After a long day in a busy classroom, with an evening of additional administration and lesson-planning waiting for them at home, it may be surprising to find teachers signing up for an extra hour or more at school. But this is exactly what's happening at Dunfermline High School in Fife, where three or four evenings a term teachers voluntarily attend twilight sessions to learn how to improve their classroom skills.

"Given that they come at the end of a hard day, the twilight sessions are well-attended," says deputy rector David Watson. He says the school seeks to share ideas between teachers for raising attainment and improving behaviour.

This school-based approach, drawing on the expertise of the school's own staff and wider support network, is the new face of continuing professional development (CPD). It saves on costs and travel time but, most importantly, it builds an inventory of professional expertise within the school by demonstrating best practice, fostering ties between teachers – who may otherwise become isolated in their individual classrooms – and building professional pride and confidence. This approach works best when other local schools are involved, enabling teachers with different approaches and priorities to observe other teachers in action, share ideas and improve performance.

Yet provision remains patchy across the country. Some schools are embracing whole school CPD initiatives that are starting to pay dividends in terms of staff retention and classroom attainment. Others are still paying lip service to the idea. It seems that it comes down to a question of resources, leadership and support.

Tim Brighouse, the educationalist and former London commissioner for schools, believes there is much to be done to fully embed CPD into daily school life. "For too long, CPD was the Cinderella of budget making," he says. "Things have changed in the last few years but it still needs to be given much more explicit financial support."

He would also like to see a commitment to CPD become a feature in Ofsted inspections in order to force it up the educational agenda.

The Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) is also keen to raise the profile of CPD. It has launched a campaign, led by Brighouse, to help schools improve their CPD offering and tap into all the available support, both within their own institution and outside. Recent findings from a TDA study of CPD leaders found that 41 per cent of schools never consult with a national organisation for help in CPD, 26 per cent never consult with universities on courses, and 10 per cent never network with other schools. The campaign also aims to challenge the view that CPD is all about courses by showcasing the many forms that CPD can take, from lesson observation, to mentoring and networking, and even studying online.

Outside courses still have an important play a role, however. For Dunfermline High School, the extensive CPD programme run by Fife Education Service has proved a useful and cost-effective resource and it also taps into courses run by local universities and outside suppliers. Funding is an issue, however.

"It can be become expensive, because it's not just the cost of the course, which could be £150 to £250 a day depending on the supplier, but also the cost of supply cover, which is another £200," says deputy rector Dave Watson. "But we do try to make sure staff can go on any course they really want to go on."

Universities which offer CPD as part of the TDA's postgraduate professional development programme, which provides over 35,000 places on subsidised courses across the country, are not insensitive to these funding issues. Manchester Metropolitan University, for example, has made its CPD courses free of charge.

"Teachers always say the first barrier to accessing CPD is money," says Paul Baker, head of multi-professional education at the university, which offers postgraduate courses in a wide range of specialist areas. "It's very patchy. It depends on the leadership of the school and the demands on their CPD budget."

Manchester Met has been able to offer the courses free of charge by living within its TDA funding based on allocated student numbers: the current year comprises 1,000 teacher places at the university, next year it rises to 1,500 and the year after 2,000.

"Since the courses became free, there has been an increase in uptake," says Baker. "It proved our point. We were charging £350 a unit so the average saving over a year's study is more than £1,000, which is a lot of money."

To help schools pull together the best CPD programme for their needs and priorities, the TDA has launched a national CPD database. This new online service, the first of its kind in England, will act as a single source of information about providers across the country. Brighouse hopes the database will become a kind of "Amazon book review" of courses, with users leaving personal feedback and reviews to help schools become more discriminating in their CPD choices. And he believes it's important to get this right because CPD is too important to neglect given the role teachers play in underpinning society.

"Schools are beginning to realise that CPD is crucial to teachers' intellectual curiosity," he says. "If they are not being stimulated they lose the intellectual curiosity that's the hallmark of a really successful teacher."

This is echoed by Baker at Manchester Met. "To really understand learning you have to be a part of that learning process," he says.

"It's so exciting to teach teachers," says Baker. "It can be absolutely electrifying to work with them, going hammer and tongs at an issue, even though they are absolutely dog tired at the end of the school day."

'Collaboration reassures you that you're doing the right things'

Matthew Gunn is the CPD leader at The Mandeville School in Aylesbury, which has been involved in the TDA's Effective Practices in Continuing Professional Development programme.

"We were asked to lead a network of 32 primary and secondary schools facing challenging circumstances. We've had external help through a coach and a significant amount of money to carry out projects to help staff develop. The staff have done their own classroom-based research projects on subjects such as literacy, numeracy, assessment for learning and student voice. In one class we did some motivational work with the children to find out what rewards and consequences would work for them. That project saw a 22 per cent increase in pupil results so we are now reviewing the reward structure we have in place for Key Stage 4.

There have also been two regional conferences, where the different schools have got together to share resources, ideas and techniques, and now we've been given money to set up a website where we can share best CPD practice.

The collaboration between the schools is very important because you learn a lot and it also reassures you that you're doing the right things. We also have links with four universities, so we're getting a higher number of student teachers coming into our school and they bring with them new ideas and techniques. Our staff receive mentor training to help them develop the student teachers but it's also helped them develop themselves. When you teach how to teach you gain a deeper understanding of what you are doing in the classroom and it makes you a better teacher.

The school is in quite a challenging area and was in special measures a few years ago. But our results over the last three years have gone up significantly. It's difficult to say how much this is down to CPD. But certainly on the leadership team we feel that staff are more empowered, engaged and motivated and that makes a difference in the classroom."