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Flexible learning: How to empower school and Multi-Academy Trust staff

A photograph of a teacher helping a young student with their class work in a school environment.


Continuing Professional Development (CPD) plays an important part in staff retention and development. It encourages employees to refresh existing knowledge, learn a new skill, and keep up to date with the latest trends and developments within their profession or industry. 

Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith, Associate Lecturer for the Masters degree in Education at The Open University (OU) and a strategic consultant to several Multi-Academy Trusts, suggests that providing staff with development and progression opportunities is key to retaining and developing a skilled and informed workforce. However, pressures on staff time and a continued squeeze on budgets mean that school and Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) leaders require solutions that span differing career stages and development needs. A flexible approach to CPD is therefore essential. 

Quality and flexible distance learning

The OU has been delivering high standards of flexible education for over half a century. It is the only UK university dedicated to supported distance learning and has helped more than 2.2 million people worldwide to achieve their learning goals.

Designed with flexibility in mind, undergraduate and postgraduate OU courses can be studied alongside work and other commitments. This unique approach to learning enables support staff, teachers and leaders to make the most of the valuable non-teaching time that they have. It also provides employers with the resources, support, and expertise necessary to make meaningful investment in staff development.

Learners registering on an OU course will gain access to their module website and online study planner. The online study planner is accessible by both smartphone and tablet and explains how the module is structured and when assignments are due. It also breaks the module down into weekly learning activities and suggests how long is needed to complete each study task. This enables learners to work through the learning material at their own pace and empowers them to fit study around their work and leisure time. 

“I chose the OU as I wanted to be able to study whilst continuing to teach, and I liked the idea of studying in my home. The best element of study for me was being able to go at my own pace and in my own space” says Rosina Fidler, who completed a Diploma of Higher Education with the OU whilst working as a Teaching Assistant.

Expert tutor support 

At the start of each module, learners are allocated an Open University tutor. The tutor, also known as an Associate Lecturer (AL), is there to provide expert support and will encourage learners to ask questions and share ideas. ALs are often also working as industry practitioners alongside their AL role, giving them a wealth of knowledge and experience to draw upon. This scaffolded approach to learning helps students to develop their theoretical understanding and apply key lessons to their own professional practice.

“The experience I had at The Open University over the three years of studying for my Masters degree part-time, while working as a full-time teacher, was a deeply satisfying learning journey” says Caroline Boreham, Head of Research and Analytics at United Learning and Masters in Education graduate. “While it undoubtedly elevated my professional practice, it also gave me access to tutors who provided critical feedback on the craft of writing.” Caroline has since gone on to embark on a Doctorate in Education with the OU and is currently in her fourth year of study.

Peer-to-peer collaboration

Built into the module website are moderated online forums. These forums are a space for learners to engage with other students, discuss academic ideas, ask questions and provide peer-to-peer support. The AL may also use the forum to post instructions, highlight module activities, circulate notes from tutorials and to provide general feedback. 

The OU is the only university to operate in all four UK nations. This means that teachers and leaders can benefit from a student group that is culturally and socially diverse. Learners can work with other education professionals to share knowledge, discuss different contexts and consider best practice. Multi-Academy Trusts that are supporting multiple learners may also choose to create their own study groups. Such learning communities will maximise the sharing of knowledge and enhance the learning experience. 

Nicola Whitlock, who completed a Certificate of Higher Education in Childhood and Youth Studies with the OU, says “I found the tutor group forum very useful, especially as I got to know other members of the group at tutorial. Studying with the OU I feel I’m a more knowledgeable practitioner overall. I’ve been able to take what I learnt straight back into by role as a Teaching Assistant, which has had a positive effect on the environment, the staff, the children, and their families.”

A focus on evidence-based practice

It is important for all schools and MATs to provide opportunities for professional learning that address the areas in which staff really want to engage. Staff want to understand how theories and research are directly relevant to their own classroom or leadership practices. 

The OU provides learning materials with a focus on practice and enables teachers and leaders to develop their own professional priorities. From undergraduate through to postgraduate level, support staff, teachers and leaders are encouraged to apply learning to their own classroom and leadership setting and consider how they can provide a supportive learning environment that enables children to develop and grow as people. 

The OU module ‘Learning and teaching: understanding your educational practice’, a compulsory module in the Masters degree in Education, is a good example of this. The programme inspires teaching professionals to debate key issues in education from the perspective of the learner, the educator, and the educational organisation. 

“The Masters modules I studied enabled me to learn and apply leadership theory and strategies learned to my daily practice as a leader” reflects Adrian Rollins, who completed his Masters degree in Education with the OU and is now working as a Deputy Head of School at a Multi-Academy Trust.

Building on postgraduate Masters programmes, research degrees at the OU, such as the Doctorate in Education (EdD), further encourage teachers and leaders to engage in their own classroom or school research. As a doctoral student, learners will be allocated two (or sometimes three) supervisors to support the planning and delivery of a research project that will culminate in a thesis. The thesis is an advanced piece of research which contributes to the knowledge in the field and extends students’ professional practice.

Find out more

OU courses range from free online learning modules to professional short courses and recognised qualifications. They provide flexible learning solutions and Continuing Professional Development for school and Trust staff at all levels.

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