The crucial role of CPD in the modern school

Getting professional development right is increasingly multi-dimensional. How can school leaders ensure their CPD is high quality, relevant to the future of education and produces demonstrable benefits for a school community?

For all the facilities and equipment in a school, its primary ‘resource’ is human. The standard, motivation and wellbeing of our teaching staff – and their continuing professional development (CPD) – is fundamental to the independent education sector and everything we achieve.

Moreover, one of the few silver linings of the pandemic has been the necessity for many to adapt quickly to new methods and mindsets. As such, we should have more confidence in the power of CPD than ever before. The options for how we develop people are not only expanding apace, they are proving their worth.

Embracing external research and celebrating in-house ability

CPD is undoubtedly on the agenda of all schools, but it is changing. “We’re looking to create a professional learning community,” notes Alex Campbell, assistant head (professional development) at Haileybury, “and research suggests that CPD needs to be sustained, collaborative, have full buy-in from staff and draw on external expertise where possible.”

The deep dive into research – from the Self-Determination Theory of Deci and Ryan to Developing Great Teaching from Higgins, Coe, Cordingley and Greany – is professionalising the attitude to CPD in many settings.

Not that long ago, CPD was the occasional £300 visit to a ‘guru’ in a hotel conference room. Invariably this was specific – if one wanted to be a pastoral lead, one attended that course. Although the involvement of external expertise remains important, such routes are now only the tip of the iceberg. Leveraging in-house ability is an increasingly appealing option.

“There’s great expertise in our schools,” says John Pitt, headmaster of The Royal Grammar School (RGS) Worcester. “If you combine your skills and knowledge, where some will inevitably be stronger in some areas than others, you can create a genuine coaching culture which is hugely powerful.”

Coaching and agency

The idea of coaching is inextricably linked with the idea of agency, which is increasingly underpinning high-quality CPD. By giving staff control of their development – instead of having CPD imposed on them – results quickly show.

Alison Cobbin, head of school at Dwight School London, observes: “We ask people about personal goals, their job satisfaction, their passions and how they could contribute to the school beyond their role.” This can open new doors that add value.

“For example, our head of marketing now coaches the junior volleyball team. He felt that by working with more children in the school, building relationships and better understanding how we operate day-to-day, he could bring more to the table.” This is CPD that notably looks to involve the whole adult community (ie not just teaching staff) in the same culture of development.

Embracing agency can evolve long-established methods. “INSET days are a great example,” Pitt notes. “It’s easy for us, as SLT, to ‘preach’ while people might write things down and may or may not remember them.” Giving staff the ability to directly link theory to practice is vital. “We front-load the training but then provide directed agendas so staff can apply the training to their part of the school and share outcomes with SLT.”

The same is evidently true of appraisal. “We have introduced professional development planning, which is far less judgemental,” adds Campbell. “Staff are encouraged to identify two objectives – one teaching and learning based, one linked to their wider role – and ideas gathered from observations and collaboration are used constructively to encourage reflection.” This move from performance being judged to performance being self-directed and peer mentored is a notably healthy shift.

“Student demand can drive CPD,” says Cobbin


Student involvement and real outcomes

To create a link between staff development and the needs of students, the two must interface. Involving student voice in CPD is not easy, but what it can achieve is remarkable for both parties. At Inter-Community School (ICS) Zurich, Switzerland, we see this in action.

“The Bridge student group,” head of school Mary-Lyn Campbell tells me, “is a key part of our process. Students are given the time and space to talk about what it is like to learn at our school. This information is invaluable for crafting self-directed development plans amongst staff and has far greater emotional resonance.”

Furthermore, we are increasingly seeing the subject matter of CPD coming from students.  “Student demand can drive CPD,” adds Cobbin, “and it’s arguably one of the best ways to start the conversation. We had a big focus on diversity and inclusion after the death of George Floyd driven by a real well of feeling from students as well as staff.” By changing both the starting point, and the focal point, of CPD its wider benefit to the community can be enhanced.

But how can this translate into meaningful outcomes? Of course, necessity acted as the mother of invention during the pandemic. The instant and disorientating impact of school closures meant not only that new skills were needed, but that they were needed fast. That our sector was able to upskill and cross-skill with online learning so quickly and so effectively is testimony to the power of CPD.

This soon moved, moreover, from the functional to the strategic. “It was incredible to see staff move so quickly from ‘which button do I press’ to ‘how can we use these tools to make our teaching and learning more effective?’” adds Pitt. “One of the best results is that people now talk to each other more about collaborative improvement.” Maintaining this momentum of collective self-improvement is a huge opportunity.

The likelihood of seeing real outcomes from CPD starts with intention. “We’ve made changes that focus on making it more likely that our staff have a positive impact on pupil outcomes,” Alex Campbell reflects.

But what does a positive impact look like? “Performance criteria must be varied,” she adds, “from quantitative, where we see an impact on grades, to qualitative, where we see improved behaviour or wellbeing in students, or even in their own sense of self as a classroom practitioner.” These impacts are difficult to measure but are often more present than schools realise.

Looking for opportunities

CPD is as much about spotting opportunities as implementing systems. Promotions in a teaching career, for example, often require significant jumps in knowledge or experience, so how to smooth the gap? At RGS Worcester, the Middle Leadership Development Programme allows SLT to run sessions for aspiring middle leaders.

“Each member of staff has a coach,” notes Pitt, “and they are both fully involved in the training and get to know senior staff at the same time.” This exercise culminates in a ‘project for change’ from each candidate, focused on pupil progress. The net result is up to 10 different projects per year that make dynamic changes to school provision.

Outcomes also manifest in both recruitment and retention. “If we’re recruiting, candidates want to know what we’re doing with CPD, and how they can improve,” observes Cobbin. “So, alongside IB training in our school, our attitude to CPD can both attract and grow talent.”

Staff who appreciate the imperative need for CPD, moreover, add to the culture of improvement throughout a school community. “Adults have to understand the challenges of the future,” notes Mary-Lyn Campbell. “There is huge urgency for us to educate compassionate, wise young people that can face change, so professionals have to be engaged in this dialogue now.”

Belief from leadership

The drive on CPD must come from leadership. Whether at the highest level of strategic improvement or the introduction of new skill sets, the buy-in of staff is seemingly always proportionate to the passion and involvement of management.

Lydia Greenway, former England Cricket international and owner of Cricket for Girls, sees the success of the CPD her teams provide in upskilling staff rely on the tone set from above. “We quickly see if they’ve got us in ‘just because’ or because they’re really committed to the idea of girls’ cricket.” But this is far more important than the smooth running of a session. “You can’t overestimate the impact this work can have. Staff who have embraced change in our work have given something very special to their pupils.”

It would seem, then, that one of the ingredients of great CPD is leadership that inspires a community to think big. Making outcomes real is about linking them to wider context both in our schools and the world as a whole. “We are touching the future, but the converse is true, also – the future of the world is in our classrooms,” adds Mary-Lyn Campbell, “so why would we not want to give huge importance to developing the professionals who are at that interface?”

The transactional past of CPD seems gone. The pandemic has shown us how powerful versatility can be; and by encouraging agency, thinking about failure positively, involving students in staff development, and appreciating the global significance of our work, we see how vital CPD is for our schools, our staff and society as a whole. Big ideas take time, however. “You have to be patient,” Alex Campbell concludes. “Change management takes time, but if you can bring everyone along with you the results are transformational.”

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