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Blog post Part of series: BERA Conference 2023

Holding the space for professional learning

Rachel Lofthouse, Professor of Teacher Education at Leeds Beckett University

The professional learning of teachers and school leaders occurs in multiple spaces and potentially throughout their careers. Professional learning matters because it creates opportunities for educational change at a variety of scales from individual, institutional and system-level. Given this connection, it is valid to ask: ‘What do universities contribute to professional learning now and in the future?’ This blog post is based on a short contribution to the opening session at the BERA 2023 conference that posed just that question.

I started my contribution with my takeaway message that an essential role for universities – which translates into being an essential role for academics who teach and research in education – is to ‘hold the space’ for professional learning.

To put this into context, I can offer an English perspective. For a decade the teacher education sector in England has been in the hands of the Department for Education (DfE) policymakers who have viewed teacher training as a market to be manipulated. This is illustrated by the results of the 2022 Initial Teacher Training (ITT) accreditation process. In 2015, Ellis and McNichol argued that as a sector the universities had not recognised or responded with enough force to the threats of the policy implementation of the ideologically based transition from teacher education to teacher training in England. The lack of policy attrition gained by the 2013–14 BERA-RSA inquiry into ‘Research and the Teaching Profession’ was also symptomatic of the DfE trajectory away from the broad contribution that universities could offer in terms of professional learning (BERA-RSA, 2014).

‘For a decade the teacher education sector in England has been in the hands of the Department for Education policymakers who have viewed teacher training as a market to be manipulated.’

If we are to believe the dominant DfE narrative, the most attractive feature of the current teacher education map is the ‘golden thread’ of ITT, the Early Career Framework (ECF) and National Professional Qualifications (NPQs), all offered by the designated providers and representing a pincer movement on the sector that intentionally limits the current role of universities in professional learning. In an era of failing teacher recruitment and retention ‘the state has come to regard universities not as part of the problem they have constructed but as the problem’ (Ellis & Childs, 2023).

Where does this leave universities? For many of us we are currently having to hold tight to the spaces that universities can create for professional learning, and this is uncomfortable. It demands hard work and is ridden with tension. But if we do not hold the space now we cannot anticipate a more positive future role.

I use the term ‘holding the space’ for professional learning deliberately. It is not about universities creating silos or standoffs, instead it has several inferences:

  • A space in which to think, articulate ideas, share practice, experience dissonance, engage with alternative perspectives, be curious, develop a shared language, connect ideas and conceptual understanding, and to elicit feedback
  • A space which problematises and promotes research in education as a practice, and which uses theory as a way of developing insight – a space in which research traditions are not overlooked while at the same time prioritising the development of new methods and methodologies
  • An emotionally safe space, in which it is okay to ask questions and be vulnerable, at all stages in a professional life
  • A space which appreciates professional learning as complex, dynamic and non-linear, and which celebrates professional identities as fluid and intersectional
  • A sustained and extended space – one which persists beyond programmes and silos, one that builds communities rather than transient cohorts, one that can be engaged with flexibility and with reciprocity
  • A boundary- and border-crossing international space, which expands both the landscape for professional learning and the horizons of learners.

So, what is the nature of the space we hold?

In universities we create and can hold both formal and informal spaces. We develop and teach professionally orientated degrees; we support students engaged in doctorates; and we undertake research projects which build connective tissue with schools. Each of these create structured spaces for professional learning which also all give an opportunity for building relationships with and between professionals, offering opportunities that extend and enhance professional sense-making, and help teachers and leaders to gain experiences and qualifications that will have currency and legacy.

We also use social media, networked communities, and a range of publications to create new spaces, to reach out and give space to professional voices.

The spaces we create might be characterised as maker spaces, quiet spaces, spaces at boundaries and borders. Ultimately, they must be brave spaces because we need brave professionals who will go on to then hold safe, sustained, life-enhancing space for others.


British Educational Research Association [BERA-RSA]. (2014). Research and the teaching profession: Building the capacity for a self-improving education system.

Ellis, V., & Childs, A. (2023). Introducing the crisis: The state, the market, the universities and teacher education in England. In V. Ellis (Ed.), Teacher education in crisis: The state, the market and the universities in England. Bloomsbury. 

Ellis, V., & McNicholl, J. (2015). Transforming teacher education: Reconfiguring the academic work. Bloomsbury.