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Placing CPD at the heart of school improvement


Last week NAHT’s Improvement Commission reported with a positive vision for the future of education in this country. By rebalancing holding schools to account with helping them to improve we can unleash the potential within schools. At the heart of this vision is the belief that schools are only as good as the people that work in them.

It was a privilege to be part of this commission; it was a great group and we had such eminent people giving evidence. The conversations we had were fascinating and nuanced. We didn’t all agree with each other all the time, but it was expertly chaired by Nick Brook, NAHT’s Deputy General Secretary, who has managed to make good sense of the wide range of inputs. Lots of us arrived with our own agendas: I of course am always on the look out to make sure the role of governing boards is acknowledged.

The report has five themes

  • Ensuring teachers thrive
  • Empowering and developing leaders
  • Collaboration and collective responsibility
  • External support
  • Equity and excellence

While there are some recommendations for the Department for Education, particularly as regards subsidising the costs of development, the more powerful message which comes over loud and clear is that we do not need the government to mandate a shift in culture and approach – the power to change the climate resides with school leaders, reinforced by their governing boards.

It is the role of the school leader to create the conditions in which teachers and other staff can thrive so that pupils can succeed. The report goes onto say: ‘Governing boards are expected to work closely with senior leaders to set a school’s vision, ethos and strategic direction. As such, they can play an important role in helping to establish a culture where teacher and leader CPD is valued and prioritised’. This endeavour is absolutely not a single-handed task; in fact it will fail if it is attempted from a heroic standpoint. The leader and board need to be as one in creating a healthy culture. I borrow this phrase “tone from the top and mood from the bottom” from a Big Education blog. Boards need to come up with a way of knowing – even if very approximately that the culture that is strived for is actually experienced by all. There is even talk of even measuring culture: something I will investigate next year.

At NGA, discussion of the importance of organisational culture began quite a few years ago, but it has really taken up a pace now. In our annual conference seminar series this week, we touched on culture each day: on Monday, a culture for learning and aspiration, built on evidence; on Tuesday a culture for diversity, equity and inclusion, on Wednesday a culture for improvement and development; and on Thursday a culture for well-being. David Weston of Teacher Development Trust spoke of ‘Creating a culture of mutual trust, respect, enthusiasm in which communication is open and honest and building a sense of shared mission.’

People who do the leadership conference circuit will know the famous Peter Drucker quote: ‘Culture trumps strategy every time: culture eats strategy for breakfast; but the other half of this musing is not repeated so often: ‘A strategy at odds with the culture is doomed’. So it is not that we give up on that first core function of governance, setting strategic direction towards the organisation’s vision, but we must make sure that there is synergy between the two as we cover in Being Strategic.

It is refreshing to see Continuous professional development (CPD) placed firmly and convincingly at the heart of school improvement, rather than a raft of separate initiatives. It would seem an omission for a school or trust strategy not to feature CPD as a priority. Developing the staff’s talents and knowledge will create success. I appreciate at the moment short-term survival is the name of the game, but shortly these conversations about medium-term improvement can begin again. So governing boards need to demonstrate their ‘buy-in’ to the importance of CPD, sometimes a bit tricky where funding is scarce. But asking questions about ongoing CPD and its impact at board meetings is a start, requesting a paper on the topic. Modelling it in the way in which senior leaders are held to account, making development a core feature of appraisal, ensuring head teachers are accessing their own entitlement to mentoring and other CPD, and encouraging fruitful collaborations with other outside the school or trust.

Let’s make 2021 the year of school improvement through CPD – not the greatest of rallying cries. The Commission suggests that the current external accountability system, generally perceived as high-stakes by senior leaders, is a powerful tool for driving compliance to minimum standards but a poor one for creating excellence within a system. To improve standards further, the Commission identifies a need to rebalance holding schools to account with enabling them to improve. Actually governing boards can balance and even re-balance those two: they can both hold leaders to account and enable them to improve, encouraging and trusting leaders and staff to take up the mantle of learning themselves as well as teaching. Many already enthusiastically do, but elsewhere leaders are waiting for permission, a permission they do not need: but which is all part of this cultural change.

Governing boards: you have huge power and influence here. Please use it to put CPD for all at the centre of your school or trust’s improvement strategy. Let’s not wait to be told what to do by the powers who be, but instead empower school leadership to take the initiative, to clear the clutter and focus on developing staff in order to provide the best possible education for pupils.

The School Improvement Commission’s recommendations

Ensuring teachers thrive

  1. Every school should prioritise staff development and designate a senior leader as the professional development lead, responsible for overseeing, coordinating and championing high-quality teacher professional development
  1. All professional development leads should have access to external support networks, research and case studies, to provide opportunities for them to develop their own understanding of, and expertise in, effective continuing professional development (CPD)
  1. The government should extend the commitment to funded support for new and recently qualified teachers to all teachers and leaders by 2025, as part of a new CPD entitlement for all

Empowering and developing  leaders

  1. In consultation with the profession and key stakeholders, the government should develop a fully funded support package, to provide structured support for all new head teachers and heads of school
  1. The government should create a new bursary fund to facilitate and incentivise participation in NPQs from a much wider group of middle and senior leaders, nationally

Collaboration and collective responsibility

  1.  All schools should consider the role that school-to-school peer review and family of schools data could take to help provide a regular external view of their strengths and areas for development
  1. The government should invest in place-based leadership development and capacity building – bringing multi-academy trusts (MATs), local authorities (LAs) and maintained schools together to develop more coherent place-based improvement approaches
  1. Further research is conducted to provide insight into the impact of local partnerships on school improvement and the characteristics of effective partnership working.

External support

  1. The DfE creates a compelling proposition to encourage the most successful leaders to become NLEs, emphasising the importance of moral purpose and professional agency, so they can use their expertise in a flexible way to provide appropriate support to those schools in need of help
  1. The DfE’s proposals for the future of teaching school hubs are developed further to create a national network of high-quality teacher development providers, which are quality assured in a transparent way

Equity and excellence

  1. The DfE makes a long-term commitment to the Opportunity Areas programme, to give the confidence to be bolder and plan beyond the short-term; and explore the potential for extending the programme to other areas.
  1. The government produces an enhanced package of support and incentives for leaders working in the most deprived communities, to include fully-funded professional development and high-quality coaching and mentoring and explore further options to provide confidence and security to staff accepting ‘higher-risk’ posts
  1. The government takes forward the recommendation of the 2018 Accountability Commission and focuses Ofsted on providing stronger diagnostic insight for schools that are struggling
Emma Knights OBE
Emma Knights OBE

Co-Chief Executive

As NGA’s Co-Chief Executive, Emma promotes the interests of the school governance community nationally with legislators, policy makers, education sector organisations and the media. Emma is an accomplished writer and speaker on a range of school governance policy and practice topics.