Getting your CPD to stick: From activities to programmes

Written by: Maria Cunningham | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

One-off CPD activities – on their own – are not effective. What schools need are carefully designed CPD programmes. Creating these is a complex process. We need to consider time, resources and intended outcomes. Maria Cunningham advises

Schools are only as good as the people that work in them. The most successful leaders are increasingly realising that their role is to create a climate in which teachers can thrive and pupils can succeed; and that getting the leadership of professional learning, collaboration and culture right is the key to school improvement.

We are saying goodbye to the days of seeing CPD as a one-off “activity” and realising that individual sessions or events must be seen as components which are sequenced as part of a longer-term programme of teachers’ professional learning, which is carefully designed to produce a specific outcome over time – such as developing beliefs, knowledge, understanding or practice.

Even more importantly, these programmes need to sit comfortably within a conducive learning environment; one in which teachers feel inspired and motivated to continually develop. For example, while an individual session may be a twilight briefing on “improving feedback”, the whole programme might be focused on “improving vocabulary of Pupil Premium-eligible students in key stage 2 or 3” – based on a school development priority – and involve plenty of opportunity for teachers to engage in structured collaboration both in and out of their classrooms, working together to apply the feedback ideas to this specific focus area.

This also helps all teachers to be clear on the intended impact of their learning in relation to particular students and to constantly evaluate the effectiveness of any new ideas as they apply them to a specific goal.

Planning and designing a professional learning programme for a whole school or college is a complex discipline. You are unlikely to see truly sustained impact or change from lifting a CPD model from another school and trying to replicate it like-for-like, expecting it to meet the needs of your own staff, students and context.

It certainly takes more than just populating a calendar of twilights and INSET days for the year. The Department for Education’s Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development (DfE, 2016) is a crucial piece of reading for any leader, highlighting the importance of ensuring that all professional learning opportunities are tightly focused on intended outcomes for pupils, sustained and iterative across an academic year, based on a robust evidence-base, and include an appropriate level of expert challenge.

Any professional learning plan needs to start with three key elements:

  • The time available for professional learning.
  • The resource (money, expertise, networks) available for professional learning.
  • The intended outcomes of the professional learning.

In their book Unleashing Great Teaching (2018), Bridget Clay and David Weston recommend that when planning time for CPD, you need to look for five main types and ensure there is an adequate balance:

Activity: External courses and visits
Nature of time needed: Time out of school to explore conferences, listen to speakers and speak to others. This could be for one-off events that fit within a longer programme, or for more regular, structured inputs or study programmes.

Activity: Internal training sessions
Nature of time needed: Formal, protected time for delivery from experts or peer-to-peer presentation of ideas.

Activity: Collaboration time
Nature of time needed: Protected meeting time for structured discussions, co-planning, co-assessment.

Activity: Co-teaching time or observation time
Nature of time needed: Time in the classroom for the delivery/facilitation of a lesson and observation of the students’ reactions to it.

Activity: Individual reading and reflection time
Nature of time needed: Sufficient time for researching, reading, reflecting and writing about professional learning.

In order to make sure you are tightly identifying and clarifying the intended aims and outcomes of your CPD programme/s, a useful starting point is to ask the question: What do we need to learn to empower our staff to help our students, families and community even more effectively?

Once you know the “what”, the “how” – i.e. the decision around whether this should be an activity or programme – will flow from that.

As a rule of thumb, if you are raising awareness of certain ideas without yet trying to change habits then a one-off session will suffice, but in order to achieve a high level of embedded expertise or adaptive practice, then the participant will need to experiment and trial that new learning over time, supported by a strong school culture. When done well, collaborative enquiry or coaching approaches can be helpful vehicles for this.

For example, imagine you have an enthusiastic middle leader who spends much of her allocated professional learning time on visiting other schools and attending subject association conferences. This builds her background awareness and leaves her inspired with lots of ideas, but in itself does not directly benefit students – yet.

This middle leader needs to have time and resource prioritised by her line manager and senior leaders to turn these ideas and inspiration into practice. Reflect on your own setting. How often do you think “CPD” opportunities get lost or wasted as a result of this implementation and revisiting being neglected?

Colleagues might return to school and “disseminate” their learning, but this often gets confused with tangible impact on pupils or practice.

The key role of whomever is leading CPD in your school is to draw together this plan, and continue to balance priorities and resources as short, medium and long-term priorities change. As you are mapping the various programmes and activities into your annual calendar, consider how you might maximise or repurpose time to make the most of all of the slots for professional learning.

Some ideas taken from schools that the Teacher Development Trust has worked with include:

  • Reducing teaching loads or other workload.
  • Early closure or late starts.
  • Re-organising in-school meeting times.
  • Providing substitute or cover teachers.
  • After-school meetings.
  • Extending the school year.

There are certainly models and methods through which we have seen schools be creative and maximise the hours available for colleagues to engage with learning and take part in collaborative development with teams, (e.g. disaggregating INSET days). In the most effective schools, whole-staff briefings are minimised, subject and team meetings are kept as free of briefing and administrative work as possible, and the focus is on improving and sharing teaching knowledge and practice in direct response to student needs.

Effective schools work extremely hard to manage workload. Marking, planning, staff meetings, data entry, covering other colleagues, duties and emails are all key areas where time can be saved which can then be used to not only ensure time for CPD but also reduce the background stress and pressure so that learning can take place.

As Dr Kulvarn Atwal, headteacher and author of The Thinking School (2019), said: “It is the responsibility of leaders to mediate the influence of external factors that mean CPD gets side-lined. Rather than saying ‘we don’t have enough time’, moving forwards, you carve this out.”

  • Maria Cunningham is head of education at the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for effective CPD in schools and colleges. A secondary school governor and former primary teacher, she leads the TDT services for schools; working with senior leaders to improve the quality and culture of their processes for staff professional learning. She tweets at @mcunners. Visit and read Maria’s previous articles for SecEd via

Further information & resources

  • Atwal: The Thinking School, John Catt Educational, 2019 (Dr Atwal’s thesis, which inspired the book – Developing an understanding of the factors that influence teacher engagement in action research and professional learning activities in two English primary schools (2016) – can be found via
  • Clay & Weston: Unleashing Great Teaching, Routledge, 2018:
  • DfE: Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development, July 2016:


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