The role of governors in CPD strategy

Written by: Maria Cunningham | Published:
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How much does your school’s governing board know about effective staff development and training – and what impact and influence should they be having on your CPD strategies? Maria Cunningham offers some guidance

Some key conversations and experiences with school governors recently have reminded me of how it is surprisingly common for governing boards and trusts to have very little awareness of the importance of staff CPD.

Yet given that a governing body’s number one priority for a school is a high quality of education for pupils, surely it must follow that their number one focus must be constantly improving the quality of teaching.

While governors must be extremely careful not to step into the operational aspects of the school, including the granular detail of training and development opportunities available to teachers, effective governance does require knowing the school, which includes the staff, and asking challenging questions related to teaching and learning.

One of the ways in which we at the Teacher Development Trust (TDT) are able to support schools to improve their internal processes and structures for professional learning is by helping to diagnose strengths, as well as areas to be developed further, using a CPD audit framework.

And research papers such as the Developing great teaching report (Cordingley et al, 2015) have increasingly helped headteachers and leaders to be more aware of what makes effective professional learning and supported them to make decisions to ensure that CPD has the best likelihood of impact on children’s outcomes.

Rather than the traditional one-off, generic INSET sessions, many schools and trusts are now designing innovative, impactful professional learning programmes which are relevant to pupil need, sustained, iterative and well-evaluated.

When we visit schools to carry out the TDT audit process, governors and trustees have the option to take part in informal interviews. These conversations tend to reveal a real range of both understanding and depth of engagement with CPD from members of governing boards. Some examples of light-touch questions that we use to gauge this are:

  • How would you describe effective CPD?
  • To what extent are parents informed about, or involved in staff development?
  • Is professional development seen as a priority with regard to other policies?
  • How would any one of your governors respond to these three questions? How would it compare with what you would expect to hear from teachers or support staff within the school?

For those not fully confident that all governors would instinctively be able to describe the features of effective professional learning, or link this to pupil outcomes, it might be helpful to encourage them to read Developing great teaching or the Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development (DfE, 2016).

It is frequently through no fault of their own that governors or trustees see CPD as merely an afterthought. Avoiding this depends on adept reporting from senior leadership, clear prioritisation of CPD within the school development plan, and including evidence of impact and evaluation when updating governors.

It is also good practice to have one named governor who is responsible for overseeing the school’s approaches to professional development. This governor can then arrange conversations and visits to speak to the CPD leader, as well as other staff. As with all governance, a variety of sources should be used to gather information and make assessments to feedback to the board.

This should then be matched with an adequate level of training offered to governors themselves, to ensure they consistently feel well-equipped to carry out their duties and are aware of what is expected of their role.

In the very best schools and colleges, the governing body receives frequent opportunities to develop professionally, e.g. through training mornings hosted in school, online webinars or e-modules, or being invited to take part in learning walks and attend whole-school CPD sessions.

Giving governors an opportunity to interact and collaborate with teachers in this process can be a really powerful way to promote a culture of professional learning across the whole school.

Of the importance of prioritising effective governance, the Department for Education’s (DfE) Lord Agnew said recently: “We would encourage all schools, trusts, and local authorities to think carefully about the level of professional input that their board requires (and) invest proportionately in this important role.” (NGA, 2019)

There is no denying that a critical part of good school governance depends on maintaining healthy financial performance and managing resource effectively. Staff are a school’s most costly, but also valuable and high-impact asset, and there is nothing more important in any school than ensuring that leaders are getting the best from their people – ensuring that they are constantly improving and developing.

Indeed, the Governors and staff performance guidance published by the National Governors’ Association (NGA) – see further information – advises that “governors must make sure that adequate time and resources are devoted to CPD at the school ... Having allocated the budget, the impact of expenditure on CPD needs to be assessed and reported.”

Traditionally, a CPD budget catered for one-off, external courses, but how aware are your governors of the broad range of activities that need to be properly resourced? These include:

  • Consultants, coaches and external partners.
  • External courses, conferences and meetings – ticket costs plus travel/subsistence.
  • Professional development books and access to knowledge databases.
  • Supply staff costs to allow class teachers the time for planning, collaboration and training.
  • Professional subscriptions, e.g. subject associations or Chartered College of Teaching.
  • Contribution towards the cost of academic study, e.g. at Master’s or Doctoral level.
  • Professional qualifications, e.g. NPQs.
  • CPD audit and evaluation tools.

Your school budget may have an allocated sum labelled as “CPD”, but are your governors aware of which of the above activities are expected to come out of this? If your school is taking staff development seriously, it should be spending at least one per cent of total salary costs (for teaching and non-teaching staff) on the above CPD costs, and looking to spend well above that level as soon as possible.

The NGA has recently published some new guidance on implementing a cost effective staff structure (2019). While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to ensure that the structures support the recruitment, retention and development of a self-improving staff body, the starting point for a governing board or delegated committee could be to ask themselves:

  1. Does financial planning ensure that there is a suitable balance of time spent on delivering and time spent on improvement and development?
  2. What proportion of our staffing budget are we investing in ensuring that the staff we have are performing well and continually improving?
  3. How does this compare to the amount we invest annually in maintaining physical assets such as buildings?

Some useful resources to compare yourself to similar schools or multi-academy trusts are the DfE’s financial benchmarking tool and the TDT’s CPD benchmarking service.

Finally, teachers and leaders could also think about becoming governors of other schools to enrich their own professional development, as is currently being encouraged by a campaign led by Inspiring Governance and the NGA.

In the powerful words of Emma Knights, the NGA’s chief executive: “Boards, as the employer, can create a culture that enables staff in their school to go out and govern – they can bring back practice from other contexts and will have an understanding of what a governing board does.

“When considering succession planning to leadership positions, staff will also have experience of strategic leadership and working with a board. It is absolutely fabulous development for educationalists and I encourage teachers, middle leaders and senior leaders to consider whether governing is for them.”

  • Maria Cunningham is network development leader for the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for effective CPD in schools and colleges. A former primary school teacher, she now supports schools to improve the quality of their processes for staff professional learning. She also leads on the development of the TDT’s government-funded CPD Excellence Hub programmes in six Opportunity Areas and is secretariat for the Department for Education’s CPD Expert Group. Visit

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