Research reveals CPD's impact on student outcomes

Written by: Chris Parr | Published:
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The impact that quality CPD can have on improving pupil outcomes is an under-researched field, but emerging evidence shows that the two are closely linked. Chris Parr reports

High-quality CPD has a greater effect on pupil attainment than interventions such as performance-related teacher pay or introducing longer school days.

A study published by the Education Policy Institute last month (Fletcher-Wood & Zuccollo, 2020) concludes that the impact of high-quality CPD on pupil outcomes is comparable to the impact of having a teacher with 10 years’ experience in front of a class instead of a graduate teacher.

The research – a meta-analysis of 53 controlled trials of professional development interventions – was commissioned by the Wellcome Trust and also finds that “CPD has similar attainment effects to those generated by large, structural reforms to the school system”.

Better availability of high-quality CPD also improves teacher retention, particularly for early-career teachers, and there is evidence that induction training and mentoring programmes are particularly effective for improving retention rates for newer teachers.

The research also reports indications that high-quality CPD can lead to increased student self-efficacy and confidence, too.

However, the findings come after research last year revealed that primary schools in England cut their CPD budgets by seven per cent and secondary schools by 12 per cent between 2016 and 2017.

The study from the Teacher Development Trust and SchoolDash also reveals huge variation on CPD spending between areas. Primary schools in Solihull and Blackpool allocate less than £400 per teacher, on average, for professional development and staff training, whereas primary schools in Hampshire and Durham allocate well over £1,000 per teacher, on average. There are starker differences at secondary level, where schools in Bury allocate just £163.50 per teacher, on average, whereas secondary schools in Barking and Dagenham allocate an average of £1,045.

Nationally, state secondary schools in England spent 0.40 per cent of their budgets – or £378 per teacher – on CPD. This compares to 0.66 per cent and £685 per teacher in primary schools, the figures show (see SecEd, 2019; Hannay, 2019).

Speaking to SecEd, Professor Philippa Cordingley, chief executive of the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE), told us that while the findings of the EPI’s report are useful, there are caveats to how they could be interpreted.

She explained: “One limitation of this EPI report is that it only looked at interventions. The problem with interventions is that they are produced by someone on the outside and then, to some degree, imposed on teachers; it might not be what they want to do.”

This type of CPD is, according to Prof Cordingley’s own research, less effective than when schools “weave the processes that allow great CPD and learning into the day-to-day fabric of the school”.

She continued: “As a result, the effect size in this study is pretty small relative to other interventions that focus on the development of teachers rather than the effects of a specific intervention. Our research says that what’s important is that CPD and learning providers have a nuanced understanding of teaching and learners.”

A separate paper published by CUREE in January (Cordingley et al, 2020) includes advice on how CPD activities can be designed to support “active professional learning focused on aspirations for pupils”. This includes ensuring that:

  • CPD is understood as a process for supporting pupil progress and wellbeing.
  • There is a nuanced understanding of what teachers do, what motivates them, and how they learn and grow (in order) to help them develop new practices and practical theories side by side.
  • CPD engages with and builds upon teachers’ aspirations for their pupils.

It concludes that working carefully with teachers’ knowledge, ideas and skills was more effective than setting goals or using routines which attempt to “treat teachers as a blank canvas or roll new approaches over them”.

The EPI report, for its part, urges schools to improve access to CPD. Barriers it highlights include workload and teacher time. The EPI states: “Professional development is more accessible for teachers and has a greater impact when it receives sustained support from school leaders. CPD programmes that make allowances for workload and limited teacher time are also likely to be more effective.”

Nan Davies, professional development programme lead at the Wellcome Trust, added: “The time given to teachers’ CPD in England does not compare favourably to other OECD nations. Ensuring that teachers have access to and regularly participate in high-quality professional development must continue to be a priority for policy-makers.”

Of course, calls for improved teacher development are nothing new. Seldom does a report into any aspect of education practice fail to include in its recommendations an improved approach to training. The barriers, however, are clear: time, and money.

According to the EPI, teachers in England rank among the lowest of all OECD countries for time allocated to CPD and budgets are being squeezed.

“Ultimately, great schools require great teachers (and) this report shows how vital CPD is for both keeping those great teachers, and for keeping those teachers great,” Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) told SecEd.

“Unfortunately, we know that squeezed budgets have put barriers in the way of schools providing sufficient quality CPD – a recent NAHT funding survey showed that the third most common way for schools to balance their budgets is reducing investment in CPD and staff training.

“It is clear that investing in teachers is the best way to improve outcomes for children.” 

Further information

  • Cordingley et al: Developing great leadership of continuing professional development and learning, CUREE, January 2020:
  • Fletcher-Wood & Zuccollo: The effects of high-quality professional development on teachers and students, EPI, February 2020:
  • Hannay: Who is teaching the teachers? SchoolDash, January 2019:
  • SecEd: CPD spending slashed as school budget deficits continue to rise, January 2019:


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