CPD: Creating the right conditions for professional learning

Written by: Maria Cunningham | Published:
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Is your school leadership creating the right conditions for professional learning? Maria Cunningham looks at the links between your staff’s working conditions and their development, expertise and efficacy


The education sector has undergone so many changes in recent years and that is without even considering the pandemic-induced upheaval of the past 12 months. We have seen new frameworks released by the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofsted, a sway towards knowledge-based curricula, changes to assessment requirements, and greater awareness of evidence-based pedagogy.


People-powered improvement

As a leader, you will recognise that there is one thing that underpins all this and which makes or breaks whether such changes embed successfully in our schools – the expertise and efficacy of staff.

It is through the development of the people in our schools that we unlock improvement and, as is highlighted in the Standards for Teachers’ Professional Development (DfE, 2016), for CPD to be effective it must be prioritised by leadership. So why are we not more ambitious in our expectations about school improvement being about creating the conditions for teachers to thrive?

One answer is that as a system we are not habitualised to thinking like this. Traditionally school improvement has been presented as a series of initiatives to be implemented, and CPD a vehicle for getting ideas into schools.

As CEO of the Teacher Development Trust (TDT), David Weston urged at the Wellcome Trust’s School Improvement through Professional Development summit last term, we need a shift in priority. We must approach CPD as more than small mechanisms and systems, and instead see it as a habit of effective teams. Furthermore, leaders should be supported to build culture, systems and habits that foster and fuel school improvement; not see culture as an ingredient or by-product of effective implementation.

It is not enough to focus on just the content or process of the professional development; context is at least as important. In fact, the first of the TDT’s seven domains of people-powered school improvement is Culture and Wellbeing. We help leaders review aspects including the quality of communication across the organisation, whether all colleagues feel involved and able to contribute to whole-school planning, whether they have opportunities to meaningfully collaborate around student learning, and the extent to which they feel able to grow in a supportive, trusting environment.


Reviewing the research

This is not just based on a hunch of what works. The evidence is increasingly finding that culture matters. Our latest working paper, A culture of improvement: Reviewing the research on teacher working conditions (Weston et al, 2021), responds to the fact that existing reviews of professional development potentially neglect important findings about the impact of working conditions on teacher improvement and student attainment over time.

My colleagues and I reviewed 30 papers on teacher working conditions and school leadership and found evidence that the quality of those working conditions has a clear, consistent relationship with student attainment that tentatively suggests a causal impact; and that the role of the school leader in fostering these conditions appears to be crucial.

In particular, there are five key aspects of teachers' working conditions that appear most closely associated with increased student attainment, sustainable school turnaround and successful retention of teachers in the profession. These are:

  • Creating opportunities for effective teacher collaboration to explore student data, plan and review lessons and curricula, and plan and moderate assessments.
  • Involving teachers in whole-school planning, decision-making and improvement.
  • Creating a culture of mutual trust, respect, enthusiasm in which communication is open and honest.
  • Building a sense of shared mission, with shared goals, clear priorities and high expectations of professional behaviours and of students’ learning.
  • Facilitating classroom safety and behaviour, where disruption and bullying are very rare and teachers feel strongly supported by senior leaders in their efforts to maintain this classroom environment.


Shifting priorities

Allow yourself some time to critically reflect on the extent to which these five statements reflect the priorities you set for your own organisation. It might also help to examine and identify the obstacles that might be preventing you from giving these aspects the attention they require.

One idea that leaders shared repeatedly at the Wellcome Trust summit was the toxicity of inspection-based accountability culture. Colleagues suggested that moral and professional accountability is often overpowered by the burden of external scrutiny.

Chris Kirkham-Knowles, the headteacher of Newby and Scalby Primary School in Scarborough and a member of the NAHT’s School Improvement Commission, reflected: “In 23 years as a headteacher, I have never been asked to reflect on culture. Our system doesn’t ask us in any shape or form to think about it. It needs to come across lots more strongly alongside moral purpose.”

There are, however, numerous examples of schools who are seeing improvement through growing a culture of development upwards and by leaders resisting such external pressures.

Dr Kulvarn Atwal, headteacher and author of The Thinking School, is one of them. He said: “I’ve pushed back against high-stakes measures but been discouraged by local authorities and school improvement advisors. It takes courage to follow the research.”

Many schools or trusts start by overhauling their approach to staff CPD and appraisal. Gary Wilkie, CEO of the Learning in Harmony Trust, shared how its schools are renewing the meaning of performance management so the focus is on development: “We are moving appraisal towards focusing upon ‘engagement in learning’ through accountability ‘dialogues’ and away from SMART targets.”


Guiding principles for leaders

Leading Learning: One of the key implications emerging from the literature is that leaders’ knowledge and skill in developing others is vital to future efforts for school and system improvement. As Liebowitz & Porter (2019) note, this is not about narrowing school leaders’ roles to one of only “instructional leadership” or CPD, but about ensuring that all efforts are aligned to produce the most effective collaboration, team-work and learning for adults alongside well-communicated, shared and aligned goals.


Time: The research shows that it is essential to think much more creatively about staff timetables and work demands so that there is significantly more safeguarded time available for the highest quality team dialogue, planning and reflection. This involves reflecting on how we can improve the quality of every in-service training day, every staff and team meeting, every one-to-one meeting, every coaching session, while removing competing pressures and managing workload.

The Wellcome Trust’s CPD Challenge project has demonstrated that every school in England is capable of ensuring at least 35 hours of the highest quality professional development time per-teacher, per-year, and in many cases this can be significantly higher (Leonardi et al, 2020).

Professor Emily Perry of Sheffield Hallam Institute of Education reflected that small tweaks can be powerful: “We’ve seen some small changes that have really made a big difference” (for instance finding ways of reconfiguring department meetings). She reassured leaders that “it isn’t necessarily about spending lots of money or making big structural changes”.


Mentoring, coaching and peer-relationships: Ensure that every teacher in your school has the opportunity to work with a skilled coach and a more effective practitioner, and later to progress to take on these roles. This involves a significant investment in the skills and knowledge of pedagogical (or instructional) coaching as well as ensuring that staff timetables and structures allow for paired discussion and peer observation.

Communication is also key; ensuring that every school leader has the skills, knowledge and disposition to foster a culture where the highest quality conversation happens, where colleagues trust and respect each other, where difficult issues are aired and resolved, where every voice is valued and heard and where staff feel safe, supported and engaged.


One size does not fit all

Though tempting, we must resist our tendency to talk about CPD in isolation and remember that sustainable success relies on creating a culture of improvement. Chris Kirkham-Knowles suggests that the biggest challenge for leaders is avoiding buying into a “flat-pack” mentality of school improvement interventions – companies or individuals offering a “ready-made kit” to implement structures that gives you immediate reward, but might not be the right size, shape or stand test of time.

Using the guiding principles above, we suggest instead taking a “master-craftsperson” approach; ensuring that the craftspeople (that is, your staff) feel valued for expertise and help to shape their work.

There has never been a better moment for rethinking school improvement and professional development. We have the appetite; with leading organisations focused on and committing to building the evidence and creating the conditions that enable schools to thrive, while the DfE’s evolution of the Early Career Framework and NPQs (including a specialist qualification in Teacher Development) are intended to further support career-long professional development for all teachers.

But we also have the opportunity, as Natalie Perera, chief executive of Education Policy Institute, explained: “Covid-19 has turned everything we thought we knew on its head. It took a global pandemic for schools to emerge as flagpoles in the community, and in turn the school workforce has shown that it can respond rapidly to changing and challenging circumstances.”

  • Maria Cunningham is a former teacher, a school governor and head of education at the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for effective professional learning in schools. Its Culture of Improvement paper is currently a work in progress, shared freely by the authors in the interests of scholarship. They warmly welcome critique and suggestions as they continue to develop this paper further. Maria tweets at @mcunners. Visit www.tdtrust.org and read Maria’s previous articles for SecEd via https://bit.ly/2MBcvAM


Further information & resources

  • DfE: Standard for teachers’ professional development, July 2016: http://bit.ly/2Pj4Vys
  • Liebowitz & Porter: The effect of principal behaviors on student, teacher and school outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis of the empirical literature. Review of Educational Research (89,5), July 2019: http://bit.ly/3ujx2P5
  • Leonardi et al: Progress towards the Wellcome CPD Challenge, CfE Research, February 2020: https://bit.ly/2ZBiEmW
  • Weston et al: A culture of improvement: Reviewing the research on teacher working conditions, Working Paper 1.1, TDT, February 2021: https://tdtrust.org/coi/


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