In-school CPD: Busting the trial of Sisyphus

Richard Canning

Richard Canning is a teacher and the co-founder of GroupU, a startup company committed to using technology to enable high-quality group work in lessons and teach lifelong collaboration skills to students. Prior to this, he was an assistant headteacher (director of ICT) in secondary schools and worked on whole-school improvement programmes.

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Here we are in a new academic year. For those in leadership last year, analysis will be done regarding the success of the initiatives under their remit in bringing about positive changes in staff and student performance. Inevitably, there will be room for improvement somewhere, and so we start the vital process of listing our existing initiatives, programmes and tools in order to sort the wheat from the chaff.

"The importance of sharing best practice between teachers has been given a huge shot in the arm."

Like perhaps never before, the teaching profession is using social media, TeachMeets and conferences to fuel widespread enthusiasm for sharing great practice from within its own rank and file. This means that replacing the chaff will not be difficult. A wealth of practical ideas, tips, resources and advice is now shared widely online and catalogued in numerous excellent blogs (I recommend the sites of Mark Anderson, Alex Quigley and Tom Sherrington to name but three), none of which were available when I started out as a fresh-faced ICT NQT over a decade ago. More recently, the importance of sharing best practice and fostering professional development between teachers and schools has been given a huge shot in the arm by the rise of respectable events and institutions led not by bureaucrats, but by former practitioners and qualified experts, such as ResearchED, the Teacher Development Trust and the Education Foundation.

But within all this progress there remains a problem. As we gaze wide-eyed upon an ocean of opportunity that positively glistens with the promise of motivated staff, smooth-flowing lessons and happy, over-achieving students, a dark voice nags at us: “How is that going to work here?

I have yet to meet a teacher who doesn’t – at least underneath it all - care about young people. Even when I’ve worked with at times jaded, despondent, frustrated or belligerent colleagues (to be fair, most of us have been one or all of these at some point), there were none who would not ultimately be swayed by the plight of a failing child. But even when evidence can be produced of the positive impact it will most certainly have upon the progress of the students, convincing a staff body that this year’s CPD initiative has greater merit than the last is not an easy task. Neither is it a walk in the park for a senior leader to launch, implement, monitor, review, evaluate and report upon the impact of a CPD programme. And yet, year on year, initiatives come and go, leaving CPD leaders to go back to the drawing board in the summer holiday to design and plan their own version of the current best idea for achieving their school’s professional development objectives.

They’re not without support of course, as there is always a contingent of excellent, well-motivated staff in a school willing to try new ideas. But by definition, these are not the staff requiring re-ignition and continued monitoring over the coming year in order for them to get the most out of their CPD programme. It is the (often larger) contingent that doesn’t feel the programme is entirely useful that represents the real challenge for any CPD leader. After a year of titanic effort to maintain the momentum and integrity of an in-house CPD programme, the senior leader can be faced with a new year typified by weeks of intense planning and negotiation simply to ensure their new or updated programme has a strong chance of success.

Reflecting on this at it’s worst, it reminded me of the myth of Sisyphus, where each year our doomed CPD leaders watch in frustration as the boulder they heaved and shoved uphill the year before rolls back down once more, coming gently to rest mockingly at their feet. So how do we ensure that our in-house CPD programmes are not only successful in building a culture of professional development over time, but do not require the titanic effort currently required to launch and pilot them successfully throughout the year?

"Our doomed CPD leaders watch in frustration as the boulder they heaved uphill the year before rolls back down once more."

When we admire the glistening range of opportunities on offer, the implementation of each should ultimately be a far lower obstacle than it is. In particular, implementation should be quick, comprehensive and motivating for the staff involved. Embedding a culture of improvement and development is firstly the job of the senior leadership team, but identifying and running specific programmes for development against objectives is the job of the leader in charge of CPD. This leader needs support to get the programmes working effectively. They need to be able to focus upon building a culture of continued professional development, rather than using their time and skills to simply manage in-school training.

Earlier this year, the Teacher Development Trust published their research on what makes great CPD. It is available from their website in their report ‘Developing Great Teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development’ (June, 2015). In it, they propose that some of the characteristics of the most effective CPD programmes are: a process that runs for two terms or longer, that colleagues’ specific needs are taken into account and that participants have opportunities to work together.

While these are laudable (and I think the vast majority of senior leaders would agree with all points), they represent a big obstacle for CPD leaders who now need to gather information about development needs (not to be confused with development ‘wants’), negotiate time for colleagues to meet uninterrupted and organise multiple cover sessions for ad-hoc observations. This is an extra burden on a member of the leadership team who is already bowing under the weight of defining and implementing yet another new or revised programme. Cue: our CPD leader pondering the boulder as it gently rolls back into place at their feet.

That said, the idea that great CPD programmes succeed due to generic tenets of methodology, rather than any particular content, provider or technology, does make it easier to provide CPD leaders with the support they need. If great CPD does indeed come about from a focus upon getting the right conditions in place then, with the right help, any school should be able to get help rolling the boulder up the hill and wedging it in place. A good place to start is for schools to search for a programme that has a lot of the leg work done for them. As well as containing the recommendations of the latest research into effective CPD, it should provide the CPD leader with a clear implementation plan that takes the pain out of the operational management, as well as supporting the effective development of staff ideas and enthusiasm. After all, most teachers have more than one boulder to roll up the hill.

How do you handle CPD in your school? Share your tips below.

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