How can strong teachers become even better? Headteacher Peter Kent and deputy head Annabel Kay describe the staff support triad system they put in place to help staff learn from and support each other

Our meeting with the triads came nearly three years ago, after our school – Lawrence Sheriff School, in Rugby – had completed one of the last inspections under the ‘old’ framework. Following a report that said the school was mainly ‘very good’, we faced a problem that will be familiar to many a headteacher: ‘where do we go from here?’

As a leadership team, we organised an awayday to explore how we could move from ‘very good’ to ‘excellent’. During our discussions, we decided that one of the main ways forward was to find a strategy that enabled strong teachers to become even better. We did not want another form of performance management, which seemed much more focused upon maintaining a basic standard; instead, our aim was to allow staff to work together in a constructive way that enabled them to both learn from and support one another.

As is the case with most ‘innovations’, the idea that we came up with was adapted from tried and tested methods of working – in China, in this case – and is based around support groups of three, called triads. The aim of the triads was to set up a non-critical support framework for staff that would enable them to take risks in their teaching.

Each member of the group of three was asked to identify something that they were generally reluctant to implement in their teaching, such as group work, use of ICT, and so on; and then to work with the other two members to develop and deliver lessons that met their identified risk. In practice, peer support has ranged from planning to team teaching, and follow-up reviews within the triad have ensured that staff were not let off the hook by their peers.

Clearly, if this was to be a success, the make-up of each triad group was critical. We tended to put more experienced staff with these who have trained recently – not so that the young could learn from the old, but actually to facilitate learning the other way around. We felt that staff who are new to the profession offered a rich resource in terms of up-to-date pedagogy that others could and should tap into. We also put staff who had a key developmental area with those for whom that was a strength.

An easy sell
Having put a good deal of thought into the planning of the process, selling it to staff was unexpectedly easy. At a staff meeting, we outlined our reasons for the change in emphasis for CPD and put forward a series of key events, with dates. These included lesson observations and feedback times. Staff then got into their newly formed triad groups and talked through their thoughts, concerns, etc, then went on to outline their identified ‘risk’. All this went far beyond what we had hoped to achieve at the initial meeting.

Although the response from staff was positive, we found that initially they struggled to adjust to a new model that was built upon trust, rather than upon monitoring and compliance. Hence, when staff observed one another, out of habit they passed on copies of their notes to members of the senior leadership team. We felt very strongly that if we meant what we said about trust, then these notes should be returned unread. It was perhaps this step more than any other that brought home to our colleagues that we wanted to try something outside the conventional model of monitoring and compliance.

To date, we have used two strategies in order to evaluate the impact of triads. Firstly, we devoted a series of sessions at staff meetings to discussing their impact. Much to our relief, we found that staff had responded to the initiative in the spirit in which it had been offered and their evaluations were  encouragingly positive. Their descriptions of activities that they had carried out showed how the triads had taken them far beyond the territory normally covered by performance management. 

Triads existed to support members to develop as teachers, but this had been done in a variety of ways.  Some groups had shown remarkable openness, bravely telling one another the key weaknesses in their teaching, before conducting a series of observations designed to improve their professional practice in the areas that had been identified.

For others, the areas of targeted improvement related to strategies for teaching particular year groups (for example, Years 12 and 13), the development of particular techniques within their teaching (such as use of ICT, or more adventurous use of group work) or issues relating to the broader range of tasks carried out by teachers (for instance, leading assemblies or offering pastoral support).

Assessing impact
The assessment of the impact of triads was particularly striking because of its sheer honesty. The depth of the learning that had taken place was summarised by one group member, who commented: ‘I learned something from all of the colleagues that I observed, whether it be body language, tone of voice, diffusing a tense situation, use of ICT or the development of staff/student relationships’.

Another group reported that ‘our discussions were very fruitful (as shown by the fact that they went on far longer than expected and could have gone on even more)’.

Picking up on this, a third group observed that ‘lots of common ground was found, despite the very different nature of our subjects’.

However, for some groups the importance of triads went beyond teaching techniques, to touch something even more profound: ‘we now understand that other teachers have similar anxieties, and therefore feel more supported and understood’.

It is perhaps no surprise that our triads are now branching out in a series of different directions. Suggestions for next steps include: developing new structures for guiding students; focusing support
upon specific year groups; exploring how all members make use of a particular teaching technique; and exploring how the work completed to date can be submitted for GTC Teaching and Learning Academy accreditation. And as long as each triad is heading in a direction that makes sense to its members, we have no intention of intervening or dictating a particular course of action.

We’ve also extended the project to the students themselves, using triads to great effect as a means of organising group work and peer support. Just as with the staff, students are put into triads at the start of the year and remain in those groups for the duration of the key stage. From that point on, whenever doing group work such as presentations, discussions, etc, the student triads work together.

Creating long-term relationships
If larger groups are needed, again triads can be used as two or more can be put together.  The same triad groups are used for peer assessment and feedback. This has been so successful that triads have been working together, offering support networks to members outside the classroom. We believe that the key to the success of this is the use of permanent teams, as students are able to build highly effective long-term supportive relationships.

Our second form of evaluation was rather higher-risk. When Ofsted returned to the school three months ago, we highlighted the triads as something we would like them to look at closely. The most common objection to innovation tends to be: ‘What would Ofsted say?’ We were determined to meet this point head-on by seeking their approval for the project.

As we hoped, our extremely shrewd inspector confirmed the positive impact of the triad programme, both through the way it offered teachers an opportunity to ‘improve their craft’ and also in the wider range of teaching and learning strategies that it opened up to students. Looking back, we feel that the triads made a significant contribution to Ofsted’s assessment that the school was outstanding in all 42 inspection categories.

Fit for all
Are triads suitable for all schools, regardless of phase and type? We think that they are. To quote one of our groups: ‘we found that good teaching and learning techniques are transferable’. We could have spent thousands on CPD and still not seen the impact upon our staff that has been produced by the triad programme. As NCSL’s project on Within-School Variation (WSV) has shown, we all have a huge amount to learn by getting out of the confines of our own narrow subject area or key stage, and experiencing the powerful practice that is taking place in other parts of the school. The process of building up the professional skill of staff through trust rather than monitoring is risky but also highly effective. Ready or not, the time for triads has definitely arrived.

Lawrence Sheriff School, Rugby, Warwickshire, is a boys-only college with mathematics and computing specialist status