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How to ensure professional learning contributes to school priorities

To help staff achieve wider school goals, their development needs to be part of a strategy and quality assurance is key.

Linking appraisal objectives to trust or school priorities helps leaders to focus resources on key outcomes. For staff to achieve these outcomes, however, they need the necessary skills and competencies, which means providing the appropriate targeted professional learning to upskill them, where necessary.

Tomsett and Uttley crystallise the necessity to prioritise professional learning for staff in order to enable students to achieve the best possible outcomes in their book Putting Staff First: A Blueprint for revitalising our schools (2020). They argue that no professional learning should happen in schools unless it is defined by a highly-detailed analysis of need:

    • Focus upon aspects of teaching and learning that have been prioritised diagnostically
    • Underpin teacher learning with research evidence
    • Allocate significant amounts of frequent, regular, ring-fenced pockets of time, which are sustained over time as part of a repeated cycle
    • Make teacher development opportunities multi layered so that teachers at all stages of their career feel nourished
    • Besides safeguarding, SLT must prioritise teacher learning over everything else that happens in school
CPD in schools, continued professional development, Continuous Professional Development

Any good organisation has the same concept at its heart: that to create ‘value’ and achieve your goals, you need to maximise the relationship between the people in the organisation, and the value they can bring to that organisation, because people are your biggest asset. To do that you need to understand how people and their roles fit into that ‘value creation’ process. (See our recent Information paper, developed in partnership with ASCL: ‘Changing approaches to performance management and appraisal Part 1: Exploring the research and considerations for improving outcomes’).

What are the school’s priorities?

School priorities should emphasise what happens both within and without the classroom. Where possible, they should be defined in partnership with staff and will take into account the cultural context and values of the school, depending on multiple external and internal factors that influence what the organisation is aiming to achieve, and what success will look like.

Once schools have identified priorities for school improvement through school evaluation and quality assurance, they should be shared with staff, so that what they are working towards and what the expectations are, is clearly understood.

From a staff perspective, this approach is related to job satisfaction: staff will understand how their development links to wider school priorities which helps them to feel part of the journey. They see their own skills and knowledge expanding; knowing that their work is helping the school to improve the life chances of young people reaffirms their sense of purpose. Where professional learning is actively shared, it also reinforces the principle of teaching as a collaborative and collegiate profession that encourages teachers to share knowledge.

But to make this shift requires more than a directive from the top. For some managers, as well as staff, it will mean a culture change to recognise that CPD for individual staff can, and should, be explicitly supporting the organisation’s goals and that everyone is signed up to that concept.

How do schools identify CPD priorities ?

More than 80 per cent of schools who responded to our latest customer survey said they were already linking staff CPD activities directly to the school’s own priorities.

CPD in schools, continued professional development, Continuous Professional Development

It is clear that the majority of schools recognise the importance of linking professional development to school improvement. The big challenge is to ensure it is having an impact. To ensure this is possible, the defining of professional learning needs should be a forensic exercise for individuals and the organisation.

Schools’ improvement priorities are shaped by their cultural context, their community and their own ethos and values and underpinned by quality assurance processes. Feedback from stakeholders, including Ofsted and governors, plus research insights, are also part of the mix, as is factoring in the staff’s own profile of expertise, alongside what excellence looks like in the school and classroom.

These priorities don’t just exist on paper as a tick box exercise: they are there to guide and inspire the whole school team, so they need to be lived. It means identifying what they look like in practice then articulating it in an operational plan. What do our priorities look like day-to-day in the classroom and in the school community? What benchmarks and exemplars can we point to? Are they clearly defined for school evaluation and QA purposes? And how are they modelled by the leadership?

Once defined, these priorities act as the framework for professional development, one which all staff recognise, where expectations can be set with goals and where the rationale is understood and trusted. The deeper the forensic analysis of need, the more tailored the offer can be, and the more likely it is to have an impactful outcome.

For example:

A school has improving oracy as a strategic improvement goal and KS3 is identified as a particular focus. A teacher wants to work on oracy in their own practice, having identified the need through self-reflection and research. Their set objective might be to develop their use of questioning with their Year 8 history class to enhance oracy and use of vocabulary.

They would then identify how to achieve it – for example by exploring the range of questioning techniques, reviewing these against their own practice and observing others in their organisation. Based on this observation, they would assess how they would modify their practice and work with others to achieve this.

What does this look like at school/trust level?

Advance Learning Partnership, a multi-academy trust made up of five primary and six secondary schools across County Durham in England, their values emphasise treating every child as their own, ensuring that every decision is focused on securing the best outcome for each pupil. Current Trust priorities are improving literacy, supporting SEND and disadvantaged students, and the use of research in improving teaching and learning, and the appraisal objectives of nearly 700 staff are aligned to those priorities. The Trust uses BlueSky to manage and ensure consistency of its approaches to appraisal, professional development and quality assurance across the 11 schools.

“Our objectives are used consistently across our Trust,” says Catherine Taylor, School Improvement Partner at Advance Learning Partnership. “We have a comprehensive overview of how our objectives are linked to the teachers’ standards and headteachers’ standards and share performance criteria across all of our schools to support our staff in securing continual improvement in the quality of teaching and learning.”

The school improvement team can evaluate the impact of all professional learning and how it is helping to meet school priorities as staff are able to record all internal and external activities in their personal portfolio.


Linking staff development to wider school priorities can have other benefits, including strengthening job satisfaction and so aiding retention. If staff understand how their own professional learning links to what the school is striving to achieve it builds a sense of belonging: if people feel they are part of a collaborative team, sharing knowledge for the wider good, it can help to combat cynicism and restore a sense of purpose.

Our next blog will examine another key issue in terms of staff retention: workload.

How do you build a school CPD programme with impact?

What’s coming next for CPD And Training

Many schools have significantly shifted their improvement strategy over recent years, recognising that professional development is crucial to improving quality of teaching and student outcomes, not to mention job satisfaction and staff retention in schools.
Feedback from our clients, alongside extensive market research, have given us a real opportunity to review some aspects of the CPD and Training modules in BlueSky. We are aiming to release the updates for these modules by the end of the summer term – watch this space for further details.

We will be sharing further insights from our survey in the coming months – sign up to our newsletter to receive updates.

Tamsin Denley

Author: Denise Inwood
CEO & Founder, BlueSky

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