ‘a balance of analysis and intuition’ . Innovation and Creativity are words that can be barriers for some people, suggesting novelty for its own sake and perhaps insufficient respect for the body of knowledge that already exists. Design is a form of creativity that suggests deliberate, planned innovation built on a foundation of research-informed professional wisdom. I like that – and I think other teachers would too. Essentially we are designing learning programmes every day through the way we enact the curriculum, (Dylan Wiliam, 2013) so this is a helpful paradigm for engaging teachers in developing new ideas for improving their practice. It links back to the research-engaged culture. You can’t start to innovate unless you’ve covered the groundwork of what is already known.


Over the next few years I hope to put all of this in place in my new school. The question I have is whether a licensing system would support me in doing so.   I think it could if it gave my staff additional impetus to engage in driving the system and if it helped to brush away concerns and objections about taking time out of the school year for CPD. The criteria would need to be well-pitched in terms of the content and scale of the programme envisaged to secure re-licensing. If we felt they were too stringent such that, despite supreme efforts, we fell short – it could have a counterproductive effect. However, what seems more likely is that the criteria might end up being over-simplified – a low bar that we’d meet without doing much more CPD at all. That could risk devaluing the whole enterprise.

Clearly a balance is needed. A relatively low bar would only be problematic if we entered into this in the wrong spirit. If we’re doing a good job in generating the professional learning culture and systems I’ve described, then we should take the licensing regime comfortably in our stride. Perhaps it’s more important to think of scenarios where schools would be doing a less effective job in providing teachers with their entitlements. Here the licensing could serve to incentivise or even compel change towards adopting some of the models of good practice that will exist around the country. Schools would need to change in order to hold onto their strongest teachers who risk not securing their re-licensing if the provision is inadequate.

Overall, I feel that a licensing system delivered in the way I’ve outlined could have a very powerful effect across the country. It puts professional learning absolutely centre-stage where it belongs. Our challenge as a profession is to work with policy-makers to deliver it in the right spirit.

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Hallgarten, J:  From Introduction to Licensed to Create? RSA, 2014.

Hargeaves, A. and Fullan, M. (2012) Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School. Routledge.

Lemov, D. , Woolway, E. and Yezzi,K. (2012) Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better, Jossey-Bass

Wiliam, D. (2012) Leadership for Teacher Learning, Presentation to SSAT National Conference: Slides online at SSAT Breakout, Liverpool, December 2012

Wiliam, D. (2013) Redesigning Schooling 3: Principled curriculum design. London: SSAT


  1. Interesting stuff!

    “Schools would need to change in order to hold onto their strongest teachers who risk not securing their re-licensing if the provision is inadequate.” This doesn’t sound like a profession I’d want to work in…

    What profession is this being modelled on? Doctors for example, only have to revalidate their licenses every five years. Similarly, Doctors do not necessarily have to get their licenses revalidated in the hospital where they are currently working.

    The research you say staff are undertaking at King Edwards Grammar School sounds amazing, but wouldn’t being licensed to a sufficient degree of competency be a *pre-condition* for this kind of research, rather than a bi-product of the licensing process? In other words, (and here I really worry I’m misunderstanding), isn’t licensing creating a situation where teachers have nothing to gain and everything to lose in having their licenses potentially rescinded?

    Moreover, you don’t really address why this should be expressed at the level of the individual teacher at all ie, if a school is going to being licensing teachers or rescinding licenses, doesn’t it require some kind of accreditation that makes it a body formally capable of doing so? In which case, that accreditation would need to be reviewed every few years, presumably by Ofsted or whatever body or model replaces it. In which case, why not have a system in which all staff work together to help a school maintain its license, and if a school can demonstrate that as a corporate body it it deserves said license, all staff should receive theirs by default?

    “I think it could if it gave my staff additional impetus to engage in driving the system and if it helped to brush away concerns and objections about taking time out of the school year for CPD.” Wonderful in schools like yours where CPD is indivualised and effective. In schools where finding the number of hours (or is this the right noun, perhaps substitute for ‘hoops’) to spend (or as is this the right verb, perhaps substitute, ‘jump through’) isn’t the idea of licensing really something that staff should feel right very very scared of?


    • I’d say your response to this is symptomatic of the chronic low-trust position that too many teachers find themselves in. If everything is reduced to hoop jumping then it will never work. I’m more optimistic than that – and I’m talking about my current school, a comprehensive school in London, Highbury Grove. We’re starting to move forward with our CPD and I’d embrace the licensing process I envisage in this essay. The school CPD provision needs to come first but then each individual has a role to play. The collective approach you suggest may work but I still think teachers would benefit if their personal professional license had value. I think a five year period is sensible- as with Doctors -but the process would be ongoing. The key to making it more than hoop jumping might be to include some formal assessment by examination – subject knowledge and pedagogical know-how. ‘Fear’ is too strong to define the level of pressure inherent in any standards-setting process; I think we should be big enough to take that. If we’re not, perhaps that’s part of a wider issue. A self-confident profession (as Doctors often seem to be) wouldn’t have an issue with it. We need to build up the confidence first by tackling some of the ridiculous low-trust accountability practices in school across the country.


  2. None of which is unreasonable, but I’m still left wondering why licensing? What element of your vision for CPD provision can’t be provided in a way that doesn’t leave teachers facing a pass/fail criteria. For example. I read another of your posts where you talked about appraisal policies – isn’t the kind of CPD and ongoing educational research a better fit as part of the appraisal process for pay and progression (acknowledging that teachers who want to progress must engage with research, engage with experimentation, challenge themselves, learn lessons from others, train, continue to push their practice and learn how collaboration must be a learning process)?

    To put it another way, talk to any teacher and they are likely to consider themselves equipped to teach; equipped by their Qualified Teacher Status and empowered by their experience and the brute fact of their position in a teaching role, further validated by the exhausting emotional commitment and effort they pour into their work on a daily basis. And teachers are likely to accept whatever steps are deemed to be the way to make themselves more effective – the CPD and research most teachers engage in is limited by the provisions of the institution, rather than their own unwillingness to participate. Licensing really only introduces one new variable; the possibility of being deemed a non-teacher by failing to meet the licensing criteria and thereby being summarily junked out of the profession. There is no version of introducing a new pass/fail criteria for licensing that doesn’t end in hostility from teachers toward whatever body has powers with the potential (which is not to say the intention) of summarily striking them from their vocation.

    Everything you express a desire to affect in schools seems to be what we should be working towards, but there seems not to be a case for licensing as the tool to accomplish this. If licensing were accompanied by higher professional status or if it had tiered levels that reflected the contribution a teacher has made to the body of educational research over the course of their career (ie something that could be taken to prospective employers or used as evidence for passing threshold) it might be an easier sell. As it is, it is a long path to a photocopied version of a certificate they placed in a drawer a long time ago, and although it is the path itself that matters, there must be a more enticing way to make teachers walk it….


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