The key tenets to successful whole-school CPD


A review of international research into effective professional development has set out a number of common approaches to structure and content that make CPD successful. Sarah Coskeran explains

All teachers should have access to powerful professional development that helps them thrive, and their students succeed. However, in reality, as few as one per cent of the professional development opportunities available to teachers in England are of the highest “transformative” quality, according to 2011 research (1).

Improving the quality of teacher development is a key lever for supporting improved outcomes for students’ learning. However, it can sometimes feel hard to identify the best way forward to achieving this. 

In order to help, we worked with TES Global to commission an expert team from Durham University, the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education, and the Institute of Education at UCL, to conduct a review of the international research around effective professional development.

The key finding was that carefully designed CPD opportunities have a significant impact on student achievement if they have a strong focus on student outcomes. Helpfully, the review was able to highlight the particular elements that need to be balanced within any successful CPD programme. Here, we explore what the review says about the structure and content of effective professional development and consider what this means for schools.


The review showed that the most effective professional development programmes were sustained over at least two terms. Following the initial input, this time was used to offer follow-up, consolidation and support activities, giving staff multiple opportunities to both engage with the theory behind a programme and put their learning into practice.

As a school leader, it is therefore important to give staff sufficient time and support to engage in this form of sustained, on-going learning. Staff members need to be supported to focus strategically and meaningfully on particular areas of learning and practice over time, rather than engage only in one-off sessions.

Meeting teachers’ needs

The review highlighted the importance of professional development that is overtly relevant to staff members’ day-to-day experiences, and their aspirations for their pupils. Programmes should recognise the need for differentiation. Individual teachers have varied needs and starting points in different content areas. 

To facilitate this, a school may need to help teachers with their needs analysis, developing their capacity to reflect on students’ learning and relate this to their own practice. 

Interestingly, the review found no difference whether teachers were conscripted or volunteered to take part in a particular programme. What matters instead is getting genuine buy-in: a positive learning environment that works to achieve a shared sense of purpose. We recommend, therefore, that school leaders put more emphasis on developing a coherent and shared sense of purpose across staff. 


For the first time, the review highlights the equal importance of both subject knowledge and subject-specific pedagogy and suggests that professional development focused solely on generic pedagogy – e.g. “how to be outstanding” or “how to give good feedback” – is insufficient, particularly in maths.

Another important element is a focus on formative assessment, which allows teachers to see the impact of their learning on their pupils. Any training on using particular teaching approaches therefore needs to be accompanied by support for teachers’ in assessing the influence of their changed practice on students’ learning.


There are also certain types of activities that are common across successful professional development programmes. For CPD that will have an impact on learners, there needs to be:

  • Explicit discussions around how to translate CPD content to the classroom, i.e. practical strategies and how to make them work for every teacher’s specific needs.

  • Opportunities for teachers to implement their learning by experimenting in the classroom.

  • Opportunities for teachers to analyse and reflect on the theory behind a programme and its approach. 

  • Peer support in which teachers work together to test and refine new approaches. 

School leaders can work to focus on these activities within in-school processes, while also ensuring that they form the basis of any external support that is commissioned.

External support

The review also points out that external facilitation is a common factor in successful professional development. However, external input must offer support in a constructive, effective way that provides different viewpoints and challenges orthodoxies within a school. 

The relationship between facilitators and participants seems key: the most effective facilitators work to build a relationship with participants that allows them to balance support and shared understanding with valuable challenge.

They should support teachers through modelling, observation, feedback and coaching – though this can vary according to the subject specialism. Some evidence also highlighted the importance of facilitators’ broader understanding, covering effective CPD processes, evaluation and monitoring, as well as their specialist content knowledge.

These criteria should form the basic expectations of any individual or organisation who will be facilitating a CPD session for staff – be they a third party organisation, another school, or an in-school colleague. Staff will also need to be supported to develop their capacity to engage with these various facets of facilitation. 


The evidence highlights that it is important to have alignment across a programme. This means that all activities and principles should have a clear, logical link that creates coherence within any given programme. Based on this, school leaders might consider how whole-school processes also allow for alignment and coherence. The strongest evidence also suggests that programmes should provide activities for staff that mirror the approaches being put forward for use with students. 


While leadership around CPD is a particular area of research in itself and was not the focus of this review, there were some conclusions around the type of leadership that supports effective CPD.

Effective leaders do not leave the learning to their teachers – they become personally involved in the processes and programmes in which staff also engage. Effective leaders also play an important role in: 

  • Developing vision: helping teachers to believe alternative outcomes are possible and creating coherence so teachers understand the relevance of CPD to wider priorities.

  • Managing and organising: establishing priorities, sourcing appropriate expertise and ensuring appropriate opportunities to learn are in place.

  • Leading professional learning: promoting and modelling challenging and effective approaches to CPD.

  • Developing the leadership of others: encouraging teachers to lead a particular aspect of pedagogy or the curriculum.


It is clear that effective CPD is a careful balancing act that requires great thought and consideration – and there are challenges for everyone. At the Teacher Development Trust, we will be working with all stakeholders to develop our shared understanding of the review’s findings, and helping schools embed the processes that are most likely to help their teachers thrive and students succeed. We will also be building the findings into our CPD audit tools as part of our National Teacher Enquiry Network. 

  • Sarah Coskeran is GoodCPDGuide programme manager at the Teacher Development Trust.

Further information
Developing Great Teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development was launched on Tuesday (June 9). Read the full review and a summary of its findings at
1, Evaluation of CPD Providers in England 2010-11, Training and Development Agency for Schools, Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education, 2011.
Photo: MA Education


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