There is a bit of a buzz around coaching in schools in England. Teams, cohorts and educators seeking a wellbeing or development intervention will find a thriving market of freelancers offering a range of coaching approaches to support them. Among these, instructional coaching – adopted and adapted in some early career framework programmes with a host of accompanying software, templates and training – is perhaps the most visible current method.
I have researched and advocated for the development of coaching in schools ever since experiencing its potential first-hand when I was a teacher and coach over 20 years ago. I have developed resources and professional development masters provision focused on coaching. In short, I am a coaching enthusiast. And yet I remain cautious about its implementation and impact.
For a start, just defining what coaching is can cause confusion. Rather than one consistent approach, it’s an umbrella term for a variety of models, some of which are named. Some use acronyms to highlight their focus on key dimensions (such as the GROW model), while others take a more generic focus (such as pedagogic coaching).
Beyond that, another feature that makes coaching a conundrum is how to recognise its impact. There are concerns about what can be measured, whether the practice has fidelity to the specified coaching model and whether we can justify the resources spent on it, to name just a few.
One problem with evaluating coaching is creating a situation in which it is isolated from other changes or interventions that may also be impacting on the outcomes being sought. If the objective is to improve teaching quality, for example, then it is likely that coaching is being implemented at the same time as other CPD or alongside structural or curriculum changes. And even if we can maintain fidelity in the coaching method, how do we know that it is coaching that made the difference?
In research recently published in the International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, co-authored with Anthea Rose and Ruth Whiteside, I suggest using activity systems to help make sense of coaching efficacy.
In the activity system, the core ‘object’ of each coaching approach is driven by the ‘subjects’ (for example, the school leaders acting on policy drivers). ‘Mediating artefacts’ influence whether the object of coaching is achieved and indeed what other ‘outcomes’ occur through ‘sense making’. All coaching occurs in a ‘community’ which has certain ‘rules’ and may create a characteristic ‘division of labour’.
Coaches might use certain ‘tools’ such as frameworks of questions, video or coaching scripts which become instrumental and influential in the activity system. In instructional coaching in the ECF, for example, there may be a novice and expert dynamic and the coaching focus is being driven by the required content and training.
We illustrated the activity system analysis using three examples of coaching in education, which involved 51 schools in England. For each example, we had at least one year’s worth of implementation and impact evidence gathered through interviews, questionnaires, focus groups and recordings of coaching. One case study was of headteacher coaching and two focused on enhancing pedagogy.
In each example, the specific coaching approaches adopted were research-informed and not simply imported but co-designed by coaches with school leaders, coachees and researchers. They evolved over time, and in each context. Using activity system analysis, the significance of these features was clear.
Coaching in education is a diverse and divergent practice rather than a monolithic one. To better understand the functions and efficacy of coaching in education, due attention needs to be paid to the purposes and elements of each approach.
Our research showed evidence of coaching leading to professional and personal formation, allowing the coachee to experience growth, development and self-efficacy.
So while it can produce ripple effects with the potential to impact more widely on educational settings and coachees’ future professional roles, it’s important to remember that it is, first and foremost, an individualised process. A strict definition may continue to elude us, but at heart its efficacy relies on it being reflective, interpersonal and, most importantly, based on sustained dialogue.