How to improve CPD and teaching – right now!

Written by: Roger Higgins | Published:
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A report from the Education Endowment Foundation advises on ensuring effective CPD in schools. Roger Higgins outlines some of the practical lessons we can learn from the findings


Many school leaders are struggling to prioritise teacher professional development right now. A wealth of issues, including staff and pupil illness and the return of full inspections, are dominating their thinking.

Yet leaders also know that enabling effective classroom teaching is the “best bet” in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. We also know that high-quality professional development for teachers has a significant effect on the effectiveness of teaching (Zuccollo & Fletcher-Wood, 2020).

Yet getting it right is challenging – whether designing our own or selecting from available providers. Helpfully, the Education Endowment Foundation has just produced a new guidance report on teacher professional development (EEF, 2021) with immediately actionable recommendations, a number of which really stood out to me…


When designing or selecting professional development, focus on the mechanisms

To have a chance of benefiting pupils, professional development must trigger and sustain a helpful change in behaviour in colleagues. The EEF report suggests it can be helpful to consider 14 so-called “mechanisms” – these are essentially elements in a professional development programme which are causal in behaviour change.

For example, the report notes that “revisiting prior learning” with teachers is just as powerful as it is with pupils. And this doesn’t need to be complicated: many schools already include quizzing and carefully structured peer discussion when designing professional development.

It could be easy to see the 14 separate mechanisms listed in the report and feel overwhelmed. Don’t be put off – these fall into four groups, with the suggestion that we aim for at least one mechanism in each group when planning CPD. The four groups are:

  • Building knowledge
  • Motivating teachers
  • Developing techniques
  • Embedding practice

The report helpfully summarises the likely issues that could arise, should we fail to achieve this, many of which resonate with my own past failures in the field of CPD design.

For example, you might deliver high-quality up-front training which builds teacher knowledge, motivates them to change practice and models context-appropriate techniques. However, without a mechanism to follow up on this in order to embed the change into practice, teachers are likely to revert to old habits despite good intentions.


The more mechanisms, the more likely professional development will impact pupils positively

This report finding is both helpful and challenging for individual schools working to design their own CPD. While it seems intuitively right, as schools we have finite capacity which can cause us to make trade-offs.

We must not lose sight of the “critical importance of high quality content” delivered through a form of CPD, but the need for a sensible combination of mechanisms reinforces what many schools know intuitively – namely, that there is a balance between designing your own CPD and selecting CPD from providers.


Arm yourselves as critical consumers of professional development

The Department for Education is encouraging schools to utilise external providers, whether for the Early Career Framework reforms, National Professional Qualifications or subject-specific development. So, how can we ensure we select the best available options?

This is where the report’s list of mechanisms will really help. While “lots of mechanisms, please” may be an unachievable ask at the moment in terms of designing in-house CPD, it seems only reasonable to expect this from CPD providers.

I would encourage schools to use both the guidance and related tools from the EEF to really question offers and options before signing up to them. For example, the Early Career Framework’s laudable aim is to improve induction into and retention within our profession. We need to be critical consumers of the related programmes on offer to maximise the chances of this aim being achieved (see SecEd, 2021).


Leadership buy-in is a deal-maker (or breaker)

Elsewhere in the report we find old truths that ring true. In particular, the report recommends that we need to “implement professional development with care”. It would be wonderful for schools right now if we could outsource this challenge. However, the report makes little distinction here between internally and externally developed programmes.

Schools inevitably seek to adapt programmes to suit our local contexts but if we omit the intended mechanisms then “common failures of CPD” are likely to result.

For example, trying to trim the time spent on CPD (i.e. accelerate through or omit learning activities) is cited as the most common way in which schools adapt programmes. Previous thinking about teacher CPD needing to last for two terms or more is now seen as less significant than “effective use of time”, but we still need to ensure we are investing sufficient time to understand a programme well. This then lessens the risk of any adaptations destroying the intended impact.

Is the culture in our schools amenable to professional development?

The report focuses on the content and process of teacher development. However, the culture within a setting can make or break the impact of professional development. This links to more general recommendations from the EEF on implementing change in schools (EEF, 2019), often summarised with the Peter Drucker quote: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Beyond soundbites though, what tangible things can we do as leaders to instil a culture conducive to effective professional development?

Recently, the Teacher Development Trust published a working paper on teacher working conditions (Weston, Hindley & Cunningham, 2021), which identified five aspects that appear most closely associated with increased student attainment:

  • Create opportunities for effective teacher collaboration to explore student data, plan and review lessons and curricula, and plan and moderate assessments.
  • Involve teachers in whole-school planning, decision-making and improvement.
  • Create a culture of mutual trust, respect, enthusiasm in which communication is open and honest.
  • Build a sense of shared mission, with shared goals, clear priorities and high expectations of professional behaviours and of students’ learning.
  • Facilitate 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.

These findings, also closely associated with staff retention and school resilience, offer guidance for the working conditions in which professional development programmes should be introduced for maximum impact.

When introducing or building a professional development programme, consideration of these aspects will increase the possibility of sustained improvement following the careful planning that schools put into the EEF’s identified mechanisms.


Further information & resources

  • EEF: Effective professional development, October 2021: https://bit.ly/3G7kDUh
  • EEF: Putting evidence to work: A school’s guide to implementation, December 2019: https://bit.ly/3nbZOyd
  • SecEd: Tough choices? How to navigate the CPD marketplace, June 2021: https://bit.ly/2SiEFaf
  • Teacher Development Trust: The TDT is a national charity for effective professional learning in schools: www.tdtrust.org
  • Weston, Hindley & Cunningham: A culture of improvement: Reviewing the research on teacher working conditions, TDT, February 2021: https://tdtrust.org/coi/
  • Zuccollo & Fletcher-Wood: The effects of high-quality professional development on teachers and students, Education Policy Institute, February 2020: http://bit.ly/2Weed1b


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