CPD: The four big questions all school leaders ask

Written by: Maria Cunningham | Published:
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There are four big questions that school leaders ask time and again when it comes to their CPD provision. In this article, Maria Cunningham answers them and offers some practical advice


It has been more than eight years since the Teacher Development Trust launched the TDT Network, a professional community in which schools learn with and from each other, and where trust leaders, headteachers and leaders with any responsibility for staff professional development access support to plan and deliver professional learning opportunities that are as effective as possible.

Not only does this involve our member schools thinking about the components of CPD, but the culture too. This is important because teachers working in more supportive professional environments improve their effectiveness more over time than those working in less supportive environments (Kraft & Papay, 2014).

Teachers are more likely to improve if they feel that they are working within schools where both trust and high professional standards are maintained. It is, therefore, important to consider not only the content and processes involved in professional development, but also the context and environment within which they occur.

Having worked alongside hundreds of leaders to improve their design, delivery and evaluation of CPD, there are four big questions that we are asked time and time again.

In this article, I will look at answering those questions – often the ones that feel like the tough nuts to crack – just in time for you to take away and apply some of the ideas into practice for the new academic year ahead.


Question one: Why aren’t all staff motivated to engage with professional development?

The truth is that the vast majority of the time, teachers and staff in schools do understand the value that high-quality CPD can have on both their own practice and on pupil outcomes.

Often when leaders experience resistance or low buy-in to CPD, it is symptomatic of an organisational culture or legacy in which professional development has been of poor quality in the past and is therefore perceived as an unnecessary add-on to workload rather than something that will empower and upskill participants to better fulfil their day-to-day roles.

It can be an interesting exercise to ask individual staff members how they define “CPD”. All too often we will find that it is used by staff as a synonym for “staff meeting”, which then limits understanding and recognition of the multitude of activities (both formal and informal) that contribute to one’s on-going development and have a sustainable impact on students.

It also means that administrative or briefing sessions unlikely to make a long-term impact are wrongly pulled under the umbrella of CPD.

Research shows that teachers need to see how their learning is aligned to wider school plans and goals, with leaders actively seeking to gain and increase buy-in at all times (Weston et al. 2021). In this regard, listening, consulting and talking to staff is fundamental.

I recently spoke to a headteacher new to post who had conducted one-to-one conversations with every member of staff, simply asking them: “What do you hope we could change here?” and “What do you hope we could keep?” Conversations often boiled down to CPD either for individuals or their departments, and the impact on staff motivation of just being asked to contribute was palpable.

When colleagues feel they “have a say”, know how their needs are built into the whole-school CPD programme, and understand how this relates to specific students in their classroom, they are far more likely to feel like the agents (and not the victims) of change – and be motivated and inspired to take part.


Question two: How are other schools making so much time for CPD?

The Department for Education’s Standard for teachers’ professional development (DfE, 2016) advises that “professional development programmes should be sustained over time”, and recently the Wellcome Trust called for 35 hours of CPD per-teacher, per-year (Headteacher Update, 2021), with 50 per cent of this dedicated to subject-specific CPD (Headteacher Update, 2019).

We know that sufficient time means more than just protecting slots for the CPD activity itself, but also for the preparation, follow-up and evaluation. In TDT’s CPD Diagnostic Reviews, time is cited as one of the biggest barriers to CPD. So how can schools and leaders mitigate this?

There are certainly models and methods through which we have seen schools be creative and maximise the hours available for colleagues to engage with learning and take part in collaborative development with teams, (e.g. disaggregating INSET days). In the most effective schools, whole-staff briefings are minimised, subject and team meetings are kept as free of briefing and administrative work as possible, and the focus is on improving and sharing teaching knowledge and practice in direct response to student needs.

As you are mapping various programmes and activities into your annual calendar, consider how you might maximise or repurpose time to make use of all of the slots for professional learning. Some ideas taken from TDT Network schools include:

  • Reducing teaching loads or other workload.
  • Early closure or late starts.
  • Re-organising in-school meeting times.
  • Providing substitute or cover teachers.
  • After-school meetings.
  • Extending the school year.

Effective schools work extremely hard to manage workload. Marking, planning, staff meetings, data-entry, covering other colleagues, duties and emails are all key areas where time can be saved which can then be used to not only ensure time for CPD but also reduce background stress and pressure.

As Dr Kulvarn Atwal, headteacher and author of The Thinking School (2019) says: “It is the responsibility of leaders to mediate the influence of external factors that mean CPD gets sidelined. Rather than saying ‘we don’t have enough time’, moving forwards, you carve this out.”


Question three: How can I improve CPD opportunities for support staff?

The CPD for support staff who work directly with children, such as teaching assistants and pastoral workers, shares similar key principles to CPD for teaching staff. In fact, in many cases, it is appropriate for support staff to collaborate with teaching colleagues. It is important to cultivate a belief among support staff that professional learning is valued, where staff feel safe to experiment and try things out, and where staff feel valued as professionals.

A key change you can make is to ensure that you consider and include support staff in briefings and to look for opportunities where you can build a collegiate team. Do not segregate your staff, but also do not expect people to sit through things that are largely irrelevant to their role.
It is also important to support collaboration, peer observation, collaborative planning and the sharing of practice among all staff. Too often meeting time and collaborative time is provided for teachers in a way that it isn’t for non-teaching staff. Sadly, it is quite rare to see non-teaching staff given much role in school improvement projects and action research. Yet, when schools have done this it can result in significant engagement and improvements.

For example, one colleague at a large secondary school was given the time to research how different organisations approach performance management. With a team of colleagues, she then redesigned how appraisal works to be more in line with evidence-informed approaches.
Similarly, in a primary school, the receptionist was encouraged, after giving feedback, to redesign how school events worked, which resulted in higher parental attendance and smoother events.

For more, see Bridget Clay’s article for Headteacher Update on support staff CPD (2017). The National Association of Professional Teaching Assistants (NAPTA), the Professional standards for teaching assistants, subject associations, the Specialist SEND Association, Skills for Schools (a site managed by UNISON), and the teaching assistant research and guidance from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (including Sharples et al, 2018) can all be helpful sources of external guidance too.


Question four: What can we do to make research and evidence more accessible to staff?

There is extensive and consistent evidence that quality of teaching is the most important in-school factor influencing pupil outcomes, and that the impact of high quality teaching is particularly significant for disadvantaged pupils (Sutton Trust, 2011). So as practitioners we have a professional duty to take approaches that are most likely to lead to this, including using evidence to improve teaching practice and increase the likelihood of making more robust decisions.

Yet all too often, decisions about CPD in schools are still made based on what the school down the road is doing, by someone going out on a course and saying “we should be doing this”, or by simply doing what has always been done without questioning the status quo.

As a leader thinking about applying evidence to CPD, it can be useful to split this into three parts:

  • How much are organisational decisions made based on evidence?
  • How much are CPD providers and experts chosen based on their robustness of impact?
  • How much are individual teachers engaging with expertise, research and “infusing” their practice with new ideas – which is supporting them to develop professionally and as experts?

There are many common barriers to this third point around teachers engaging deeply with evidence. Often it is seen as a luxury when put alongside competing workload pressures, or teachers will lack confidence in being able to judge and apply research quality. The role of organisations such as the EEF and the Research Schools Network has been fundamental in shifting this thinking over the past decade and in making academic research more digestible and easy to apply in practice.

The EEF’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit, alongside Chartered College of Teaching resources, the Sutton Trust’s What makes great teaching? report (Coe et al, 2014) and Evidence-Based Education’s Great Teaching Toolkit all provide reliable guidance towards methods which may be the most successful in improving pupil outcomes.

However, professional development being evidence-informed does not necessarily mean it is fit-for-purpose for all contexts. Try to think of evidence in education like a compass: “Once we know where we want to go, it can help point us in the right direction for getting there – but it cannot tell us where we’re trying to go in the first place.” (Teach First, 2017).

Leaders’ role in modelling engagement with evidence-informed CPD is incredibly important, and often it is the small touches that can contribute to a research-rich culture in your school. This could be through regular sharing of reading and blogs, internal TeachMeets or breakfast sessions that create a supportive space to debate and discuss evidence, linking up with your local Research School, taking part in large-scale research projects or working with your local university or higher education institution.

But as one TDT Network member put it, when leaders work to embed evidence as “a part of what we do here”, and create a safe space in which teachers can express what they do not yet know but are excited to learn, then research becomes more accessible, valued and even “the cool thing”. To read in more depth about implementation of a research-informed CPD cycle, see the excellent Headteacher Update article by Alex Beauchamp (2019).

In order to develop teachers and see real changes in policies, processes and leadership habits, we as leaders need to invest in time and space to collaborate, to support each other to think strategically about how to help teachers get better, and to enact then evaluate this change effectively.

  • Maria Cunningham is director of education at the Teacher Development Trust. A school governor and former primary teacher, Maria has led and contributed to national programmes including the DfE-funded CPD Excellence Hubs, Wellcome CPD Quality Assurance Project and Nesta EdTech R&D Programme. Read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via http://bit.ly/htu-cunningham


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