How do you choose your CPD ‘experts’?

Written by: Maria Cunningham | Published:
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Many schools work with CPD experts to support staff development, but what should school leaders be looking for when forming these partnerships? Maria Cunningham advises

Since working at Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for effective CPD in schools, I have had the pleasure of meeting, interviewing and working alongside hundreds of staff up and down the country. One of the things that I still find fascinating is the vast number of different interpretations that teachers and support staff have of “CPD”. Even now, these three letters are often little more than a synonym for “going out on a course”.

Thankfully, things have changed a lot. Responding to advice such as the 2016 Department for Education’s Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development, we’re moving away from generic one-off sessions with “guru” consultants that aren’t really relevant to either our staff or pupils.

Schools have become a lot more savvy at harnessing the power of “informal” professional learning opportunities, as well as distributing the leadership of CPD, developing internal expertise and sharing this effectively in-house. With budgets more stretched than ever, there is clearly a benefit to making the most of existing knowledge and skills. Providing opportunities for a wider range of staff to facilitate and deliver CPD is also a great way to develop individuals and show colleagues with a particular expertise that this is recognised and valued.

However, it is important not to let the pendulum swing too far the other way, which can quickly result in a school feeling insular and inward-looking. When done effectively, engaging with external expertise is one of the keystones of high-quality professional development, for a number of reasons.

First, teachers should always be learning! We have all heard that famous Dylan Wiliam quote: “Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.” A major part of this involves your staff maintaining their technical know-how and feeling confident that their pedagogical knowledge is up-to-date.

Second, raising the quality of teaching means bringing evidence-based practice into the classroom. Engaging with external expertise allows both exposure to the latest research, and support in translating this effectively into the day-to-day.

Third, external expertise offers new perspectives and can disrupt the current thinking or beliefs of staff. It is also important that your staff are sufficiently challenged, both to catalyse their own learning and to sustain their engagement with their practice.

Below, I have set out some tips on how to commission the right external expertise and to ensure that the people you work with will make a long-term difference to staff and pupils in your school. First, as a school leader, there are two important things to consider:

1, What form of expertise are you looking for?

Expertise can take many forms, whether it’s a conference or seminar, a coach, a consultant or perhaps if you are thinking of trying out Lesson Study, a “Knowledgeable Other” (See Lesson Study: Five steps to success in the primary setting,

Headteacher Update, September 2017: Whether you are exploring a new strategy through a one-off course with some take-away materials, or keen to invest in a series of inputs over time, with structured collaborative work between sessions, it’s important to consider what it is you are looking for.

2, What need are you trying to address?

Remember, something that a colleague at a nearby school has deemed to be transformative might not be best suited to your pupils or staff. As David Weston and Bridget Clay state in their book Unleashing Great Teaching (Routledge, May 2018), “effective commissioning begins with a clear idea of what you are trying to achieve”. This involves planning backwards from target audience, whether direct (e.g. underperforming boys in year 4) or indirect (heads of year), the intended level of depth of expertise you are looking to develop, and any pre-existing knowledge, skills, habits, values or beliefs that have influenced the change that is needed.

Suggested criteria

Once you have ascertained both your current need and your intended outcomes, you are ready to be a discerning customer of CPD. Here are some suggested criteria against which to reference:

Clarity of needs: It is important that the external provider engages with this at the earliest opportunity, using your pre-identified CPD needs to inform their planning and delivery. You and your colleagues should try to work with the external expert to refine your objectives and success criteria at the earliest stages rather than being told what generic outcomes to expect.
Suitability of content: Which of your staff will engage with the expertise, and what knowledge, skills or competencies do they already possess in this area? The content presented should be pitched appropriately to their needs and meet the format that you will already have deemed to be most suitable.

Quality of delivery and follow-up: The quality of delivery is likely to be far higher when suitable materials for preparation, on-going diagnosis, evaluation, assessment and follow up are provided, so don’t be afraid to enquire about this in advance. The best external experts will also ideally have independent reviews of their past delivery from previous users and participants that they are ready and willing to share (though take caution that participant satisfaction is not always the same as impact). When attending events, look at the speaker list and check whether there is a diverse range of viewpoints from a full range of backgrounds in order to spark that disruption in thinking. After the event or the delivery has ended, are there ways for participants to engage further or long-term support with next steps? The best providers will suggest organisations and individuals to approach to see the ideas in action, create networks, foster dialogues and continue discussion.

Checking the evidence-base: As a leader, you will undoubtedly want to ensure that your staff and colleagues are drawing from content informed and supported by a robust evidence-base. When engaging with a CPD provider, check that they are clear in setting out the “why” and that any background reading is provided to both you and the participants. Be critical in ensuring that any claims being made about good practice are actually valid and up-to-date.

Evidence of prior impact: Quality assurance is a tricky one to judge. If your source of expertise offers evidence of impact, the best indicators of reliability will involve multiple studies of impact carried out by different researchers or institutions, as well as objective data collected by independent bodies rather than being funded by commercial organisations.

Value for money: One of the most common barriers to effective CPD is budget, and given the current financial climate it is inevitable that you will want to gain as much value as possible from any expertise in which you invest. Can the price of your chosen expert be justified, or are there any other genuinely equivalent services, experts or courses which provide similar for less? Value for money can include anything from how well your chosen provider responds to any queries or concerns to the choice of venue – for example, weighing up the cost of bringing the expertise to your school versus sending a colleague to a more central location. Perhaps you could even pool resources with nearby schools and host a local event.

  • Maria Cunningham is network development leader at the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for effective CPD in schools and colleges. She is a former primary school teacher and now supports a network of more than 200 schools across the UK to improve their processes and structures for staff development. Visit You can read her previous CPD best practice articles for Headteacher Update via

Further information

  • Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development, Department for Education, July 2016:
  • The Teacher Development Trust carries out a CPD Audit process with schools, which includes a self-evaluation form and an anonymous survey to all staff about their professional learning experiences. One of the key areas of the framework is “Use of Expert Knowledge”. Visit

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