July 2015


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    Many voices in the education world have called for a ‘period of stability’ now that a new government is in place. But that does not mean a let-up in meeting the significant challenges facing us, says Brian Lightman. More
  • Making the grade
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  • Finding our pride
    While many schools and colleges now actively address homophobia for students and staff, leaders who are members of LGBT communities still face a dilemma in ‘coming out’. Carol Jones highlights the challenges and looks at what ASCL is doing to meet leaders’ needs. More
  • Joined-up thinking
    Peter Kent unveils plans for a new foundation, b backed by teachers and governors, to nurture leadership development and says if the government is serious about letting the profession lead the system, it should fund the idea. More
  • Growing reigns
    A new review highlights the most successful approaches to professional development for teachers from around the world, as Sarah Coskeran explains. More
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A new review highlights the most successful approaches to professional development (PD) for teachers from around the world, as Sarah Coskeran explains.

Growing reigns

School leaders know that if they want to improve the quality of learning for pupils in their school, the most effective approach they can take is to develop their staff in a meaningful, sustainable way. 

However, it can be difficult to know which approaches and opportunities are most likely to have a positive effect on teacher practice and pupil outcomes.

The Teacher Development Trust, with support from the TES, has commissioned a team from Durham University, CUREE and the Institute of Education, UCL to examine the wealth of international research into what constitutes effective professional development for teachers. The resulting report is titled Developing Great Teaching: Lessons from the International Reviews into Effective Professional Development (see the full review paper and summary online at tdtrust.org/dgt ).

The review’s headline finding was that the most effective professional development opportunities and activities have a strong focus on pupil learning. Leaders can take a role in ensuring this is the case. There were findings to suggest that effective leaders take active, personal involvement in the programmes and opportunities with which staff are engaging by taking on four core roles: 

  • Developing the vision behind a school’s CPD.
  • Showing clear management of CPD processes.
  • Taking the lead in promoting a culture of challenging professional learning. 
  • Developing the leadership of others.

Implementation of these four roles will vary according to context and programmes but there are common principles that school leaders can bear in mind as they develop plans and strategies around their school’s professional development.

Developing vision

The review showed that the most effective professional development opportunities are those which have a clear relevance to staff’s everyday experiences and needs, and those of the pupils in their classrooms. Effective leaders can promote a vision of professional development that is explicitly aimed at supporting and improving pupils’ learning and linking it to wider school priorities.  

The research also underlined the importance of CPD activities that take note of different teachers’ beliefs and starting points and take these into consideration throughout the programme of support and challenge. Furthermore, whether participation in professional development activities is compulsory or voluntary appears to have little bearing on their ultimate impact. Rather, it is more important that the activities actively work to develop a shared sense of purpose across all participants. Leaders can play a role in embedding these elements within a whole school vision of CPD. 


The most effective programmes use a variety of activities and no particular form of activity – or configurations of multiple activities – was shown by the research to be universally effective or crucial to success. What matters is a logical thread between the various components of a programme and creating opportunities for teacher learning that match the principles of pupil learning being promoted. Effective leaders ensure that all their CPD processes and programmes adhere to these principles, and that all staff have appropriate opportunities to learn in this way. 

Leaders should allocate sufficient time and resource to staff’s professional learning. The most effective programmes looked at for the review had lasted at least two terms and often up to a year. These programmes gave multiple opportunities over time for staff to engage with content, as well as experiment in the classroom.

The time should be well used, which means supporting an approach to professional development in which staff are encouraged to focus strategically and meaningfully on particular areas of learning and practice over time, rather than grapple with multiple issues in quick succession.  

An effective leader will also bring in appropriate outside expertise for staff. The research suggests that good external support will challenge routine thinking while also helping to embed change – using modelling, observation and feedback to help staff to implement new approaches. The methods to support teachers’ learning will reflect the approaches suggested for use with pupils, and may include opportunities for peer support and challenge. 

An external facilitator might also take on the role of mentor and/or coach and, the research shows, is often an expert in the principles of effective professional development, of how pupils learn and of evaluation, as well as the specific content area they have been brought in to address.

Leaders might also consider how their internal processes reflect and will support work with external experts. Do the structures within a school allow for meaningful collaboration? Are staff supported to maximise the mentor and/or coach relationship offered by the facilitator? Is the culture of the school such that challenge from an external facilitator will be welcomed and taken in a spirit of self-reflection and improvement? 

Culture of professional learning

The professional development culture around these processes has to be challenging yet supportive; it should be informed by evidence and actively engages staff in taking responsibility for their own development. A good leader will know what content and activities are likely to be of benefit and model practice that is aligned with these things.  

Staff must be supported to engage in professional learning across a range of areas. The review’s key conclusion was that for teachers’ professional development, developing both pedagogical and subject knowledge are of equal importance. The strongest international findings went even further and suggested that a focus on general pedagogy alone is not enough. The most effective programmes will cover subject knowledge, subject pedagogy, the principles of how pupils (and teachers) learn, and support for formative assessment, allowing participants to monitor the impact of their learning on pupil outcomes.

Leaders must ensure that professional development programmes actively support staff to address all of these areas.

Effective programmes will allow staff to engage with the theory underpinning practice, as well as explicit discussion around classroom application, the research shows. As such, leaders must ensure that staff are given support to improve their skills of critical engagement and reflection, both with theory and practice. Staff must also be supported to understand what meaningful evaluation looks like and given help to embed it in their practice. 

Develop the leadership of others

Finally, it is up to leaders to consciously consider how they develop the leadership of others. It might include encouraging staff to take leadership over a certain area of pedagogy or of the curriculum, for example. The benefits of this approach are twofold: not only are individual members of staff supported to develop their understanding and work collaboratively to share this with colleagues – a powerful developmental opportunity in itself – but the approach also allows for the more strategic application of general principles to specific content areas. 

Achieving strong, effective leadership around CPD is no mean feat. However, with vision, processes and understanding in place, a culture in which challenging professional development is valued as a tool of powerful support for improving pupil outcomes is within the reach of every school leader across the UK. 

Sidebar: Ten top tips for effective CPD leadership


  1. A strong focus on pupil learning 
  2. Clear relevance to staff’s everyday experiences and needs and those of the pupils in their classrooms
  3. Use a variety of activities to develop staff’s understanding and test ideas in practice 
  4. Run programmes lasting at least two terms and, ideally, up to a year 
  5. Use appropriate outside expertise for staff to challenge traditional thinking and help to embed change
  6. Use evidence to inform professional development activity and build that approach into the CPD culture
  7. Encourage staff to take responsibility for their own development
  8. Emphasise the development of both pedagogical and subject knowledge for staff
  9. Support staff to improve their skills of critical engagement, reflection and evaluation
  10. Consciously consider how you develop the leadership of others

Sarah Coskeran is GoodCPDGuide Programme Manager at the Teacher Development Trust. Find more about the Trust's work at tdtrust.org 

Taking care of professional development needs

ASCL Professional Development recognises that schools and colleges require a range of CPD opportunities and we offer a variety of delivery options, including conferences, short courses, seminars and consultancy services.

Our consultancy service includes long-term programmes which can be organised for groups of staff from one or more institutions. It can be a cost-effective way of ensuring staff have access to the very best professional development and facilitates collaborative working. This also allows for a completely tailor-made, bespoke approach to match needs in the best way.

We provide a range of different CPD sessions from twilights and half-days to full days and longer. Our team of experienced consultants can help with virtually any area of school or college improvement or professional development.

Download our consultancy brochure online at http://www.ascl.org.uk/utilities/document-summary.html?id=10346373-1956-4A5D-BBF632867E02452D