Seven common CPD problems for schools

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

The Teacher Development Trust has audited the CPD plans, procedures and culture in more than 50 schools. David Weston explains the most common problems they found, and offers some solutions


There is a huge amount of conflicting advice about how to develop teachers. Many school leaders we work with are looking for a helping hand to help them clarify their direction of travel and quality-assure their work against leading international practice. 

Schools in the NTEN (National Teacher Enquiry Network) receive an audit of their CPD practice against our freely available CPD Quality Framework (available on the TDT website) and we have identified seven key issues that schools struggle with.

Too many one-off activities

Probably the most common issue we see in schools is an overambitious development plan where senior leaders are trying to cram too much in. 

Typically we will see INSET days and twilight sessions packed with all sorts of different activities with little or no follow up. Staff in these schools are often unaware of any overarching themes to their professional learning and sometimes feel that the activities on offer aren’t chosen systematically. 

The crucial problem with this sort of approach is the lack of time available for staff to embed the new knowledge. Leading schools tend to be ruthless in picking just a few key priorities and activities for the year. They then give staff plenty of time to collaboratively plan lessons, investigate and problem-solve student learning issues – also known as taking an enquiry approach.

To take a more strategic approach, make sure you plan for staff learning over a long period of time, in the same way as you would for students. Multiple inputs around one topic or area are needed to extend and deepen understanding, and should be interlaced with plenty of opportunities for staff members to work in teams to try the ideas out in their own classrooms. It is especially important that any generic teaching advice is accompanied by plenty of time for staff to work in subject teams to translate it to very different contexts.

Too much listening/no collaboration

A related issue is that we commonly see CPD plans which mainly operate on “transmit” mode. All the research shows that this is highly unlikely to make any deep and substantial changes to teachers’ thinking and habits. In the same way that we would rarely accept entirely passive learning experiences for our students, we should be building in opportunities for teachers and support staff to engage with ideas, experiment and practice with expert support.

Formative assessment is also just as key for teachers as it is for students. Just as we try and build students’ ability to gauge their own success, we need to help teachers do the same. 

The most successful CPD builds in tools for teachers to assess their own increasing impact on students. This requires leaders to design opportunities for staff to diagnose students’ learning issues together, to come up with assessment activities which test key “threshold” knowledge and skills, and to observe lessons together to learn how to spot common learning behaviours and cross-reference these with discussions with students.

Not enough time for professional learning

The most successful schools see INSET or twilight sessions as merely the tip of the professional learning iceberg. Meeting times, whether whole-school, department, pastoral or other team, are strategically planned to minimise administrative discussion and maximise time spent discussing pedagogy, assessment and student learning. This can be challenging for senior and middle leaders who are used to having plenty of time to transmit information to staff, but it is well worth the effort.

A common issue we find in schools is of leaders introducing all sorts of well-meaning professional development activities, but their staff feel unable to take advantage of these opportunities. In the worse cases they may even resent them. 

The most common causes for this discord relate to workload: staff feel they do not have the time to commit to new opportunities, no matter how potentially powerful. The most successful schools are adopting “efficiency first” approaches to marking, planning, report-writing, data-collection, cover and duties. By cutting out highly inefficient practices, such as triple-marking and overly frequent data entry, they are enabling teachers to spend more time on the activities that make the biggest difference.

Lack of high-quality external expertise

Our best schools have taken tough decisions to maintain or even increase CPD budgets while financial pressures grow. They have understood the research that shows external expert facilitation to be a key ingredient of professional development that genuinely improves student outcomes. 

When these schools bring in consultants or send staff to external events, they ensure they invest in expert input that will use only evidence-based content and approaches. They then also put in place a sustained learning plan to share, embed and sustain the learning among staff through collaborative enquiry approaches.

We see other schools who have decided to go entirely in-house: they stop staff from going out on courses or do not bring any external experts into school to work with them. This tends to brew resentment among staff and often hits teaching assistants particularly hard. Such an approach also means that any widespread misconceptions remain unchallenged and often limits opportunities for staff to become inspired and refreshed. We would strongly caution against this purely in-house approach.

Not relevant or differentiated

A common complaint we hear is of experienced staff being asked to attend whole-school twilight sessions which they feel are not relevant to their needs. A parallel issue is that of senior leaders consistently using their most experienced teachers to deliver training to others, while neglecting to offer these same experienced staff their own opportunities to receive input and support. Leaders need to ensure that within whole-school priorities, all staff’s individual development needs are being met. 

The research base doesn’t necessarily support the idea that all staff should be entirely free to pick all of their own activities, but it is clear that “conscripts” to a CPD process will only benefit if there has been a great deal of effort to genuinely demonstrate to them the opportunity’s value and relevance to their own students and practice. 

No clear focus on pupils

When we look at our CPD database, the, we see a large number of courses that are based around practices for teachers. This is mirrored in the approaches we see in schools, where CPD programmes tend to focus on techniques that teachers use, or the way they perform. This is at odds with the strong research base on professional development which shows that, if you want students to benefit, you need to link each activity to specific learning goals (ideally subject-based) for a defined cohort of students.

The trend to judge teachers’ practice as generically “good” or “outstanding” has compounded this issue and led to a proliferation of “How to be Outstanding”-type training along with generic lectures on “feedback” and “questioning”. 

Our best schools have ditched these labels and are designing professional learning that starts with clear identification of learning issues and spends time diagnosing the underlying causes. They then proceed to identify techniques that may help deal with these issues.

Not enough evaluation

The final issue is related to the previous. Schools naturally struggle to evaluate the effectiveness of generic and one-off CPD. We recommend that, where possible, all learning activities should have clear aspirations for student impact. Schools should help participants design assessment activities that will help them (and the school) judge the success of their on-going work.

A second level of evaluation is to carefully monitor teachers’ workload and CPD needs, and respond to these by adjusting plans and procedures. Our NTEN member schools use our CPD Audit as a third level of evaluation, taking an annual “temperature check” of their overall processes and bench-marking against other schools. Other options available are the CUREE Skein Evaluation and the UCL Institute of Education PD quality mark.

  • David Weston is chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for effective professional development. Find out more about the Trust and the NTEN at


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