Designing whole-school CPD: Three streams, one cycle

Written by: Robbie Burns | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

With so many high-quality materials available to schools, the challenge these days is not the what of CPD, but the how. Applying recent EEF research into the mechanisms of effective CPD, Robbie Burns advises on designing a whole-school CPD cycle


According to Joe Kirby (2021), we are living in a “golden age of CPD” with “a treasure trove” of resources at our fingertips. I am inclined to agree.

Erudite educators regularly share free resources, blog posts, reflections on their experiences in classrooms, and videos of talks across the length and breadth of social media.

We live in a time in education where there is no shortage of professional learning content. For leaders of teaching, then, it may seem that most of the hard work of gathering, refining and developing good quality content is done for them. Is it that simple?

Clearly, it is not. Designing high-impact CPD is no easy task. But if Joe Kirby is right, the content of professional learning is not the issue. A few clicks and ready-made CPD is available for delivery in staff meetings across the country. The problem is not the what of CPD, but the how. The forms, programmes and mechanisms of effective CPD need to be deeply understood by all those who develop teachers to make sure that teachers are growing week by week, year by year.

Last year, the EEF (Collin & Smith, 2021) produced a report that helpfully describes the essential elements – or “mechanisms” to use the language of the report – of effective CPD to support leaders of teaching in their work.

In this article, I will describe how I, as a leader of teaching, have developed a basic layer of CPD in my own context, with the help of my very able colleagues and many lessons learned from getting it wrong. I hope it will serve others in understanding how they might transform the “what” of the EEF report into practical “hows” in their schools.

But first, if we want teachers to grow, we must create the right conditions, designing CPD with care, as the EEF report suggests.


Conditions for teacher growth: Strong culture, strong quality-assurance

Before any description of effective CPD is made, it is important to acknowledge and be clear about how we choose the forms, programmes and mechanisms, taking into consideration the contexts of our schools.

Three specific knowledge bases for leaders can support decision-making about what and how to invest their time and money: school culture, teacher need, and student need.


School culture

When leaders have a strong understanding of their school culture, they are able to more accurately ascertain what sort of approach should be taken to CPD. Granted, CPD in and of itself can be a tool for cultural renewal but it will not be the only thing that can guide and shape a school culture.

If staff are receptive to change and there is a strong level of trust and openness to feedback, there are many CPD programmes and processes that will be relatively straightforward to implement if done effectively; however, what this doesn’t mean is that we create elaborate systems and processes with several moving parts straight away.

A strong CPD system must be built over several years and with teachers, taking a strong steer about the pace of change from those in the classroom every day.

If a school culture is weak, teachers distrust leaders, there is an insipid reticence to new ideas and change among staff and CPD must be designed with this in mind. All CPD, however evidence-informed and well-planned, will not have the desired impact if it is not implemented with culture in mind.


Teacher and student needs

The next two knowledge bases can be seen as symbiotic: leaders need to understand the needs of their teachers and the needs of their students. When schools have rigorous quality assurance systems that accurately gather rich data on the typicality of classroom practice, this creates a simple way to identify teacher needs. If the quality assurance system aligns with the teaching standards, this can create an objective measure.

Likewise, leaders need to have a strong grasp of student attainment and progress, through both summative assessment data and “softer” data such as behaviour and general learning readiness. The information from rigorous systems that quality-assure teaching and student learning can combine to give leaders clear priorities and themes that contribute to writing school development plans, aligning budgets and designing CPD.

Without strong school culture and accurate quality assurance systems, CPD design will never have the impact that leaders desire. Strong school culture and quality assurance provides the knowledge needed to prepare the fertile soil for teacher growth; in the EEF report, this is referred to as “social support” and “providing affirmation”.


Three Streams: Whole-school, team, individual

As stated in the first section of this article, I aim to give leaders of teaching a possible approach to designing a basic layer of CPD. But how do we make sure that CPD is meaningful for every teacher and every area of the curriculum? The best way to conceptualise it is as three streams and one cycle.

I first came across the idea of three streams from Tom Sherrington, who explains this concept well in a blog entry (2021): “My advice to (leaders of teaching) is that they need to think about this at three levels: whole school; teams; individuals.

“Each level consists of a stream of activity that has a vital role to play and needs different kinds of thinking, different inputs, structures and supports to keep them going – while all forming part of an integrated whole.”

It is easy to think about CPD in terms of whole-school priorities and individual teacher need but this misses a crucial middle stream: teams.

In primary schools, teams are primarily “phases and subjects” such as key stage 1 and a subject such as history. The teams stream can also be thought of as how certain curriculum development and teaching strategies are built upon across phases, such as the transition in reading teaching from a phonics focus to a reading comprehension focus from years 2 to 3.

The teams stream deepens the impact of the whole-school stream and the individual stream by ensuring that whole-school priorities are rooted in the real everyday issues of the classroom.

Making sure there is space and time for any whole-school CPD to filter down to collaborative discussion across phases and subjects enables teachers to flesh out what the programme means in a range of contexts and pre-empt problems that may occur. Misconceptions of the whole-school strategies can be filtered out early. This has the potential to be highly motivating. It draws middle leaders, likely to be responsible for a subject or a phase, into the conversation and helps them have greater ownership of whole school priorities.

There is and should always be the opportunity for bespoke CPD such as NPQs, writing moderator training, subject specialism and other forms of training. But the basic offer should not be these things; they are secondary. The basic layer of CPD must consider all three streams. But how is it organised? What process does it follow? There are many ways this might be done. My recommendation is that one cycle, roughly per-term, might be a good place to start.


One Cycle

The “one cycle” can be broken down into four steps: In practice, Collaborative planning, Practice, and finally Reflect and Review.

In Practice

A first step in a whole-school CPD cycle is an “in practice” session combining whole-school priorities, teacher knowledge development, and practical classroom strategies under one broad goal.

The fundamental aim of these sessions is threefold: to support teachers to understand the underpinning research; the principles to guide teacher decision-making; and some tangible practical strategies that can be implemented in classrooms.

Of course, combining these three aims should be considered with cognitive load in mind; even as educated adults, it is important to break content down into small steps and possibly revisit content across several cycles.

Presenting research from credible sources (a key mechanism in the EEF report) alongside practical strategies, enables teachers to avoid misconceptions and flexibly adapt them to their classroom practice. In my own context, we have run cycles on basic routines and classroom culture, feedback, scaffolding and differentiation, and deliberate vocabulary development to name a few.

Sometimes this part of the cycle has taken one hour, other times it has taken up to three. Regardless of time, the aims are the same: help staff see research underpinnings, the principles that guide what goes on in the classroom, and the strategies that can lead to better student outcomes.

We use Tom Sherrington and Oliver Caviglioli’s Teaching WalkThrus (2020) as an aide to support our strategy selection. Combining them into clusters makes sure that teachers see the connectedness of every aspect of classroom practice and support rehearsal.

To showcase strategies well, it is crucial that one of the mechanisms is live modelling. Sometimes this can be done through video; other times it can be done by the facilitator. I have tended to use both to aid clarity. Teaching WalkThrus helpfully breaks each strategy down into small steps, which makes them easier to dissect and discuss in granular detail.

In terms of streams, this session is very much aimed at the whole school and individual stream but I have often sat colleagues in phase groups or subject groups for discussions. This means that even though the emphasis is on individual classroom practice, discussions can be had with others that can aid clarity later down the line.


Collaborative planning

The next step is collaborative planning. The aim of this step of the cycle is to enable colleagues to work in subject planning groups (social support – a mechanism in the EEF report) to consider ways in which the cycle focus can be developed in curriculum design.

For example, when we did a cycle on classroom culture, which included Think, Pair, Share as a strategy, we looked at ways in our respective subject planning teams that we could develop richer talking opportunities in lesson time.

But rather than focusing on the teaching in the moment, we spent time considering how we could plan with this in mind, prompting action planning (another EEF mechanism).

Likewise, when we have done a deliberate vocabulary development cycle, we have looked at what it means to teach vocabulary in history, geography, English or maths, gaining a deeper insight into how this area of our practice can be developed.


Deliberate/independent practice

This stage of the cycle aims to embed practice and happens both formally and informally. Formally, a few times every half-term, staff engage in deliberate practice on a specific theme and receive feedback from all those they practice with as a form of monitoring and social support.

As a school we think it is very important that we move from talking, listening and watching, to doing, in a safe collaborative environment. This supports less experienced staff to gain useful feedback from their more experienced colleagues and also receive instructional coaching throughout the whole-school cycle.

Without this step in the cycle, there is a strong possibility that habits will not change and teaching will not improve beyond surface level adoption.


Reflect and Review

The cycle concludes with a reflect and review session. The aim of this is to evaluate the impact of the cycle as a staff body, discuss the evidence that has been gathered (books, observations, etc), and share good practice going on around the school.

I also give staff clear feedback about where I think we are and where we might need to go next. A decision is made at this point whether to continue the cycle with the same content or move on to something else.


Other elements

Regular prompts and reminders are given to staff about key content, fortnightly resources are emailed to staff to use for their own independent learning, and there are occasional briefings in staff meetings to supplement the cycle, revisit prior learning and keep the momentum going.

Quality assurance and instructional coaching cycles run alongside the whole-school CPD cycle I have described to support staff individually and provide objective feedback against the Teaching Standards

The benefits of a cycle like this, planned with three streams in mind, is that it can be rigid and highly structured when it needs to be but is also very flexible according to the context and school culture. By being really clear at the beginning of the cycle about the goals and evaluating at the end the impact of the CPD, it enables leaders to have clarity about how they can keep developing staff.


Further information & references

  • Clay & Weston: Unleashing Great Teaching, Routledge, 2018: https://tdtrust.org/unleashing-great-teaching
  • Collin & Smith: Effective professional development, EEF, October 2021: https://bit.ly/3G7kDUh
  • Kirby: Treasure troves in the golden age of CPD: #1 Staff culture, Pragmatic Reform blog, November 2021: https://bit.ly/3I0M3eb
  • CUREE: Evaluation of CPD providers in England 2010/11, 2011: https://bit.ly/3rXNzHZ
  • Sherrington: Planning professional learning: One system; three streams, Teacherhead blog, February 2021: https://bit.ly/3AG0gv5
  • Sherrington & Caviglioli: Teaching WalkThrus: Five-step guides to instructional coaching (Volume One), John Catt Educational, 2020.


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