Five years on from the publication of Unleashing Great Teaching, co-author David Weston considers the CPD landscape in schools, the growing evidence-base, and some of the practical implications for our work to create thriving school cultures.

Five years after we published Unleashing Great Teaching: The secrets to the most effective teacher development (2018), my co-author Bridget Clay and I will be appearing jointly at TDT’s National Conference in January 2024 to explore the implications for school and trust leaders about what’s happened since.

In this article I will reflect on a few of the day’s topics and what it is worth school leaders thinking about now when it comes to CPD.


There has been a notable development of the evidence-base around professional development and leadership. While still very much rooted in Kraft and Papay’s famous paper on how schools can support (or inhibit) teacher improvement (2014), there is a lot more evidence out there now.

  • In 2019, David Liebowitz and Lorna Porta published The effect of principal behaviours on student, teacher, and school o
  • There’s the 2021 Culture of Improvement paper that my colleagues Bethan Hindley, Maria Cunningham and I co-wrote and which summarised 30 papers in the area. We wrote about this in SecEd at the time.
  • In the same year, Jason Grissom and colleagues published the systematic review paper, How principals affect students and schools (Grissom et al, 2021).
  • And last year Professor Rob Coe and colleagues published the School environment & leadership: Evidence review (Coe et al, 2022). The TDT partnered with Dr Sam Sims to give schools access to a Teachers’ Working Environments tool to help them benchmark their environments, based on additional research in this area (see further information).
  • On the professional development front, Sam Sims and colleagues also explored the evidence around professional development in a completely new way, categorising studies in terms of their mechanisms rather than their characteristics. The review, What are the characteristics of effective teacher professional development (Sims et al, 2021) formed the basis of the Education Endowment Foundation’s guidance report Effective professional development (Collin & Smith, 2021).

Interestingly, the Sims et al (2021) review suggested that some long-standing approaches such as pedagogical (aka instructional) coaching or collaborative enquiry approaches (such as lesson study or teacher learning communities) could be plausible approaches for school leaders to consider.

At the TDT conference, Sam will join Bridget and I to reflect on the evidence underpinning this whole area and how it has developed. In the meantime, school and trust leaders might helpfully use some of the tools and reports to review how well aligned their culture, leadership and processes are to the evidence, perhaps engaging in the TDT’s diagnostic and peer review to get some expert insights and support.

Background policy

When we wrote the book, the government was just at the early stages of its work around its Recruitment and Retention Strategy, which it launched in 2019 responding to a systematically challenging picture around teacher recruitment and retention.

Part of this included a commitment to pilot and then launch a new early career statutory entitlement built on a new framework which itself was then built upon with reformed qualifications for school leaders in a revised suite of National Professional Qualifications (NPQs).

Since then, TDT has become one of nine lead providers of NPQs, putting a particular emphasis on how leadership can unleash great teaching and create thriving school cultures.

Since 2018, the picture for teacher recruitment and retention has significantly worsened, with a 2023 report from Education Support finding alarmingly low levels of morale among teachers and leaders.

School leaders could helpfully review the summary of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) report on how to improve recruitment and retention and six actions that could helpfully stem from it (Taylor et al, 2023) and an NFER study about teacher autonomy and retention (Worth & Van den Brande, 2020). A panel of leaders and experts in system and school leadership will be further exploring this topic at the conference.

Of course, the background political picture has changed a lot since 2018, with nine secretaries of state and an election looming, probably in 2024. This is a stage where all parties are wondering what they can do to try and tackle the sector’s challenges and more than one party has discussed the idea of a mandatory entitlement to CPD.

This builds on work from the Wellcome Trust, published in 2022, which explored and piloted the idea of an entitlement and how it would work in schools and could be enacted in policy. TDT has also recently announced a new expert group to explore and develop the policy further and we will reflect on this also at the conference.

New technology

Since writing the book, technological capabilities have progressed enormously but of course the pandemic meant that every school and every staff member had to gain at least some comfort level with using technologies such as Teams, Zoom or Google Meet.

Blended or hybrid learning has become baked into expectations, with, for example, all new NPQs required by the Department for Education to comprise a mix of in-person, online live sessions and online self-paced learning. This change in what’s available has been a real benefit to schools in more rural areas although the risk of “webinar fatigue” and a lack of in-person human interaction has risen in its place.

On another front, and much more recently, ChatGPT stunned most of the world in the winter of 2022, showing that artificial intelligence has really matured to a level that can be useful even if you don’t have your own software development team or expensive tools.

While there is a significant risk that these text, image, video and audio tools can potentially exacerbate human biases, it is also blown many people away with how human it feels. This is a hard area for leaders to navigate and there is a risk of over-rapidly adopting tools that promise to create personalised lesson plans or create personalised learning for students without being clear on where humans need to “stay in the loop” and what the downsides might be.

However, there’s some interesting potential around offering supplementary tools in, for example, AI for teacher development, and the TDT has set up a LinkedIn group to try and discuss and explore this as well as publishing some of our own experiments in the space.

At the conference, we will be inviting technology and school leaders to explore what is now possible that was not before and where to embrace, where to keep a watching brief, and where to be cautious.

Final thoughts

It is quite a different world now to the one in which Bridget and I wrote Unleashing Great Teaching, although the core principles are still very important.

In the book we argued that school leaders need to:

  • Plan professional development activities with student impact in mind.
  • Consider how to implement CPD processes to align to evidence.
  • Develop and maintain a supportive culture and working conditions.
  • Engage with high-quality research and expertise.
  • Systematically plan professional development to cohere and connect with school improvement plans, appraisal, school meeting cycles and wider plans.

I think these and other lessons from the book continue to be important and we are looking forward to exploring and adding to this in January.

First published in SecEd, 11th September 2023