How sustainable is your school’s CPD provision?

Written by: Michelle Barker | Published:
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Does your school have a CPD offer? Or does it have a culture of learning? Michelle Barker shares some self-evaluation questions to help you review the sustainability of your school’s CPD provision

When working with schools to assess their CPD provision against the Teacher Development Trust’s Quality CPD Framework, we often hear praise from staff for the “bespoke offer” or “individualised CPD” available to them.

But what does this really mean? And how can you determine its efficacy in helping to meet whole-school objectives?
This article explores key components of the most effective CPD programmes the TDT has seen within its national network, and how they can be sustained by a culture of learning that is championed by leaders and embodied by staff.

Autonomy and coherence

What does autonomy mean to your staff? Do they see it as having free reign over their CPD choices? Or is it instead about having supported opportunities to enquire into their own practice, innovate and take risks?

Autonomy over certain areas of a teacher’s profession is more closely linked to job satisfaction and retention than others, and recent research suggests that we should be paying particularly close attention to teachers’ perceived control over their professional development goals (Worth & Van den Brande, 2020).

The debates following this research on autonomy have certainly prompted many schools to offer more opportunities for teachers to have a say in identifying their CPD needs and to take part in teacher-led processes such as enquiry or developmental coaching, but is this enough to sustain a culture of learning? What is it that makes autonomy work for an organisation?

As David Weston, the TDT’s chief executive, has said: “Teachers do not work in a vacuum, they work within a specific school culture and a broader education sector system which dictates and influences the extent to which they engage with high-quality professional learning.”

The question of whether autonomy is supporting development is best answered by whether staff feel that their own learning is part of something bigger. As a leader, think about professional learning in your school and reflect on the following questions:

  • Are motivators for engaging in learning intrinsic or extrinsic?
  • Is there coherence between the support or courses teachers request, and whole-school development priorities?
  • Is there opportunity for teachers to give feedback on their learning and disseminate this to their colleagues?
  • Does the school’s culture promote on-going professional conversation, sharing and debate of learning?

Offers and transparent pathways

When designing bespoke programmes it is important to consider whether they are adaptive and coherent with whole-school plans and needs, or whether they result in the same select few colleagues taking up multiple opportunities and others choosing not to take part – or worse yet, lacking the knowledge or confidence to request time and resources to engage with CPD.

Often we find that when schools create explicit pathways or “roadmaps” for the CPD available to colleagues at varying stages of their careers, opportunities feel more open and equitable, and engagement widens.

With leaders currently planning their development priorities for 2021/22, there is much that can be learned from the way colleagues in all roles have adapted to professional learning over this last year of lockdowns and bubble restrictions. We have a perfect opportunity to invite feedback from staff on how effective they feel CPD has been and the extent to which they have felt able to engage over this time.

Are there common themes, opportunities for pairing or partnering where staff engaged in mutually beneficial learning? If staff were able to pursue their own interests or learning, are there any recommendations they might share of specific providers, networks or associations? Collecting this information in consultation with staff will provide a good, staff-centered starting point for analysing need and mapping recommended CPD opportunities against role type and levels of experience.

Relational trust

Ensuring all staff are continually engaging with and driving professional learning means deliberately creating conditions in which their learning is seen as a priority and necessity. There are a number of things that will support and sustain confidence in this, but low relational trust can pose a threat.

Weston et al (2021) found that “creating a culture of mutual trust, respect, enthusiasm in which communication is open and honest” is one of five aspects that not only improves teachers’ working conditions, but also appears closely associated with increased student attainment.

During the TDT’s CPD Diagnostic Review process, we ask interviewees to reflect on how highly they value peer relationships, how regularly they meaningfully work with other colleagues to solve learning issues, and how comfortable they feel challenging colleagues.

Through purposefully gauging staff’s confidence to work with one another we can better understand existing barriers to effective support and challenge, including where negative perceptions of challenge, feedback and observation may prevent a learning culture from sticking.

Creating conditions in which relational trust (and, therefore, peer support and challenge) can thrive means maintaining a pupil focus. This will ensure less judgemental and more development collegial discussion. To do this, for all CPD opportunities, internal or external, independent, team or whole-school, there should be advance consideration of how and when staff will share expert knowledge within departments or phases and of how strategies will be applied to specific subjects or pupils.

Protecting time for discussion, debate and evaluation

Most schools already have clear timetables of protected time for PPA, whole-school CPD sessions, team (department or phase) meetings, and performance management meetings, as well as regular senior leadership team observation cycles.

Knowing that “creating opportunities for effective teacher collaboration to explore student data, plan and review lessons and curricula, and plan and moderate assessments” is among the five aspects of teachers’ working conditions that appear most closely associated with increased student attainment (Weston et al, 2021), and as we know that teacher workload is a key barrier to engaging with effective CPD (Leonardi et al, 2020), it is incredibly important to utilise this time effectively.

The most effective CPD provisions we encounter are those which protect time for non-judgemental sharing and debating of learning and practice between colleagues. This may initially take place in whole staff or team meetings, where a reflective teaching and learning focus and staff contribution and debate takes precedence over administrative updates or planning. As this develops, shared reading or research projects might be offered to allow staff time to explore and debate evidence and how this relates to their practice.

Once a culture of high challenge, low threat is established, other developmental opportunities for collaboration to consider include enquiry or peer-coaching models. Through these staff can use independent expertise and shared research to explore and evaluate incremental practice changes which positively impact pupil outcomes.

Leaders who champion effective CPD

The Standards for Teachers’ Professional Development (DfE, 2016) maintain that professional development must be prioritised by school leadership. Leonardi et al’s interim report on the Wellcome CPD Challenge (2020) also finds that “school leaders are fundamental in driving effective implementation of CPD and creating the conditions in which it can be sustained”.

We know then that without a carefully crafted and sustained culture in which all staff feel able and encouraged to contribute, and in which their voice and learning is championed by leadership, bespoke CPD provisions may not have the impact leaders hope for. This vision should not be reduced to buzz words, but should be a lived reality for all staff.

Tying it all together for maximum impact

The most successful leadership teams we have worked with offer autonomy together with protected time for working with colleagues in teams, phases or departments, as well as through enquiry or coaching to share knowledge and personal practice development.

These schools consult staff on organisational development priorities and ask them to feed in their team and individual learning needs to support this; they offer options or pathways to new staff who may need additional guidance or confidence when discussing their development needs. Ultimately, they make it explicitly clear that they value staff contribution.

When determining the success of your provision, staff feedback benefits as both a measure and a driver of change. If you are not yet seeing the impact you envisioned, ask first what conditions might be missing from your working environment – and then involve your staff in the process of change.

  • Michelle Barker is the network programmes lead for the Teacher Development Trust. She has contributed to national programmes including the DfE-funded CPD Excellence Hubs and led on TDT’s collaboration with the National Foundation for Education Research’s work into teacher autonomy.

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