Professional Development Department

NTS has focused on teaching and learning as a means of raising standards for more than two decades. As a result, good is the minimum expected standard and there is much outstanding practice in evidence. Staff are eager to improve from “good” to “outstanding” or from “outstanding” to “even more outstanding”! It is not surprising therefore that effecting these improvements can only be about fine tuning.

The creation of the Professional Development Department was an attempt to tackle the issue in a different but systematic way.

Staff in the department all have specific responsibilities, (NQTs, trainee teachers, departmental, individual staff support, coaching training) but the heart of their task is to ensure that the quality of teaching and learning gets ever better. By implication this requires all staff to be actively involved in their professional development.

In the past the department has taken the lead on:

  • streaming live lessons and web chats to teacher training institutes
  • moving out of ‘the comfort zone’
  • “tweaking ” aspects of practice
  • coaching triangles
  • videoing lessons to help reflection
  • the ‘complete teacher’, the ‘complete tutor’ and the ‘complete learner’
  • exploring the learning of the least and most able
  • holding whole school INSET on teaching Outstanding Lessons
  • hosting development opportunities for colleagues in other schools as part of our ‘outreach’
  • one to one professional support
  • action research in teaching and learning interventions

Professional Development Room

Arising from our successful bid for Specialist Status over a decade ago, we included a room specifically designed for lesson observation.

To the fleeting observer it might look like an ordinary classroom. The only apparently unusual feature is a large mirror set into one of the walls.

What appears to be a mirror, however, is actually a piece of one-way glass. Behind the glass is an observation booth, from which a teacher, or group of teachers, can observe and listen to the lesson and quietly discuss what is happening.

Considerable outstanding practice takes place at Nelson Thomlinson School and we want others to see it in the wider area of North Cumbria and beyond. The room is used to widen observation of good practice and to help spread it further around the school.

One problem with traditional lesson observations is, of course, that the very presence of an observer influences the lesson. (Any scientist will tell you that it is impossible to measure anything without altering it.) The Professional Development Room helps us to minimise this effect and – critically – allows discussion and coaching to take place while the lesson is in progress.

Moreover, we run themed weeks during the year where exemplary lessons are delivered modelling different teaching strategies from our School Development Plan. In addition, the PD room forms an integral part of training provided to the next generation of teachers working in partnership with the School Direct Programme based at Trinity.

We also use this classroom to develop the learning of our pupils. Year 9 pupils take part in the Complete Learner Programme; a programme giving pupils the opportunity to think about learning in small groups with one of our outstanding teachers. Pupils engage in a learning walk around school and look at different types of learning before reflecting on their own approach. They watch a 15-30 minute section of one of their own classes in the Observation Room and they then set their own targets for future improvement. Research (EEF) shows that this type of approach can help pupils make significant progress in their learning because of the emphasis on self-awareness and independence.

Performance & Appraisal

In many schools, performance management is carried out unwillingly and appraisals happen because they have to, because managers have been told they have to do them.

This is certainly not how we see it at NTS. From the school’s point of view, Performance Management is perhaps the single most important tool for improving standards. Most discussions that take place between members of the Senior Management Team and Heads of Department are either directly or indirectly about it.

We don’t regard it as a one-sided process, though. Common sense dictates that effective Performance Management should contribute significantly towards each individual’s professional and career development. With this firmly in mind, our aim is that the process should be one of co-operation, not of imposition.

There are several aspects to Performance Management at NTS:

Target Setting

Each member of staff will discuss targets for the year with his or her Head of Department or Line Manager. Some of these will be numerical – exam and test results – but others will represent the improvements and developments that the department and individual wish to make over the year. The latter will always be in terms of teaching and learning.

Target-setting is difficult but important. Targets must be challenging but attainable. This is particularly true of exam targets, for which prior performance data are used: there should be cause for celebration when exam targets are reached, and cause for reflection – not misery or recrimination – when they are not.


This takes place annually. In teaching and learning terms it represents the summative assessment. It should be nothing more than a summary of discussions, observations and work carried out during the year. Our over-riding principle is that “there should be no surprises”. There is an interim check on performance in February called the “Mid-Year Review”. This is a self-assessment discussed between teacher and Head of Department.

Formative Assessment and Support

Appraisal and target-setting are not simply done and then forgotten. Everybody has their own “agenda for the year” and this must inform thinking, practice and discussion throughout the year. Everyone has a responsibility here – individual staff, their line managers and the Senior Management Team.

Watching other people teach is a powerful way for both parties – the observer and the observed – to improve their own classroom practice. This is dealt with in more detail on a separate page.


One of the most effective ways to make improvements is through sharing high quality professional expertise, both within departments and between departments. In addition to whole school sessions we offer ‘Staff Projects’ (new in 2018) alongside ‘Top-Up’ sessions including lesson observation.

The biannual observation programme (‘L5 week’) is an opportunity to observe colleagues who are regarded as top practitioners in a specific area. Staff at NTS are already in a strong position and these sessions are made available in order to promote discussion, generate some new ideas and hopefully lead to some “tweaks” in current practice.

Some lessons take place in our unique Professional Development Classroom and a “coach” is on hand in the Observation Room to commentate on and discuss the skills being demonstrated. This is very much a practical exercise and observers are encouraged to use the opportunity to reflect on their own practice and discuss classroom practice with colleagues. We also run a programme of learning walks and ‘open doors’ where staff can informally ‘drop in’ to observe classes learning.

Previous themes have included:

  • Independence and active engagement
  • ‘Drilling’ to support learning
  • Emotional Intelligence, resilience and wellbeing in the classroom
  • SEND Learning Support Department Open Door Week
  • We always provide training on the fundamentals of the Teacher Standards. However, for those teachers who are secure and experienced we offer much greater opportunity to tailor their own CPD. As part of the Staff Projects, we run an innovative in-house approach “Flexi PD” which gives interested staff the chance to direct their own CPD focused on major themes from the School Development Plan linked to their own classes.

Lesson Observation

Everyone benefits from lesson observation. It is a useful way for teachers to find out what they are doing well and what they could improve. Importantly, observers can learn a great deal about their own practice from watching other people teach and pupils learn.

At NTS we have developed a tiered approach to lesson observation. Staff new to the profession (ECTs) are on ‘stage 1’ ​for the first two years of their career and can expect to receive at least three formal lesson observations by their Head of Department, Induction Tutor and Induction Mentor plus a final observation from the Headmaster. Any staff who are new to the school or have been teaching for less than 3 years are automatically on ‘stage 2’. This involves two formal graded lesson observations (one hour each) with full written feedback and a discussion. These observations are carried out by Heads of Department and members of SMT. All other staff who have demonstrated the ability to consistently teach 3 consecutive ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ lessons qualify for ‘stage 3’, a lighter touch developmental lesson observation. All teachers on ‘stage 3’ will receive one SMT monitoring visit during the academic year which will last for approximately 30 minutes and receive brief written feedback but most importantly, engage in a post-lesson developmental discussion. As part of their CPD, teachers on this stage are also expected to undertake at least one peer-to-peer lesson observation each year with a colleague from their department.

A number of more informal observations also take place. As mentioned at the top of this page, observers can learn a great deal from watching other people teach. There is a wealth of expertise with the school on all aspects of the craft of teaching; it is commonplace for staff to be asked if they can be observed by other colleagues, possibly from different departments, if there is a particular aspect of pedagogy that someone wishes to learn about. (See NTS INSET and Professional Development Room)

Context For Change

We are different at NTS in that we don’t always adopt the latest initiative (for the sake of it) or do things simply to tick boxes. The teaching profession has a tendency to make things unnecessarily complicated and to generate paperwork. People who come and teach at NTS quickly realise that our tendency is to do the reverse.

There is a lot of educational research around. As professionals, it is our job to make use of it in improving teaching and learning. To us, there are three main questions that must be answered when judging whether or not to take notice:

  • Does it make instinctive good sense to teachers?
  • Does it offer something different from what we already do?
  • Can it be expressed accessibly with minimal use of jargon?

Once we decide that an initiative or an idea will benefit teaching and learning our commitment is total and we are relentless in our pursuit of perfecting the “new” or “modified” model.