The CPD Achilles Heel

Reading time: 4
shutterstock Doctor dermatologist examines the foot on the presence of athlete's foot


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
Read more about @TeacherToolkit

What would you say is the number one factor in stopping teachers improve their professional development?

What is your school’s area of weakness, or vulnerable spot? This is a blog about the Achilles heel of teachers’ professional development.

Recently I attended the Developing Great Teachers conference to hear the findings from The Teacher Development Trust research. There was one takeaway message for me as a school leader and as a leader of whole-school CPD. The answer? Time. May times over, this word was mentioned as a significant barrier for teachers to improve their practice.

“Duration and rhythm of effective CPD support requires a longer-term focus.”

This message features as one of the key headings from the research. Yet, ‘time‘ on its own doesn’t work alone; what you do with the time made available for CPD and ‘how you do it’ is equally significant. In addition, one size doesn’t fit all and that ‘time’ cannot continue to be liable for poor-quality CPD.


Achilles HeelIn Greek mythology, it was foretold that Achilles would die young. To prevent his death, his mother Thetis took Achilles to the River Styx, which was supposed to offer powers of invulnerability, and dipped his body into the water.

But as Thetis held Achilles by the heel, his heel was not washed over by the water of the magical river. Achilles grew up to be a man of war who survived many great battles. But one day, a poisonous arrow shot at him was lodged in his heel, killing him shortly after.

The death of Achilles was not mentioned in Homer’s Iliad, but appeared in later Greek and Roman poetry and drama concerning events after the Iliad, later in the Trojan War.

In the myths surrounding the war, Achilles was said to have died from a heel wound that was the result of an arrow—possibly poisoned—shot by Paris.

.The use of “Achilles heel” as an expression meaning “area of weakness, vulnerable spot” dates only to 1840, with implied use in Samuel Taylor Coleridge‘s “Ireland, that vulnerable heel of the British Achilles!” from 1810. (Source)

The Achilles Heel

At the time of writing, @RussellHobby, the general secretary for the NAHT commented that;

“… the government give schools 30 hours of professional development time per calendar year.”

This equates to the traditional five inset days. If time is critical, yet schools spend 85% or thereabouts on staffing, there is not much scope left to spend on CPD; or at least being creative about it. At my school, we have attempted to address this throughout 2014/15 by reducing the timetable by one period per week and replacing this with time for CPD. This is in addition to the statutory 5 days per year/ 30 hours schools can use for professional development.

What was resonant from Hobby’s speech, was that there are often many INSET days which are like briefings; particular at the start of the year where new school policies – as a result of changes from the DfE, Ofsted, Ofqual and the like – have to be shared by school leaders to inform all staff of further hoops to jump through. This constant political interference impacts on our time allocated for staff professional development and has done so, for a good decade if not more, and is a direct result of staff development days developing a really poor reputation.


Schools need to move towards a more sophisticated method of (creating) staff professional development. Long-term approaches to CPD are highlighted in the research to show significant impact of personal practice in the classroom. We recently highlighted this with the publication of our first action-research journal, What Works? which showcases a group of teachers engaged in long-term professional development and classroom efficacy.

Take a look at the following image which is an overview of all the teaching staff within our school. This is a review against the Teachers’ Standards. This chart shows immediately where there are areas for development as a collective group of teaching staff. However, a context is needed. This was one of the first times most of our staff had completed a self-review against the Teachers’ Standards since first qualifying, as well as the first time completing this analysis on Blue Sky.

Blue Sky CPD Needs Analysis Quintin Kynaston

Break this image down further, and the diagram offers a more detailed analysis of teachers’ self-reviews against the teaching standards. There is now on offer, a need for each and every member of staff to have a personal learning plan and if given the time, staff could use their individual plan to get on with their own professional development. We give our staff the tome to reflect and complete this. Not as much as I’d like to, but we have made a start.

A Poisoned Arrow?

Note, I am not saying for a moment that we should disband all collaborative and group INSET days. But, are INSET days a poisoned arrow if the government diktat is constantly changing? It doesn’t really matter how we do it. Fundamentally, we must enable teachers to be able to translate CPD content into the classroom, implementing what they had learnt into the classroom the very next day. We should certainly set aside time for staff to get to grips with whole-school priorities, as well as their own CPD needs and use the time to reflect and action personal learning plans as a direct outcome of:

  • Appraisal
  • Self-review
  • Personal goals
  • Professional goals
  • Whole school needs
  • Departmental needs
  • Student needs

Achilles Heel

Image: Panoramio

This will all be impossible to achieve if we do not address the CPD Achilles heel. If you are a school CPD leader, what time are you dedicating to whole-school CPD? How often do you use government diktat in all staff CPD and how much do you filter/steer clear from INSET days? Do you allow staff to focus on what matters?

If you are a teacher, what time do you dedicate to your own CPD (and training other than what is directed and offered to you by the school)? Surely, you must be engaged in long-term action research or personal professional development?

Now could be time to address this one weakness of school improvement. Don’t let CPD become your Achilles heel …


6 thoughts on “The CPD Achilles Heel

  1. What have you used to encourage teachers to reflect on their CPD? I think that coaching is the missing link so will be introducing this next year. Thoughts please….

    1. Following other educator blogs, like this one, and commenting on posts then eventually (when it feels right) creating you own free blog, for reflections and questions, to be followed and commented on by others could be a fun, cost-free, time-flexible, non-intrusive, non-hierarchical, self-directed approach. There’s allot of colour in the educators blogosphere. I’m loving being in there!

  2. Interesting, Ross. When I read your opening question, “What would you say is the number one factor in stopping teachers improve their professional development?” and before I read the post, I thought about this. My response was:

    ‘Teachers feeling they don’t have the time and energy to devote to new learning.”

    Time is THERE – and when we feel we don’t have enough time, it tells us more about priorities, really. How can we ensure we devote time, and energy, to the things that matter most and will give us the best return? Raising awareness and helping people to understand why CPD is so important, and how much we can gain from the best CPD, seems to me to be the key. Also encouraging motivation – which is closely bound up with the awareness issue. It’s also connected to staff morale and school culture. Do teachers feel valued and prepared to invest discretionary effort or are they exhausted, demotivated and disillusioned?

    Thanks for your post – lost of useful stuff here, and I will keep thinking!

    1. What I have found at school, is that we have given the staff the time. It’s now about what we do with it and how e.g content and consolidation rather than anything new/here we go again

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.