CPDL: Focus on the important, not the urgent

Graham Newell

Graham Newell is the director of Education for IRIS Connect and has worked in education for 30 years as a teacher, manager and senior officer in a number of Local Authorities. Graham has a strong interest in professional development and has enjoyed running courses at all levels from mid-day supervisors to post-graduates and MA students. He has written on education matters for a number of educational journals and regularly lectures and talks in both the UK and Europe.

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Website: www.irisconnect.co.uk/ Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

There is so much that is really urgent in schools that there is a real danger we may lose or sideline the things that are really important. The education system itself is under pressure from recruitment, retention, school places and budget cuts whilst teachers dread ever-changing goal posts – and don’t even mention Ofsted!

So what is the most important thing in education? Obviously it is pupils and their outcomes but how do we maximise outcomes for pupils? Research by John Hattie tells us that it is not about the constant, resource-draining structural changes that seem to assail us from every angle; it is so much simpler than that.

It is the quality of teaching and learning. It is about teachers and what they do in the classroom.

"It will take a steady hand, and maybe brave leadership, to keep a focus on teacher professional development."

I would suggest that if we consider teachers as the central plank of an effective education system, then we must also consider their ongoing continuous professional development and learning (CPDL) as both a key task for managers and a professional responsibility of every individual teacher.

At a time of financial constraint, CPDL is an easy target for budget cuts. It will take a steady hand, and maybe brave leadership, to keep a focus on teacher professional development and learning at a time when budgets are shrinking. Yet, CPDL is the driver that creates a truly professional school.

How can we move towards empowered CPDL that will impact on pupil outcomes and support the development of the school system itself? Maybe we need to think differently?

We need to be wary of continuing to do what we have always done. Analysis suggests that many schools still tend to see CPDL in terms of traditional courses, which rely upon didactic presentation of material despite evidence that such courses have little impact on the practice of teaching. A snapshot survey by CUREE on behalf of the TDA suggested that less than 1% of traditional CPDL, in terms of courses and lectures, transformed existing practice.

There is a place for many types of CPDL within a school system. Expert input, research and enquiry, collaboration, self-review and reflection, coaching and peer mentoring can all play their part, but it is how we embed CPDL within the school that is important.

CPDL needs to be part of the warp and weft of school life and seen as part of a system’s approach to school improvement rather than a series of one-off events. Many schools have already removed the siloed CPD budget and placed the resources where they belong - in the school improvement budget.

But for me, even this does not go far enough. We need to develop true ‘professional capital’ within the school where ongoing CPDL is seen as the professional responsibility of both the teacher and school leaders.

One of my favourite quotes comes from the OECD: “In high performing education systems… teachers embrace and lead reform, taking responsibility as professionals”. This quote has so many nuances. It reflects the key role of teachers not only within the classroom but as trusted professionals able to shape the system itself. "The energy displayed by teachers in the UK when they engage with social media really impresses me." The lesson for us to learn from high-performing systems, such as Finland, is that empowered teachers and a sense of professional efficacy are the key to creating a high-performing system and improving outcomes for pupils. In all the systems recognised as being high-performing, there is a strong emphasis on high quality training and a focus on on-going CPDL.

This is not to suggest that the English education system is not of high quality – despite the relentlessly negative narrative in the media, we are still very well regarded abroad. My work takes me to many EU countries and it is remarkable how positive our EU colleagues are about our schools and teachers.

One thing that impresses me is the energy, enthusiasm and dynamism displayed by teachers in the UK when they engage with social media forums such as Twitter, their commitment to activities like TeachMeets and the amazing quality of educational blogs written by teachers. In so many ways, individual teachers are themselves taking the lead to collaborate, share and develop their own professionalism.

Good CPDL replenishes, develops new practice and encourages self-reflection as well as collaboration within and across schools. It is critical for the professional health of a school, but how can you maximise the impact with fewer resources?

I have a few suggestions:

  • Review the place of CPDL within the school. Map the eco-system of the school and envisage CPDL at the core of all activities.
  • Stop doing expensive activities that don’t work! Focus on activities that we know do work such as coaching, self-reflection and collaborative enquiry.
  • Encourage staff to engage with social media and take part in activities such as TeachMeets.     
  • Look at the resources available within the school. In a recent interview, John Hattie made the telling comment, “Do you have the courage to admit there is excellence all around you?” In every school there is a wealth of skill and expertise that needs to be released and shared.          
  • The system as it stands seems to encourage competition between schools. We need to rise above this and ensure there is genuine and effective collaboration across schools.
  • Just as social media offers new opportunities to collaborate, effective cloud-based technology can offer time and cost efficient ways to lever skills and create opportunities for effective CPDL in ways we have not had before.

If we want the best outcomes for pupils and a truly world-class system, we need to take CPDL very seriously and embed it at the core of the school system. In a time when priorities are competing for our energy, we need to review our current CPDL activities and prioritise those that have a genuine impact.

How do you handle CPDL? Let us know in the comments!

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