CPD: Five things schools should…

Written by: Maria Cunningham | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Are you planning next year’s CPD programme for your schools? Maria Cunningham suggests five things the evidence says you should leave out

March and April tends to be the time when trusts and schools start to gear up their process of planning ahead for the next academic year. What will look different for your school in 2020/21? What new objectives or goals are you aspiring to? What development priorities have been achieved, and which might need more time to embed?

At the Teacher Development Trust (TDT), we work closely with leaders to design and refine their whole-school CPD programmes, as well as to consider the careful change management processes required to secure effective implementation.

In the very best examples, CPD planning goes hand-in-hand with revisiting other processes across the organisation including performance management, systems for reviewing quality of teaching and learning, or timetabling.

Much like a doctor cannot provide a treatment without first making a diagnosis, it is difficult to improve staff development unless you have an honest and comprehensive picture of where it is now.

When I visit schools to carry out the TDT’s developmental CPD audit review, I am able to show senior teams exactly where there is discrepancy between leaders’ perceptions of professional learning and how it is experienced by teachers and support staff “on-the-ground”.

This then informs next steps so that tweaks to CPD are not just based on a hunch, but instead use collective insights, robust evidence and expert input to address specific areas for development and build on an organisation’s existing strengths.

Professional learning should always be based on need – both of pupils and practitioners – so exactly how you choose to go about the process of CPD planning, who is involved, and when this happens will quite rightly look different depending on school context.

Yet some solid points of reference that I would recommend all leaders to have to hand are the Standard for teachers’ professional development (DfE, 2016), and for some more practical tips, try Unleashing Great Teaching (Weston & Clay, 2018).

Having worked with hundreds of schools to date, it seems that if you really want your CPD programme to have traction, there are some key common pitfalls which you would be best-placed to avoid. Besides, in a fast-paced school environment where you might have dozens of different initiatives happening all over the place, it can actually feel more straightforward to stop doing something point-blank as opposed to adopting something completely new.

So hold up that metaphorical mirror and reflect on how you might weed out some of these harmful practices in your school.

1, High-stakes performance management

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and the TDT recently published research showing that teachers’ perceived autonomy over their professional development goals has a strong association with retention and overall improved job satisfaction (Worth & Van den Brande, 2020; see also SecEd, 2020).

The report and its accompanying guidance recommends “that school leaders should consider incorporating a teacher autonomy lens to regular reviews of teaching and learning policies”.

While schools’ performance management structures should be a helpful vehicle with which to impart this sense of autonomy, too often teacher appraisal processes are reduced to clunky tick-lists that try to meet too many different needs and satisfy multiple stakeholders.

A potent cocktail of data-driven performance targets, performance-related pay, grading of book scrutinies and “what went wrong?” style conversations have the potential to destroy even the best laid CPD plans.

There is a difference between measuring performance and developing performance. So let go of arbitrary concrete targets in complex areas which create unnecessary gamification and which have ultimately been shown to depress rather than aid development.

Judging, evaluating and rewarding teacher effectiveness in a fair and transparent way is so important if your staff CPD programme is to have the desired impact. For further advice on checking whether your school’s performance management is harmful or helpful, see my article for Headteacher Update’s sister magazine, SecEd (Cunningham, 2017).

2, Exam-time CPD drought

I recently spoke to a frustrated CPD leader who had invested a huge amount of time, care and consideration in designing the annual programme for staff development. The plans were research-informed and meticulously linked to teacher need and school improvement priorities. Crucially, they also aligned with research that tells us that the most effective activities last at least two terms (Cordingley et al, 2015).

Colleagues were relishing the opportunity to take part in longer-term projects which allowed them to revisit and embed particular skills or strategies, and many felt genuinely more engaged in professional learning than they had in a long time.

But then in among the frenzy of exam season and SATs revision, the school found that “all the best laid plans go out of the window” and, in this instance, senior leadership team concerns over school data meant professional learning time was sacrificed in order for teachers to spend more time in the classroom.

While understandable for the purpose of supporting children, the unexpected shift in CPD entitlement was felt to completely “decimate” any progress made through the teacher-led projects.

Top-down changes like this send a toxic message to staff about how their development is (or perhaps is not) valued, especially when given a new lease of opportunity to develop, only to have it snatched away overnight.

So ensure that time is carved out and safeguarded for CPD with sufficient consideration of where workload might need to be shifted elsewhere at particular points in the calendar.

Some schools even front-load their calendars in anticipation of teachers’ increased contact time during exam seasons. Just make sure not to over-promise and under-deliver.

3, Obsessing over Ofsted

Ofsted has been much more vocal recently about myth-busting, including making explicit reference to what should and should not be required of schools expecting to undergo an inspection so as to avoid unnecessary teacher workload (Ofsted, 2018).

However, I still come across countless leaders who sadly feel that CPD is something that they will only have the breathing space to plan “properly” once they feel they have escaped the burning eye of Ofsted, with reactive, briefing-style sessions about deep dives or data taking priority in the meantime.

There is also a misconception that thinking creatively and strategically to design a high-quality professional development programme is a luxury only “good” or “outstanding” schools can afford, which I have seen from experience is simply not true.

In fact, getting professional development right can even be the driving force behind a school’s improvement journey; the key that unlocks a way for teachers to get better, faster.

My experience suggests that on the whole, the most commonly booked courses tend to be in reaction to external threats and changes such as Ofsted inspections, new regulations, and changing exam syllabuses.

Meanwhile, the Wellcome Trust’s Developing great subject teaching report (2018) found that “the kinds of subject-specific CPD that schools engage in as a result of such policy-driven changes can often be limited to – for example – exam board briefings attended by one or two members of staff rather than extended professional development programmes for all staff”.

As leaders this is a systemic culture which we can endeavour to change through concerted action from the ground up.

4, Saying ‘yes’ to everything

Some of the most powerful school transformation journeys we have seen have been as a result of leaders and teachers making an active decision to strip things back and focus on fewer priorities; essentially opting for quality over quantity.

This can be a particular challenge if you are a school based in an area where there is a high level of directed investment, such as the government’s Opportunity Areas in which schools might suddenly be faced with an array of options of CPD programmes with which to engage. While the investment is undeniably welcome, it can create a sense of “too much of a good thing”, with schools feeling overwhelmed by initiatives and senior leaders’ attention pulled in a million and one directions.

In regards to your CPD programme, this means being discerning consumers when commissioning external providers and using research to help you make concrete decisions about both processes and content.

Use frameworks and resources such as the Teaching and Learning Toolkit (Education Endowment Foundation) or the Commissioning futures guide (Young Foundation, 2018) to make sound decisions and gain maximum value from working with experts or specialists.
While word-of-mouth is a useful indicator of satisfaction, do not let it be the guiding force of who or how your school engages with CPD.

5, Support staff as an after-thought

There is no doubt that it can be logistically challenging to meet the developmental needs of support staff, as they are often on different contracts and hours to teaching staff.

To add complexity, while a learning support assistant or teaching assistant’s needs may be particularly specific to a child they are supporting, a member of site or administrative staff may need a more skills-based approach.

Yet the same principles of high-quality CPD apply – opportunities for all staff in your school should be focused, sustained and iterative, and even colleagues not in the classroom should be allowed sufficient time to share practice and collaborate.

All staff should have access to external input and challenge, including opportunities to visit other schools, access to evidence-informed input, and the opportunity to seek out different approaches and strategies.

The National Association of Professional Teaching Assistants, the Professional standards for teaching assistants (UNISON, 2016), subject associations, specialist SEND associations, and the EEF guidance Making best use of teaching assistants (Sharples et al, 2018) can all be helpful sources for this.

The Skills for Schools website is also a very helpful resource for those planning and leading CPD for support staff.


It is about time to start taking staff learning just as seriously as we would student learning. So ahead of next year, give yourself enough time and space to get your CPD programme right. When done well, CPD helps teachers thrive and pupils succeed.

  • Maria Cunningham is head of education at the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for effective CPD in schools and colleges. A secondary school governor and former primary teacher, she works with senior leaders to improve the quality and culture of their processes for staff professional learning. Visit www.tdtrust.org

Further information & resources

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up Headteacher update Bulletin
About Us

Headteacher Update is a magazine, website, podcast and regular ebulletin dedicated to the primary school leadership team. We tackle a wide range of leadership issues, offering best practice, case studies and in-depth information, advice and guidance. Headteacher Update magazine is distributed free to approximately 20,000 primary school headteachers.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.