Creating a collaborative professional learning environment – changing the culture

In the last of three articles focusing on motivating teachers to remain in Further Education (FE) and the part an alternative approach to professional development could play in achieving this, Education Consultant Dr Tricia Odell looks at some case studies of providers whose leaders have introduced non-judgemental mentoring, and the impact this has had on their organisation.

In the second article in this series, we explored some of the practicalities when introducing a collaborative approach and considered the role that middle leaders can play to help foster a practitioner-led approach to professional learning. Here, we will look at some case studies that illustrate the introduction of non-judgemental mentoring and its organisational impact.

Background to the ETF mentoring programme

The Education and Training Foundation (ETF) mentor training programme ran for three years until 2023. During this time, it supported the professional development of over 600 mentors across the Further Education (FE) and Skills sector, helping them to embed whole organisation approaches to mentoring, with a focus on a non-judgemental approach. As well as providing training for mentors, the programme also funded time for mentors to meet with mentees. Mentors used the ONSIDE mentoring framework to support the professional learning of their mentees (Hobson, 2016, ETF, 2023a).

In March 2023, six case studies were developed with providers that had participated in the programme to assess its impact and to identify any changes in organisational culture (ETF, 2023b). Excerpts from two of the case studies are included below.

Bede Sixth Form College

Back in 2020 when the college first joined the programme, learning walks were used to monitor the quality of teaching and learning, along with graded observations. Mentoring was very much linked to performance and administered through line management:

“The general procedure would have been: ‘These are the areas for focused work with the learning coach to improve that and we will come back in to observe you to see improvements.’ As a result, there was a lot of negativity around this process.” (Judith Myers, Head of Sixth Form, Bede College)

The ETF mentor training reinforced the notion that mentoring should be non-judgemental and practitioner led. This refreshed thinking helped to shape the college’s new observation and CPD strategy, and as a result professional development became more teacher led:

“The way that our teaching and learning has moved is that rather than CPD ‘being done to’ staff, they are taking that ownership for themselves. So, our CPD is very much led by the staff now. And it’s all evidence informed.”

Now learning walks are not part of a graded observation process. Mentors have coaching conversations with staff following the learning walk, discussing effective practice as well as areas for improvement. Staff experience support and development with their mentor, without any negative connotations related to observation grades.

Teacher retention

Every member of staff who had the support of a mentor at Bede continued working at the college. Judith concluded by explaining her vision for the future:

“My vision is that we have staff who dip in and out of the programme whenever they want, and that all staff will have taken advantage of it in some way, shape or form, maybe over the course of three years of their academic life. That would be how I would measure success; that staff – when they’re new, are happy when they come in, they feel supported – and that we’re retaining staff because of that level of support and that sharing of good practice”.

Burnley College

At Burnley College, all new members of staff worked with a mentor who acted as a ‘buddy’. Mentoring was closely aligned with the support given to colleagues undertaking Initial Teacher Education qualifications delivered in partnership with University of Bolton.

Staff Development Manager, Sarah Condren, considered mentoring crucial to the organisation to ensure they not only supported and retained their teachers, but also helped them to develop to become outstanding practitioners.

Cascading mentoring training to middle leaders influenced how teachers worked with students; in fostering ownership and developing them as independent learners:

“As we started to implement some of those [ONSIDE] strategies and tools, impacts emerged in terms of the way in which our staff members are dealing with students as well. I think the mentoring relationship with staff members helps create that student ownership.”

Supporting employers to embed mentoring

The embedding of mentoring across the organisation was also having an impact on the college’s apprenticeship provision and partnership working with employers. One teacher began delivering mentoring training to employers who are supporting apprentices in the workplace and another colleague was exploring how employers can embed mentoring into many aspects of their work:

“So, as a consequence of this programme, a colleague now goes into companies and delivers mentoring training to the people that are looking after the apprentices on a day-to-day basis. We saw that as a real gap because unless that company is actively engaged in developing some of their staff as mentors and coaches within the workplace, apprentices are less likely to achieve beyond their potential.”

Recommendations for embedding a non-judgemental mentoring approach

We have seen from the case studies that introducing an alternative model of mentoring can be a significant driver for changing the culture of an organisation where historically there has been a top-down approach to professional learning.

Leadership buy-in is thought to be crucial, and the programme provided opportunities and spaces for organisations to explore and implement a vision for mentoring centred on professional discussion rather than feedback.

Middle and senior leaders who took part in the case studies were asked to share some recommendations for leaders seeking to embed an alternative approach to mentoring:

  • Develop a strategy to support a whole organisation approach to mentoring.
  • Create an infrastructure in which non-judgemental mentoring is a strategic and key feature within the culture of the organisation.
  • Support the implementation of mentoring approaches in as many directions as possible.
  • Ensure mentoring practice is separated from line management in order to foster relationships that encourage mentees to take ownership of their learning and development, openly sharing their professional learning and development needs with mentors.
  • Emphasise the relevance of a non-judgmental approach to mentoring where mentoring is not ‘done to’ people, but instead mentees have enhanced ownership of their own professional development.
  • Provide opportunities for mentors to network with one another, encouraging the development of communities of practice in which mentors can support one another and allow sufficient time for mentees to engage with mentors.
  • Recognise the potential for articulating wider benefits beyond teaching and learning where possible; these include staff wellbeing, supporting team building and increased professional and personal confidence.
  • Explore emerging impacts on learners, especially how mentoring can support learner centred approaches to learning.


In the first of these think pieces, it was proposed that we could retain more teachers by providing more professional learning opportunities based on collaborative approaches.

We have seen that developing and implementing a non-judgemental mentoring culture characterised by openness and trust can not only impact positively on teacher retention, but can also support teacher wellbeing. There is also evidence of a ripple effect, with this model of mentoring impacting on employers, as well as learners.

Crucially, adopting more collaborative approaches has the potential to transform practice rather than simply modifying it, because teachers have the time and space to critically reflect on their values as well as their pedagogical knowledge. This fosters a learning culture in which teachers are confident and motivated to develop and test out new strategies.

Final thoughts

It has been argued in the think pieces that middle and senior leaders have a key role in creating the conditions in which a collaborative approach to professional learning can thrive. However, factors such as inspection and accountability systems can create specific tensions that have a marked impact on the implementation of this approach, leading to a degree of dissonance.

We have seen instances in the case studies where leaders have moved away from graded observations, creating an environment in which practitioners are supported, rather than judged, by their peers. This demonstrates that collaborative approaches to professional learning can be introduced in organisations where there has historically been a reliance on top-down approaches to quality improvement. This shift, however, necessitates a sustained change in the leadership culture to one that prioritises the continuous improvement of teaching and learning with a recognition that teachers are best placed to identify and improve their practice in collaboration with their peers (Odell, 2020, FETL, 2019).


Education and Training Foundation (2023a) Mentoring Framework: Guide for Mentors in Further Education. London: ETF.

Education and Training Foundation (2023b) Mentoring Case Studies

Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) (2019) The role of leadership in prioritising and improving the quality of teaching and learning in further education. London: FETL.

Hobson, A. (2016). Judgementoring and how to avert it: introducing ONSIDE Mentoring for beginning teachers. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, 5(2), 87-110.

Odell, P. (2020) ‘Quick fix’ or ‘slow deep burn’? An exploration of the benefits and challenges of implementing a joint practice development approach in further education institutions. [Doctoral Thesis]

See also:

Education and Training Foundation (2023a) Mentoring Framework: Guide for Leaders and Managers in Further Education. London: ETF.