Maximising the impact of external CPD

Written by: Sarah Coskeran | Published:
Photo: iStock

Staff and schools need to engage with external support in the right way if it is going to have a lasting impact on their practice and their students’ outcomes. Sarah Coskeran explains

The use of external consultants, courses, and resources to support teachers’ CPD can, for some school leaders, be a cause for concern. Many school leaders grapple with worries around the time, cost, impact and prospective value for money represented by the providers and opportunities with which they and their staff members engage. Some have made the decision to begin limiting their engagement with external providers.

This is a worrying development. As our recent review of the international research into effective teacher development showed, external input is a common element across the most effective programmes of professional development for staff.

It is important for a number of reasons. External input offers not only constructive support but also important challenge – helping teachers and leaders to identify the approaches, habits and perhaps preconceptions that exist within their own practice or across the school and develop upon these where necessary.

The quality of external support is of course key. When looking to commission, time should be taken to consider whether or not a prospective provider, course, resource or service exhibits the types of content and delivery models that align it with what the research says constitutes effective teacher CPD (See our previous article: The key tenets to successful whole-school CPD, SecEd, June 11, 2015:

However, a strategic selection process alone will not ensure impact on teacher practice and student outcomes. Whether using an external course, consultant or other resource, schools and staff need to engage with external support in certain ways to ensure it has a lasting impact on their practice and their students’ outcomes – helping all schools to maximise the benefits they receive from the time and money invested in external providers.


Effective external programmes will offer support over at least two terms, providing multiple opportunities for staff members to engage with theory and discuss its application to practice. It is therefore important that staff are given time to engage with this on-going input.

However, the time commitment doesn’t end there. A good external course or programme will support participants to develop an action plan of how they will go on to embed, develop and evaluate changes to their practice in line with what they have learned. Senior and middle leaders can work with staff to look at these specific plans and ensure they have the necessary time and opportunities in place to put them into action.

Where an external consultant or facilitator has supported a number of staff members, timetables should be coordinated to allow for collaboration between these colleagues. Staff meeting time can be reallocated from administration to opportunities for discussion and co-planning among staff members, based on their joint learning.

As they engage in an external opportunity or programme, leaders should actively promote staff members’ understanding of the activities that are most likely to embed and sustain changes to their practice, and empower them to apply their time accordingly. It is important to create a culture in which time is focused on supporting targeted, sustained changes to practice over time, with on-going reflection, evaluation and the use of formative assessment tools to measure the impact on students’ outcomes.

Critical skills

The research shows that the most effective CPD programmes include opportunities for explicit engagement with the theory that underlies the content being presented, as well as its application to practice. Any CPD provider should be expected to provide a solid evidence-base for their content, and to share this explicitly with participants.

CPD providers will hopefully support staff members to engage with any theoretical underpinning in a meaningful and critical way. However, much can also be done within school to develop staff members’ skills in this area.

Professional development sessions and processes within school should be underpinned by opportunities for staff to engage directly with research evidence, with opportunities to develop their skills of critical reflection accordingly.

Senior and middle leaders should take the lead in prompting open, explicit discussion around various types of evidence, shaping teachers’ instincts as they engage critically with evidence and consider a discerning application of core principles to practice within the school.

It should be clear that all decisions within the school are based on evidence and an understanding of what’s most likely to have a positive impact on student outcomes. Where possible, staff might also be given the opportunity to work alongside an external research partner.

When offering support to a school or group of teachers, an effective facilitator will take account of the different starting points within a group, and will take time to understand teachers’ aspirations for their students. It is therefore important that within school staff are provided with the time, tools and support required to constantly measure and reflect upon the learning needs of their students, and the relation of this to their own practice. By engaging in a thorough and on-going analysis of their needs, staff will feel confident to share these with an external facilitator, apply their learning more meaningfully and ultimately improve the impact on student outcomes.

Open mind

The role of external support is to challenge the orthodoxies that can develop within a school or an individual teacher’s practice over time. An effective facilitator will give staff the chance to voice their beliefs and values in relation to a particular content area and take consideration of these throughout. They will also use development observations and on-going feedback to support and refine teachers’ approaches and learning.

It is important, then, that this culture of open, constructive challenge is mirrored by staff members’ experiences of in-school processes. Peer observations should be seen as a powerful tool of development rather than of monitoring, and should give colleagues the chance to share valuable feedback on the impact certain approaches have on certain students within a classroom.

Staff members should be encouraged to engage in evidence-informed, well-evaluated risk-taking. Discussion and processes within the school should make it clear that “failure”, evaluation and constant refinement is an important part of the developmental process.

To encourage this, leaders should “take the plunge” in allowing their own practice to be constructively observed and challenged, and should be the first to openly engage in disciplined risk-taking. Logistical CPD processes should also take account of the need for staff to engage in collaborative problem-solving and refinement. In this way staff members will feel more confident in interacting with the direct support and challenge offered by an external facilitator.

Broader school processes

As a school leader you might also consider how the processes within school reflect and mirror those that are expected from an effective external facilitator.

For example, an effective facilitator will act as a coach or mentor to participants to support their development in the particular target area. To make sure staff can take the maximum benefit from this relationship, there should be an in-school focus on the principles of effective coaching and mentoring (see our previous article: Effective teaching mentoring, SecEd, October 2013:, complemented by opportunities for staff members to partake in these developmental relationships across the school.

An external facilitator should also support teachers to take a degree of leadership and ownership over their CPD, working alongside participants as “co-learners”. Leaders can replicate this back in school by developing colleagues’ leadership around CPD, delegating opportunities for colleagues to take the lead in certain areas of pedagogy or the curriculum. Senior and middle leaders should model a culture in which all staff members are expected to take a proactive approach to directing, embedding and evaluating changes to their own practice.

Finally – the content of the professional development activities and opportunities given to staff is key. The research shows that to be effective, staff CPD must consider both subject knowledge and subject-specific pedagogy. Providers should therefore be selected for their capacity to address both of these areas but internal processes, too, should ensure that staff development encompasses all necessary elements. The content of INSET days and twilight sessions should avoid focusing on general pedagogy alone, looking rather at facilitating opportunities for staff to collaborate in problem-solving that addresses specific subject or pedagogical areas.

  • Sarah Coskeran is the GoodCPDGuide programme manager at the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for teachers’ professional development. The GoodCPDGuide is an online database of peer-reviewed CPD providers and opportunities.
Photo: iStock


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