Have we found the magic formula for teacher CPD?

We now have evidence of what actually works in teacher CPD. But it's a world away from what happens in most schools

Maria Cunningham

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A well-known quote, often misattributed to Albert Einstein, says that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” This is a good analogy as to why teachers should be learning: to challenge their existing thinking and help them to develop new strategies. 

There is no requirement for teachers in England to participate in career-long professional development. While doctors, lawyers and accountants must log their annual CPD hours to retain their licences, a teacher in this country can theoretically drift through their entire career without formally learning anything new or updating their practice at all. 

Remember that hour spent sitting in front of a colleague who was robotically reading irrelevant slides, word for word? Now imagine reliving that several dozen times in order to be rubber-stamped through to your next year of teaching. We live in a world where bad CPD exists: mandating annual hours is no guarantee of quality.

The Wellcome Trust wanted to see how schools would respond to the challenge of doing more, and better CPD. They have just released some interesting interim findings of a three-year pilot project in which 40 schools pledged to the following commitments: 

  • Thirty-five hours of CPD per year for every teacher.
  • CPD must meet individual teacher need and be at least 50 per cent subject-specific.
  • All CPD must be high-quality – ie align to the DfE Standards for Teachers’ Professional Development.

For many teachers, this is a world away from what they currently experience. But unsurprisingly the project is already showing positive impact on staff and students involved, echoing recent evidence from Education Policy Institute which found high-quality CPD for teachers has a significant effect on pupils’ learning outcomes. 

With schools being such complex places with their own unique culture, there is no off-the-shelf solution to all teachers getting better, faster. Leaders can learn from the key factors that the Wellcome Trust has found to either inhibit or promote successful CPD.


  • A lack of staff understanding of the breadth of professional development and what constitutes “high-quality” (rather than thinking "CPD" is just a synonym for "whole-school briefing").
  • Limited budgets with little room for investment in CPD, let alone any accompanying cover costs.
  • Workload pressures during exam and revision season pushing professional learning out of the window.
  • Clunky, time-consuming processes of requesting and logging CPD for purely administrative purposes.


  • Identifying a “champion” in each school. You might prefer another name – CPD Super Hero, anyone? – but there must be an influential individual responsible for changing internal systems, identifying needs and supporting staff to evaluate whether CPD has made a difference.
  • Full support from senior leaders. Even better still, the CPD champion should be a senior leader with the necessary “clout” to make strategic decisions across the school.
  • Investing sufficient time, capacity and resource. The schools in this challenge received a £7,000 bursary to participate.

None of these are quick or easy fixes, so are we really in a place to challenge all schools to do more CPD? The pilot schools seem to think so, with almost all participants believing “that 35 hours of high-quality, subject-specific CPD would be feasible and impactful for other schools if they were given the right support”. 

Our system doesn’t currently provide the necessary support. In order to see change in policies, processes and leadership habits, it’s crucial we get sustained investment in school leaders having time and space to collaborate, to support each other to think strategically about how to help teachers get better, and to enact then evaluate said change effectively. 

We’ve been talking about better CPD for decades. To learn from the famous quote, it’s time to stop the insanity of repeating this message again and again without trying something new – it’s time to invest in the leadership of teacher development.

Maria Cunningham is head of education at the Teacher Development Trust. She tweets @mcunners. Find out more about TDT @TeacherDevTrust

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