The principles of effective CPD programmes

Written by: Phil Spoors | Published:
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How can we ensure effective CPD? Phil Spoors discusses the principles that emerge time and again in schools that have successful CPD programmes

Few educators would argue against the importance of effective CPD. A plethora of research not only highlights the importance of effective professional development in our schools for improving student outcomes, but also provides a clear consensus around what features play a starring role in it.

Based on this research and my experience working across a range of schools to support the development of high-quality CPD, I have outlined below some of its key components, highlighting some common challenges and providing examples of what this might look like in practice for your school.

So what makes for effective CPD? This topic could be a book in itself and indeed is the subject of many.

Some principles that emerge time and again are that:

  • CPD should be sustained, revisited and iterative over a period of time.
  • Leadership vision around CPD is important to ensure that it is seen as a priority and an integral part of school culture.
  • CPD should be relevant to the needs of individual teachers and the specific students they teach.
  • Pedagogical CPD is much more effective when presented in a subject-specific context.
  • Collective participation in CPD between staff is important.
  • CPD is most effective when it is informed by evidence and supported by experts (whether external or internal).
  • Teacher practice improves most where CPD is continually evaluated for impact on student outcomes and refined accordingly.

None of the above is particularly surprising and it is pleasing to see that the Department for Education’s 2016 Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development isn’t at all removed from this list. However, that isn’t to say that these things are all easy to implement!

While the ingredients above are all proven to be important for effective CPD, the research doesn’t dictate that they all need to be done in tandem. Common sense would suggest that all of these elements are important but that this also needs to be balanced with time and resource pressures and making sure that teachers aren’t overburdened.

As for what this looks like in practice, there are many ways of achieving the principles above in your own context. Below, I focus on just a few examples from schools I have worked with.

Creating time

To revisit CPD regularly, create a culture of collegiality and collaboration, and allow staff to use evidence we need to create time. Many schools collapse the school timetable early one day a week in order to create a two-hour block of time for staff CPD. If you do this, it’s important to make sure that the time is sacred and protected.

This is professional learning time and activities during this time should be developmental with a teaching and learning focus. Some schools timetable an additional meeting on a different day to keep administrative tasks away from this CPD time.

Profile of CPD

There are many ways to create a positive culture around professional learning. Some schools have teaching and learning teams, journal clubs, book clubs, a CPD library or teaching and learning magazines. What can you do to raise the profile of CPD and get staff engaging with research and sharing ideas?

Models of enquiry

Some schools cover a lot of the elements of effective CPD through professional enquiry. There are many models of enquiry, for example, the “Research Lesson Study” model in particular encourages staff to work collaboratively to look explicitly at development through the lens of specific pupil needs.

Once developmental needs are diagnosed, staff explore research to see if these have been addressed elsewhere and explore strategies and ideas they can use to improve practice. Having chosen an intervention this is then tried in the classroom to see if it has an impact so it can then be evaluated and refined. It is easy to see how this approach, if done well, can improve teacher practice. A good source of advice for running Lesson Study is the Teacher Development Trust website (see also Lesson Study: The power of three, SecEd, April 2014).

CPD challenges

Are there challenges? Of course! We work in a culture of performativity where staff are not only under pressure to get results but also very busy doing so. It’s up to school leaders to create the space, time and freedom to allow staff to develop professionally and this can be difficult. Very few teachers are closed to new ideas, but habits also take time to change. Time to follow up on and embed CPD into practice is therefore essential.

Many CPD leaders trip themselves up by trying to be everything to everyone, designing elaborative CPD programmes with a vast “menu” of different routes for staff with different needs. While admirable, in many schools it is simply not manageable to run internal sessions appropriate for each individual.

A narrow focus of evidence-informed core routes with a few optional sessions can work just as well when accompanied by protected time for staff and departments to develop their own practice and collaborate.

We need to keep in mind that staff in schools are capable professionals and the most important responsibility of the CPD lead is to create the environment, space, culture and resource for effective CPD to happen. Leadership of CPD can be distributed between the CPD lead, subject leads, in-house experts and teachers themselves. This is one of the reasons I advocate an enquiry model, which allows differentiation and staff ownership while maintaining the essential ingredients of CPD along with structured support from peers and expert input.

When I visit schools to carry out CPD Quality Audits with the Teacher Development Trust, there tend to be two main elements of CPD which aren’t done as well as others – the use of evidence to inform practice (which is gradually improving) and, crucially, evaluating the impact of CPD.

For schools looking to develop these two areas I would suggest looking at the work of research schools across the country, the Education Endowment Foundation and at Thomas Guskey’s five principles of evaluation as useful starting points (see Five principles to help you evaluate your CPD, SecEd, April 2016). The Teacher Development Trust can also offer further support.


I believe we have a clear understanding of what current research suggests will make your CPD programme effective and there are some ideas above which could help to get you started. However, I firmly believe that with a bit of focus on the principles outlined in this article we can all come up with and find ways to incorporate quality CPD into the culture and structure of our schools.

As Professor Dylan Wiliam says, there is very little bad practice in UK schools, but always room to cut some good practice in favour of even better practice.

What can your teachers improve, replace or add into their every day work in the classroom which will make them even better? After all, an obvious way to impact on student learning is to each get a little better every day.

  • Phil Spoors is CPD expert advisor for the Teacher Development Trust and assistant headteacher at Cramlington Learning Village in Northumberland. He has audited CPD in a number of schools and is currently working with schools across Northumberland to improve the impact of their CPD.

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