Local, National and International School Improvement Networks

The Laboratory School Concept

One of the ways that systems are increasingly building capacity for more lateral and inside–out ways of working is through developing a systemic approach to ‘teaching schools’ (Hopkins 2013). Increasingly, educational systems are identifying substantive roles for schools in the training of teaching that go beyond the provision of conventional practicum placements. In England, teaching schools are a recent policy initiative; the Professional Development School in North America is a more established example and in Victoria, Australia, the School Centres for Teaching Excellence is a current innovation.

All of these approaches build in some way on the ‘Laboratory School’ concept originally developed in the USA. These schools are ones where collaborations or partnerships have been established between schools, local agencies and university schools of education, that focus on high quality education, the preparation of student teachers, continuing professional development for school staff and continuous inquiry into improving practice. These are medium-term relationships characterised by reciprocity and parity, and by commitments to shared beliefs about teaching and learning and issues of equity.

There are five areas in particular where the University of Bolton Laboratory School will exemplify the principles and best of practice of the Laboratory School concept:

  1. The exemplification of research-based classroom practice.

  2. As a setting for peer-to-peer learning and professional development.

  3. As a display and example of the practices and management arrangements associated with Instructional Leadership.

  4. Building capacity through networking by collaborating with other schools and partners to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

  5. Providing a site for the research into educational practice both for Masters & Doctoral degrees as well as funded research projects.

Powerful Classroom Practice

The four components of high-quality classroom practice as exemplified in the University of Bolton Laboratory School are profoundly interrelated. The Figure below emphasises how powerful classroom practice results from the quality of the interactive relationship between the teacher, the student, the content, and the feedback from assessment – such practice cannot emerge from any one component alone, no matter how strong its individual qualities.

  • Curriculum Frameworks. The curriculum in the University of Bolton Laboratory School:

    • Reflects the best of contemporary practice in the delivery of STEM.

    • Frames the curriculum as a proposition, a problem to be solved, and a question to answer; it develops student metacognition by constantly providing opportunities for reflection and discussion about the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’.

  • Pedagogic Knowledge. The teaching in the University of Bolton Laboratory School:

    • Is based on the Teacher Theories of Action developed as a consequence of the Instructional Rounds process and described in Curiosity and Powerful Learning.

    • Utilises a range of research based Models of Practice as appropriate.

  • Assessment for Learning. The approach to assessment for learning in the University of Bolton Laboratory School:

    • Collects clear evidence that informs teachers about how to lift student attainment and offers clear feedback to, and seeks clear feedback from, students.

    • Ensures that students know what grades/levels they are working and provides transparent criteria that enables peer coaching for staff.

Student Agency. The approach to student voice in the University of Bolton Laboratory School is more about agency and:

    • implies a sense of responsibility as students participate in society and aim to influence people, events and circumstances for the better. Agency requires the ability to frame a guiding purpose and identify actions to achieve a goal (OECD, 2018). It is about acting rather than being acted upon; shaping rather than being shaped; and making responsible decisions and choices rather than accepting those determined by others

    • ensuring that students feel respected, listened to, feel a sense of belonging and acquire a range of learning skills.

  • Task Setting. The crucial point is that these four components of powerful classroom practice combine to create the tasks that the students engage in. This is because it is the tasks that students do that predict their performance. The approach to task setting in the University of Bolton Laboratory School:

    • Emphasises enquiry and problem solving and are sequenced progressively.

    • Are well differentiated and are located within each student’s zone of proximal development.

  • Coaching In order that  students find their personalised  way and develop a greater range of independent skills they need the support that enables them to find strategies to achieve more than they thought possible. Regular coaching builds a relationship of trust and ambition that is both motivating and supportive. The coaching needs to be set in a transparent curriculum, where progress and success are clear.

Peer-to-Peer Learning and Professional Development

The potential contained in the theories of action referred to above is to create a new culture of teaching within the school that promotes both enquiry and achievement. This requires adopting staff development strategies that have the ability to build a common language of instructional practice within and across schools.
A key element in all of this is the provision of in classroom support or triads and ‘peer coaching’. It is the facilitation of peer coaching that enables teachers to extend their repertoire of teaching skills and to transfer them from different classroom settings to others. When incorporated into a school improvement design, peer coaching can virtually assure ‘transfer of training’ for everyone:

  • Peer coaching teams of two or three are much more effective than larger groups.

  • Peer coaching works better when Heads and Deputies participate in training and practice.

  • The effects are greater when formative study of student learning is embedded in the process.

  • These groups are more effective when all members of staff are engaged in school improvement.

Peer coaching in triads creates the infra-structure for professional learning in the school, this however necessitates scheduled time being made available for staff to observe each other. Without regular timetabled opportunities for professional collaboration such as peer coaching or triads that are developmental rather than judgemental, it is unlikely that the teaching and learning culture of the school will change. 

Instructional Leadership

Leadership is second only to classroom practice in terms of influence on student progress and performance (Leithwood, Harris and Hopkins 2019). A good way of focusing on the contribution of leadership to student learning is to draw on Leithwood and colleague’s (2019) conceptualization of the central tenants of instructional leadership. They summarise this as the four central domains of:

  • Setting Direction

  • Managing Teaching and Learning

  • Developing People; and,

  • Developing the Organisation.

This analysis reinforces the argument that enhancing learning and teaching is the key priority for school leadership. The critical leadership challenge here is to ensure that quality teaching and learning is underpinned by more specific and precise teaching frameworks for personalised learning (Hopkins and Craig 2015a, b & c).

Although the impact of leadership on student achievement and school effectiveness has been acknowledged for some time, it is only relatively recently that we have begun to understand more fully the fine-grained nature of that relationship to personalised learning. So in the University of Bolton Laboratory School, leadership:

  • Develops a narrative for improvement

  • Is highly focussed on improving the quality of teaching and personalised learning

  • Explicitly organises the school for improvement

  • Creates:

    • Clarity (of the systems established)

    • Consistency (of the systems spread across school), and

    • Continuity (of the systems over time)

  • Ensures and creates internal accountability and reciprocity

  • Works to change context as a key component of their improvement strategy.

There are two important features to this profile. The first is the emphasis on narrative and its impact on both strategy and school culture. It is personalised learning that is the central focus of the narrative within a unifying story around how every student reaches their potential. This is strategic in so far as it integrates a wide variety of initiatives, and cultural in so far as it speaks to the moral purpose of schooling. The second, as seen below, is the emphasis on ‘systems’ and the transferability and sustainability of best practice, within and between networks of practice.

Building Capacity through Networking

In England currently, the most common middle tier organisation is currently the Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) (Hopkins 2016). In outstanding MATs, capacity is built at the local level to ensure that all those in the Trust’s family of school’s progress as rapidly as possible towards excellence. The process is as follows:

  • Central to local capacity building is the Regional Director or Executive Principal who provides leadership, develops the narrative and acts as the Trust’s champion in that geographic area.

  • One of their key tasks is to build local capacity by training a group of lead practitioners in the MATs ways of working, materials and strategies.

  • The training design used to develop trainers is the Joyce and Showers coaching model referred to above.

  • These trainers then work with the school improvement teams in each school to build within-school capacity and consistency.

  • Inter-school networking allows for authentic innovation and the transfer of outstanding practice, thus building the capacity of the network as a whole.

The three key aspects to this strategy – school improvement teams, staff development processes and networking – should provide the focus for much of the training for executive principals or equivalent within the MAT, as they play their critical role in systemic improvement.

Research into Educational Practice

The University of Bolton Laboratory School offers a setting or laboratory for research into educational practice both for Masters & Doctoral degrees as well as funded research projects. The focus will inevitably be on the ingredients of powerful classroom practice – curriculum, pedagogy, assessment for learning, student voice and task setting - , the nature of teacher learning and peer coaching, and the practices and strategies associated with Instructional Leadership.

The approach to research adopted by the University of Bolton Laboratory School is heavily influenced by the work of Lawrence Stenhouse. He argued that research knowledge only becomes useful when it is subjected to the discipline of practice through the exercise of professional judgement. In his view, the capacity of research to improve teaching depends on - and in turn feeds and strengthens – the teacher’s professional judgment. As a consequence research can only markedly improve the art of teaching if it:

1. Offers hypotheses (i.e. tentative conclusions) whose applications can be verified because they can be tested in the classroom by the teacher.


2. Offers descriptions of cases or retrospective generalizations about cases sufficiently rich in detail to provide a comparative context in which to judge better one’s own case.

Such a view of educational research declares that the theory or insights created in collaboration by professional researchers and professional lecturers is always provisional, always to be taught in a spirit of enquiry, and always to be tested and modified by professional practice. For, to quote Stenhouse again, such proposals are not to be regarded “as an unqualified recommendation, but rather as a provisional specification claiming no more than to be worth putting to the test of practice. Such proposals claim to be intelligent rather than correct.”


The influence of teacher education programs on system improvement should not be underestimated. As Michael Fullan once wryly commented – teacher education is simultaneously the worst problem and the best solution in the quest for school reform! As a consequence, the highest performing school systems are investing heavily in innovative and productive approaches to teacher preparation in order to address the key ingredient of school improvement at source. This is what the University of Bolton Laboratory School aspires to do, by developing outstanding teachers who, to paraphrase Stenhouse again, have a capacity for autonomous professional self-development through systematic self-study, through the study of the work of other teachers and through the testing of ideas by classroom research procedures.


  • Hopkins, D. (2013) Exploding the myths of school reform. Open University Press, McGraw Hill Education, Berkshire.

  • Hopkins, D. (2016) Building Capacity for School Improvement in Multi-Academy Trusts – from the inside out. SSAT Journal 07, Autumn 2016, pp. 19-29.

  • Hopkins, D. and Craig, W. (2015a) The System and Powerful Learning. Melbourne: McREL International. Available as an e-book from – www.profdavidhopkins.com and Amazon.

  • Hopkins, D. and Craig, W. (2015b) Curiosity and Powerful Learning. Melbourne: McREL International. Available as an e-book from – www.profdavidhopkins.com and Amazon.

  • Hopkins, D. and Craig, W. (2015c) Leadership for Powerful Learning. Melbourne: McREL International. Available as an e-book from – www.profdavidhopkins.com and Amazon.

  • Kenneth Leithwood, Alma Harris & David Hopkins (2019): Seven strong claims about successful school leadership revisited, School Leadership & Management, DOI: 10.1080/13632434.2019.1596077.

  • OECD: Student Agency for 2030 http://www.oecd.org/education/2030-project/teaching-and-learning/learning/student-agency/in_brief_Student_Agency.pdf



+44 (0)1204 900 600

University of Bolton, Deane Road, Bolton. BL3 5AB

Help Centre

We have the answers to your questions, find all the advice and support in one place.

Part of the University of Bolton Group

Bolton college
Alliance learning
Anderton centre2
QQA Scheme Participant

Help Centre

We have the answers to your questions, find all the advice and support in one place.

Part of the University of Bolton Group

Bolton college
Alliance learning
Anderton centre2
QQA Scheme Participant