Three barriers to creating an effective CPD strategy


How can you create an effective CPD strategy for your school? David Weston discusses three key problems and solutions.

Research on school improvement has shown that powerful professional development can help students succeed and help teachers thrive. However, many schools don’t get it right and end up confusing and stressing teachers with a multitude of rules, tips and tricks with no measurable benefits for students.

How can school leaders come up with an effective CPD plan that will support teachers and ensure the best outcomes for pupils?

At this time of year many school leadership teams are planning their programme of CPD for the year ahead. Our research shows that this takes many forms: in a recent survey, one in seven schools indicated that they plan to use little or no external input (from courses or consultants) next year, relying entirely on internal processes instead.

How can you tell if your approach is likely to improve the quality of teaching, motivate staff and raise attainment? Schools in our National Teacher Enquiry Network (NTEN) have been self-assessing and peer-auditing each other against our free CPD Quality Framework (see links below) and have identified some key challenges and approaches.

Challenge 1: Too much content

Many schools claim to be empowering teachers to improve their practice, but when push comes to shove their CPD programme is in fact a myriad of one-off lectures and workshops. Research suggests that this is the most common training experienced by staff and yet is also the least effective at improving practice. 

Nevertheless many school leaders try and pack out their INSET days and twilight training with endless seminars and workshops, delivering too many ideas in too little time with insufficient chance to practise, reflect, enquiry and collaborate.

It is worth noting that studies suggest that, on average, it takes teachers more than 30 hours of planning, teaching, collaborating, reflecting, enquiring, discussing, learning and thinking to create a sustained, effective change in teacher practice in a single area of practice. If a CPD programme consists solely of overloading teachers with seminars and lectures, this kind of change becomes impossible. 

Several NTEN members are experimenting with better models. Using enquiry approaches such as Lesson Study, they set time aside for small teams of teachers to thoroughly investigate the issues that are holding students back and then research, implement, refine and disseminate teaching practices that can help. 

It can be immensely hard for school leaders to wean themselves off “check-list” approaches to INSET where they try and deliver as much content as possible. It is even harder to prioritise, re-allocate resources and build a new culture where teachers have time and space to engage in more effective approaches. 

Nevertheless, for changes in teacher practice to be sustained and effective, school leaders must take this bold step of prioritising one or two key areas of learning and practice to focus on per year.

If you want to move towards enquiry approaches to CPD then our experience would suggest that it is best to trial it before jumping in with both feet. Some of our schools have tried a term of Lesson Study with just one or two triads of volunteers before rolling it out more widely.

Challenge 2: One size doesn’t fit all

Another very common issue in schools is a focus on compulsory CPD sessions where a small team of school leaders decide what is best for every teacher. Typically this is compounded by the challenge of too much content, as discussed above, and leadership teams develop shopping lists of ideas that they want to force-feed their staff and then try and deliver this through lecture-style sessions.

Research suggests that this approach is the least likely to sustainably improve teaching quality, the least likely to improve student outcomes, and the most likely to demotivate teachers – yet we see it all too often.

At the other end of the scale, some schools let every teacher have complete control and do absolutely anything that they are interested in during their CPD time.

This lack of structure and systematic focus means that, in these schools, a thousand flowers may well bloom and then probably die away. While motivating, this approach is unlikely to lead to sustained, systematic improvements in practice across the school.

The happy medium occurs when teaching staff make collective decisions on what areas of their practice they can all develop which will directly focus on the most pressing needs of the students. This requires a distinct cultural shift which can make school leaders feel uncomfortable and “out of control”, but will ultimately pay off in improved morale, trust and motivation. 

Once the focus has been chosen, there needs to be a mix of opportunities including coaching, enquiry models (such as Lesson Study), formal and informal study and plenty of chances for discussion. This should be accompanied by whole-staff approaches to evaluating impact on student learning as well as a strong focus on engaging critically with research and evidence to find the most promising practices.

Challenge 3: Going it alone

We are seeing an increasing trend for schools to “go in-house”. Many are happily taking on board the idea that external, one-off courses will not deliver much impact by themselves while ignoring the research that shows that external support and challenge is a vital component of effective teacher development.

Actually, one-off courses can be perfectly effective at informing teachers of new ideas and challenging preconceptions. However, without effective models of coaching, enquiry and joint practice development back in the school, these inputs are unlikely to translate into improved teaching practice and student outcomes.

External consultants and courses vary hugely in quality, of course, and it is important to choose carefully. Databases such as the Good CPD Guide should be used to compare offerings from hundreds of different providers and look for independent reviews, rather than relying solely on one organisation, on brochures or on word-of-mouth recommendations.

Another good approach is to engage in joint lesson-planning, moderation and observation with leading teachers from other schools and/or consultants. Other options are to get challenge through engagement with a local higher education institute, from Twitter, and from book/research study groups and TeachMeets.

Whatever you choose, do not lose the external support and challenge, but do make sure that each half-day of external input is accompanied by at least a whole day of joint planning, observation and discussion back in school.

What’s next?

A handful of our members have reached our very highest “gold” standard level of professional development. These schools include The Wroxham School in Hertfordshire, Cramlington Learning Village in Northumberland, and Canons High School in Harrow, and all of them have been working on transforming their approach to professional learning for many years. 

In order to help you establish where you are on your journey, and to benchmark yourself against other schools, you can download our charity’s free CPD Quality Audit tool and self-assess your progress. If you then go on to join the network, this can then form the basis of the full peer audit.

  • David Weston is the chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for effective professional development in schools and colleges. Visit

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