Teacher development: Understanding the DfE's Golden Thread

Written by: Gareth Conyard | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Are you tying yourself in knots with the golden thread? Gareth Conyard discusses two key challenges schools must navigate when considering career-long CPD for teaching staff

Recent announcements from the Department for Education (DfE) have further reinforced its focus on the professional development of teachers.

This includes the “recommitment” to deliver 500,000 teacher training opportunities during this Parliament, with fully funded scholarships available for participants in eligible schools once again.

There are additional incentives to encourage smaller schools to take National Professional Qualifications (NPQs) in the form of a payment of £200 per participant in schools of fewer than 600 pupils, and new NPQs in Leading Literacy and Early Years Leadership will be available from this autumn.

The DfE also announced last year the National Institute of Teaching as a new organisation that will, in time, offer professional development from initial teacher training (ITT) through to executive leadership, alongside sharing evidence and research.

This comes on top of the recent introduction of the Early Career Framework (ECF), reformed NPQs, and the ITT Market Review. A lot of these developments are summarised neatly in the DfE’s policy paper Delivering world-class teacher development (DfE, 2022).

At this point, schools might well be struggling to make sense of how everything comes together coherently and to decide what to prioritise. So how best to make sense of it all?

It helps to understand the underpinning drivers behind these reforms. It is positive that the government has understood the benefits of investing in professional development and is building on the principles outlined in the Standard for teachers’ professional development (DfE, 2016).

Since that point there has been a continual push from the DfE to expand investment in this crucial area. But, like any government investment, it needs to be justified by a judgement of what works in order to persuade the Treasury to bankroll the reforms.

That has led directly to the creation of the so-called “Golden Thread”, designed to ensure that a robust and consistent evidence-base is used for all government-funded professional development.

The aforementioned policy paper states: “Our teacher development reforms have created a ‘golden thread’ of high-quality evidence underpinning the support, training, and development available through the entirety of a teacher’s career.”

On the face of it this makes sense – nobody would set out to intentionally design an inconsistent system after all. But there are two key challenges that schools have had to navigate.

First, is the evidence underpinning the reforms right?

The DfE should be applauded for taking this seriously by involving the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) heavily in the design and validation of the ECF and NPQs. This independent assessment of evidence means a more robust and consistent approach is used across all programmes, helping to create a clearer progression as teachers and leaders advance in their careers by ensuring that the content of each development programme builds on the others.

But there is a reason why one of our core values at the Teacher Development Trust (TDT) is humility – evidence shifts, understanding improves, ideas become contested. Any evidence that is implemented without understanding is at risk of becoming a gimmick, a parody of itself.

So it is important that we all hold our views lightly, are open to other ideas, and appreciate that we must bring our own judgement to bear as we learn about new evidence and how to implement it in effective and sustainable ways.

Second, are the reforms all deliverable at once?

Although the investment in professional development is welcome, and there is an argument that teachers and leaders will benefit from support now, the pandemic has taken a toll on the capacity of the system to respond that cannot be ignored.

For example, there has been push-back on the load the early career teacher mentors are being asked to carry in the delivery of the ECF. The DfE has listened and made some changes but there is clearly more to do.

For schools trying to find the right balance between development and the daily demands of school life, a key consideration is understanding the ambitions and motivations of staff, working out who is keen to stretch and push on and who is focusing on consolidation.

Too much development can be as damaging as not enough. That is why TDT prioritises working consultatively with staff, for example as part of a diagnostic review, in order to gain a greater depth of understanding.


Overall the most important thing for school leaders is to exercise judgement over which offers to take up and which are not right for you at that moment.

That way you retain the agency. To risk over-extending a metaphor – the Golden Thread becomes something you can sew into the fabric of your school as it develops, rather than something that ties you and your school into knots.

  • Gareth Conyard is director of education at the Teacher Development Trust. He worked at the Department for Education between 2003 and 2022 on a range of policies from early years to higher education. Most recently, he led the development and delivery of the Early Career Framework and reformed National Professional Qualifications.

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