CPD: Creating the right culture

Written by: David Weston | Published:
Photo: iStock

How can schools create a culture to enable their staff to excel? David Weston considers six strategies to achieve great staff motivation and development

We all strive for a positive work climate in our schools, but it is hard to achieve. When we can get it right, teachers and other school staff are more likely to stay, to engage and to be effective.

I spend lots of time working with school leaders who are ambitious and development-minded, helping them to put together this vital piece of the school effectiveness puzzle.

These schools, as members of our Teacher Development Trust Network, commit to creating – as the latest Ofsted descriptor for “outstanding” puts it – “a culture that enables staff to excel” where “leaders ensure that the school has a motivated, respected and effective teaching staff”. Here are six key strategies that we have seen which can contribute to making this happen effectively.

1, Removing defensiveness

A huge problem in any organisation is that people become entrenched and defensive. This is just as true of senior leaders as it is of other members of staff. Defensive conversations are rarely useful for professional learning – they can become personal and emotionally charged.

When there is an air of defensiveness in a school, people often avoid potentially emotional conversations. This allows resentment to build up as there are always issues that are unaddressed and opinions that are not shared, leading to everyone reading (or mis-reading) between the lines suspiciously.

When we audit in our network member schools we include a look at the extent to which staff are comfortable discussing their practice. We often find that a key indicator of success in this area is the extent to which senior leaders show explicitly how open they are to learning and reflecting on their own practice.

In one of our member schools, Huntington School in York, headteacher John Tomsett used a staff meeting to show a video to his staff of an ordinary lesson he taught, and invited feedback. By modelling an open-to-learning, non-defensive approach to communication, he has contributed to a culture where everyone is open to exploring, learning and taking risks.

2, Listening

The most successful schools gather information carefully from every member of staff. There is huge power in engaging with the combined wisdom of all staff, rather than using only senior leaders’ views and external data to plan school improvement.

One element of our audit is checking the extent to which staff members feel they can contribute to the planning of professional development, so that it is responsive to their needs.

When we audited Aston University Engineering Academy (AUEA) we found two key strategies for listening to staff. The first was to use their cloud-based system to carefully gather and analyse staff members’ own reports and requests for training and development.

The second approach was to use their teacher learning community groups to gather evidence from teachers about the practices they need to develop to help students learn more effectively. These two systems were recognised by the great majority of staff at AUEA as helping them contribute to the planning and overall design of the CPD programmes at the school.

3, Relevance

An under-pressure leadership team can often find that they are imposing their teaching priorities on staff with very diverse needs. This inevitably makes it feel that the CPD is not truly relevant for many teachers – they suspect it is just helping senior leaders tick boxes.

A key area we audit is to check with staff whether they feel that the CPD programme and processes seem to be relevant to the needs of pupils they teach. Our recent Developing Great Teaching research report showed that this is a key ingredient of professional development that improves student attainment.

We have been supporting one of our network schools to help them gather evidence about the students that teachers themselves feel are not reaching their full potential. Staff members are using these case study pupils as part of teacher focus groups to increase the relevance and impact of their work around more general pedagogical ideas (such as Assessment for Learning and growth mindset). This approach is also helping them get more buy-in and engagement for professional development, and ensuring that it generates helpful peer-to-peer discussion.

4, Coaching

We all lose perspective at times, and a skilled coach can help us see the wood for the trees. In the most successful schools there is much greater investment in coaching and it is seen as a positive to which all staff aspire, rather than an approach to remedy deficits.

Harris Academy Greenwich fulfilled our Gold-level descriptor in our CPD audit for their investment in coaching. They provide coaching training with an in-depth in-house programme available for a new cohort every year, while a few staff are pushed to take internationally recognised qualifications.

Through audit interviews we found that there was a common coaching language used by most senior and middle leaders, leading to a coherent approach that was praised by staff.

5, Providing time

Teachers are incredibly busy and the demands of routine planning, marking and keeping on top of administrative tasks and email can squeeze out time for professional development.
The most successful schools are investing in protected time for staff to work collaboratively and reflect. Ormiston Denes Academy in Lowestoft, another member school, excelled particularly in this area in their recent CPD audit.

A mixture of weekly teacher learning community slots in the mornings, fortnightly collaborative planning time in departments, along with regular twilight input and occasional whole-day sessions gives them ample opportunity for professional learning.

Another important area is to use meeting time effectively, minimising the focus on administrative issues that can be addressed via email, and maximising the time spent on discussion of teaching and learning. We are working with Ormiston Denes to develop this area further through strategic links with subject associations.

6, CPD, not quality assurance

Where graded lesson observations and exercise book snapshots feature heavily in performance management, we find that teachers tend to focus much of their development on looking good and ticking boxes. A number of research studies have suggested that both of these approaches to quality assurance are less reliable at predicting future teacher performance than we might think.

At Highbury Grove School in Islington, headteacher Tom Sherrington has championed the removal of graded lesson observations. When we audited the school we found that this had significantly increased staff confidence and willingness to engage in innovation, allowing professional learning to flourish.


Creating the right culture in your school is not only good for your Ofsted grade, it improves morale and wellbeing and can lead to sustained professional development that raises attainment for your students.

  • David Weston is the chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust. He is chairman of the Department for Education’s CPD Expert Group. David is a current governor at two schools and is a former teacher. Follow him on Twitter at @informed_edu

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