Ensuring effective career development for your staff

Written by: Maria Cunningham | Published:
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A good career development strategy is crucial to retaining staff but can be challenging to get right, especially in a primary school. Maria Cunningham offers her best practice advice

Since forming in 2012, the Teacher Development Trust has visited hundreds of schools around the country to review their CPD practices. One of the areas where we see the most variation between schools is career development.

Primary schools in particular, with on average smaller staff bodies and fewer middle leadership opportunities, can often find it more challenging to offer clear professional pathways that make staff want to stay for the long haul.

At a time where recruitment and retention is a bigger concern than ever within the teaching profession, headteachers should not be seeing this as an optional extra. Providing attractive and developmental career opportunities is one of the key ways in which the most effective schools are able to aid succession planning and regulate staff turnover. Here are our top tips for becoming a career-savvy school.

Redefine ‘career-pathways’

Many schools and school groups choose to have clear progression routes for each stage of a teacher’s career. Beyond the NQT or trainee year, this could comprise of separate NQT +1, +2 or +3 programmes, specific opportunities for RQTs (recently qualified teachers), or funding for individuals to undertake the NPQ (National Professional Qualifications) in Headship, Senior or Middle Leadership.

While it is great that there are now so many exciting programmes to accelerate teachers up the leadership ladder, as a headteacher, it is important to remember that this isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the end goal for everyone.

The best schools are equally mindful to provide the time and space, e.g. for your curriculum leaders or those with TLRs (Teaching and Learning Responsibilities), to become subject experts, or to promote routes within pastoral care.

This, for example, could involve a year 2 classroom teacher being supported to progress to a key stage 1 phase leader, or individuals with a particular expertise or passion for SEN being supported to take an increasing lead in this area.

Distributing the leadership of CPD delivery in-house can be a very empowering first step down these pathways. For instance, you might encourage a teaching assistant with specific knowledge of the autistic spectrum to lead a twilight session in order to upskill teaching colleagues in this area.

Maintain a level playing field

The best career opportunities shouldn’t come only to those who are particularly vocal or proactive. At the Teacher Development Trust we support schools to carry out an anonymous whole-staff survey to gauge perceptions of their CPD experiences and too often we see a disconnect where senior leaders would like to think that clear and fair career development opportunities are available to all, but staff don’t necessarily feel that these are fairly distributed.

As a headteacher, you can make small but powerful tweaks to ensure that school openness to supporting colleagues’ career routes is visible to all. As always, communication is key. High-quality coaching conversations lend themselves particularly well to improving communication channels between teachers and the senior leadership team, or perhaps you could find a way to showcase great (and ranging) examples of how staff in your context are undertaking CPD to specifically benefit their professional journey, both as a way for staff to come together and see the value in such processes, and as a useful way to encourage reflective practice and evaluate the longer-term impact of CPD on pupils.

Look beyond your teachers

Career routes for teaching assistants are undeniably less “clear cut” than they are for teachers, which means that any developmental or appraisal conversations are all the more important. Staff in all roles and responsibilities should feel free to discuss their future career aims or ambitions in the knowledge that their school supports them where possible.

In 2016, UNISON and the National Education Trust produced the guide Career Framework and Continuing Professional Development for Teaching Assistants, which provides advice for school leadership teams on planning development pathways for teaching assistants.

In the schools we visit, the most commonly cited form of career progression for teaching assistants is being funded and supported to become a Higher Level Teaching Assistant, though don’t forget that qualifications can be a particularly useful way to meet the career needs of support staff based outside of the classroom too.

Promote useful discussion

One of the conversations that all staff need each year is with an informed colleague, who can help them decide on what their career aspirations are and then look at the opportunities and training available to allow them to move in the right direction. This is especially true for newer teachers, but ensure that this makes up just one part of a wider appraisal discussion.

The results of these conversations should then be collected centrally, potentially even reviewed by you as a headteacher, to inform budgeting and CPD provision planning. If these conversations will make up part of performance management, it is important that your staff are well briefed on the wider school structures in place, and that line-managers, or potentially coaches – if your school adopts this approach – are given ample support to develop effective approaches to make these conversations useful.

Performance management is not only about developing one’s career, it is also about developing a teacher’s practice so that they are supported to be increasingly effective in their current role. Make sure that you encourage your line managers to use coaching-style conversations and to inspire professional curiosity in their colleagues, supporting all staff to develop to best meet the needs of their pupils.

Get creative with career development

Many of your staff will prefer to look beyond formal accreditation and take on some whole-school opportunities to enhance their professional experience, such as leading on a curriculum redesign, or working with colleagues in other schools. A good way of structuring such opportunities is to consider offering job-shadowing (following/assisting a more experienced colleague for some time), job-swaps (getting experience in another school or different key stage by swapping jobs with a similar-level colleague), and secondments (e.g. temporary secondment to a leadership team).

Whole-team or whole-school projects, if resourced properly with time and appropriate TLR points, give staff the opportunity to “zoom out” and see issues at a team or organisational level. This can be equally beneficial to both support staff and teaching colleagues.


When your teachers feel on-going engagement with professional development that both advances them personally as well as the wider system, not only will they feel more motivated, but collective culture will improve – benefiting the performance of both teachers and pupils.

As a headteacher, investing some effort and resource in this area can make your life easier in the long-term. Staff that have clear professional pathways are able to understand their current level of professional standards, are better supported to communicate this with their line managers or to senior leadership, and feel empowered to contribute to identifying CPD that best meets their own, as well as their pupils’ needs.

The landscape of development is rapidly shifting. With the emergence of the new Chartered College of Teaching and a major Department for Education consultation on teacher career pathways currently in the field, it is an exciting and pertinent time to be considering how teachers, teaching assistants and other staff in schools are effectively prepared for the next stage of their careers. 

  • Maria Cunningham is a former teacher and programme officer for Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for effective CPD in schools and colleges. Visit http://tdtrust.org/network. You can read her previous CPD best practice articles for Headteacher Update via http://bit.ly/2HpXCkM

Career Progression Summit

The TDT is hosting a Career Progression Summit in London on Friday, May 18, subtitled Attracting, Retaining and Developing Staff in Schools. They will be joined by UNISON, Ofsted, the DfE and others: https://teacherdevelopmenttrust.eventbrite.co.uk

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