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Implementing High-Impact Leadership of Teachers’ Professional Learning | Maria Cunningham

Facilitating quality CPD is a key part of a headteacher’s role, as this feeds directly into the quality of education and pupil outcomes. Here, Maria Cunningham of the Teacher Development Trust explores how to ensure staff receive professional learning opportunities that benefit their development, as well as that of pupils.


Not all professional development is equally effective. Helping teachers to improve their practice takes thought, planning and effort – not only related to the operational aspects of CPD, but also in drawing on the latest evidence about creating high-quality professional learning environments for both students and staff.

It requires an intrinsic understanding from leaders that schools can only improve when the teachers that work there are able to improve.

Making CPD a priority

Writing this in the Summer break following significant periods of remote learning, the variety of experiences that colleagues will have lived over the past few months cannot be ignored. School leaders should be thinking carefully about what support and development opportunities will look like during the next academic year and how CPD will adapt to newly emerging needs of both students and teachers. The last thing that professional development should be is burdensome or create additional workload, however, now more than ever with the attainment gap widening due to Covid-19, we need to ensure that teaching and learning is as effective as possible. In order to foster a culture where staff buy-in to this vision it is crucial for leaders to model effective practice, prioritise time for CPD and explicitly communicate that it is valued.

Listening to what staff need

The most effective leaders ensure they are always asking staff what they need, and instil trust through demonstrating they are listening. Dr Kulvarn Atwal, author of ‘The Thinking School: Developing a Dynamic Learning Community’ models this excellently; as a Headteacher of three London primary schools, he consulted his staff about what they need. Their responses? They want to make decisions regarding their own learning, believe collaborative learning is key, and want it to be more relevant and specific to their experiences in the classroom. High-impact CPD requires leaders to plan how teachers will receive regular and accurate feedback, and be supported to reflect and enact on it. Pedagogical coaching can be a particularly powerful vehicle to drive this.

Maintaining a pupil-focus

When designing a whole-school CPD programme, it is important to keep these relevant and specific outcomes at the front and centre, rather than starting with the content or activity. A key principle of leading effective CPD is to create spaces that enable teachers to have conversations tightly focussed on specific pupil needs and outcomes. For example, before engaging in a CPD session based on “effective feedback” or “questioning”, teachers should be actively involved in identifying the expected benefits for specific students and deciding how to evaluate whether or not those benefits have been achieved. Needs analysis and evaluation go hand-in-hand, and it is important to consider at the outset what pupil learning needs are being addressed, how progress will be measured, and what success will look like.

At the Teacher Development Trust, through programmes such as our Associate Qualification in CPD Leadership or CPD Quality Audit, we equip schools with the tools and frameworks to implement and embed the principles pinpointed above. There is a significant body of evidence to show that teacher CPD can have a positive impact on student outcomes (Cordingley et al. 2015, Darling-Hammond et al. 2017, Fletcher-Wood and Zuccollo, 2020), with some studies suggesting gains equating to more than two years’ progress in one year and crucially, these gains have been shown to be even greater for students from disadvantaged backgrounds (Wiliam, 2016, Timperley et al. 2007). Therefore in the ‘aftermath’ of the pandemic, leadership teams urgently need to be honing the expertise to build supportive and developmental professional learning environments. It is time to start taking staff learning as seriously as we take student learning.

This blog was published by IG Schools, and written by Maria Cunningham who is head of education at the Teacher Development Trust, a UK charity for effective CPD in schools and colleges. A secondary school governor and former primary teacher, she works with school and trust leaders to improve the quality and culture of their processes for staff professional learning. She tweets at @mcunners. Visit

Maria will also be speaking at the forthcoming Teacher Retention and Professional Development Conference on the 9th of June.