GCS learning and development 2021/22: Your guide to the new GCS curriculum and standards

Our curriculum is designed to set ambitious professional standards for the Government Communication Service (GCS).




Alex Aiken, Executive Director of Government Communications:

I am delighted to be publishing this guidance which, alongside our new GCS Curriculum, is designed to set ambitious professional standards for the Government Communication Service (GCS).

We are a leading profession in the Civil Service with a theory of practice, a proud history, case studies and a canon of learning. Maintaining our standards is the foundation of our public service and enables us to deliver the best work.

As a function and as a profession we have made great strides in professional development. Since 2013 we have run seven annual improvement programmes. Collectively these have created 28 different initiatives for continuous improvement, including our evaluation framework and the Modern Communication Operating Model.

The scale and pace of challenge and change in our work demands that our professional practice is constantly moving forward and is of an exceptionally high standard. At all times we need to be able to say with confidence that our communicators and our profession are truly world-class, delivering for ministers and implementing government policy effectively.

There are undoubtedly areas of professional practice that are genuinely world-leading and of which we can already be proud. For example, the GCS RESIST counter- disinformation toolkit puts us at the forefront of the growing international consensus to take action against disinformation.

However, as we move forward with our programme of improvement and modernisation through Reshaping GCS, we now need greater clarity, consistency and challenge when it comes to raising the standards of what we offer to – and expect of – the profession. Clarity means setting out how much time to invest in learning and development, and the diverse range of learning we should be recognising. Consistency means setting out the stretching standards that we need to apply across all our grades and disciplines. Challenge means that, for the first time, we make it mandatory that every single one of us plans our development using the GCS Curriculum, has a Personal Development Plan (PDP) in place and completes a minimum of 30 continuing professional development points over the course of the year.

This short guide provides you with the information you will need to set up your PDP by 30 April 2021.

I am pleased that all Whitehall Directors of Communications have signed up to this critical agenda for 2021/22. We will lead by example by sharing our PDPs and ensuring that every member of our team has a PDP in place.

The purpose of this guide

By the time you have finished reading this guide you will know:

  • why learning and development is changing for the communications profession in 2021/22
  • what the GCS Curriculum is, where to find it and how you should use it to plan your learning for the coming performance year
  • what continuing professional development (CPD) points are and how many you will need to achieve in the coming performance year
  • what proportion of CPD points should come from on-the-job learning and through relationships (e.g. mentoring), as well as formal training
  • where to find and how to fill in the GCS PDP, that you will need to complete by 30 April and keep updated across the year
  • what support you should get from your line manager
  • how and why the GCS will check that PDPs are being created and kept up-to-date

Who is this guide for?

From April it will be mandatory for all members of the GCS who work in central Whitehall departments to adopt the approach set out in this guide.

All resources will be available on the GCS website and we encourage communicators working in arm’s-length bodies, non departmental public bodies and other public sector organisations to use them.

Key terms used in this guide

  • GCS Curriculum: sets the standards for learning for GCS members by grade, learning level and discipline.
  • Mandatory learning: learning that every member of the GCS is expected to complete.
  • Practitioner, advanced, or expert learning: categories within the GCS Curriculum that set expected standards and sequencing of learning.
  • Continuing professional development (CPD) point: a unit that quantifies the time and quality of learning and development (L&D) activities.
  • Personal Development Plan (PDP): a document that records your individual learning and development plans – learning objectives, activities, reflections and CPD points.
  • GCS Academy: The GCS Academy is a term used to describe all of GCS’ learning and development. It includes the GCS Curriculum and its content, as well as programmes such as mentoring, accelerated development schemes and information about relevant professional bodies (Public Relations and Communications Association, Market Research Society, Institute of Internal Communications, Chartered Institute of Public Relations and Chartered Institute of Marketing).

Introduction: how is learning and development changing in the GCS and why?

As communications professionals, our work must always be of the highest standards, supporting ministers to deliver the government’s priorities.

We can only do our best work when we are equipped with the right knowledge and skills to succeed in our jobs. But too often learning and development gets pushed down the list of priorities when the demands of the day job take over.

To be world-leading as a profession we need to challenge our approach to learning and development. We need to stop thinking of it as nice-to-have and see it as a businesscritical part of our work for our own personal development, and to deliver for ministers and implement government policy effectively.

From 1 April 2021 the GCS approach to L&D is changing, based on six principles:

  1. We want to make it quicker and easier to access L&D resources so we are launching a GCS Curriculum that sets expectations about what L&D you should do. The curriculum brings together guidance, training and content offered as part of the GCS Academy so that it is clear by grade and discipline what sequence learning should take.
  2. We want to better accommodate shifts in working patterns and different learning styles and will have a more responsive approach to developing content. More GCS training is now available on demand, including ten new videos from Directors of Communications. ‘Live’ sessions will be available in other formats (such as blogs, slide packs, recordings or podcasts) as part of the GCS Academy which can be used at any time.
  3. We want you to invest more time in L&D and are setting an expectation that you must do 30 hours of learning and development a year.
  4. We want your current investment in learning and development to be better recognised, so a greater range of activity will count as L&D. Everything from taking a temporary promotion to representing your department at a cross-Whitehall group, as well as formal training.
  5. We want to make it easier for you to record your L&D so everyone will have a standardised PDP from the GCS, where you’ll also be encouraged to reflect on how you’ll benefit from your learning.
  6. We want to change the culture around L&D – so it’s never a nice-to-have but a business-critical investment in you and our profession. We are mandating that everyone has an up-to-date PDP. You have a right to expect that your line manager provides you with the time and space to achieve it.

Section 1: what is the GCS Curriculum and why is it relevant to me?

The GCS Curriculum is fundamentally important to your career, the future of the profession and our public service. It will equip you to be the best communicator, setting high standards and delivering the most effective communications work.

The GCS Curriculum is a collection of guidance, content and recommended reading which you will find in the new ‘curriculum’ section of the GCS website.

It is designed to help everyone more easily plan learning and development. As a profession, it will help us to achieve consistently higher standards.

You will recognise some of the GCS Curriculum as it contains GCS best practice guides and popular training. There is also new content that you won’t have seen before, such as new training videos from Directors of Communications.

When you start to plan your learning and development for the year ahead you should refer to the GCS Curriculum.

You should start by visiting the section of the GCS Curriculum for your grade. There are sections for Executive Officer, Higher Executive Officer, Senior Executive Officer, Grade 7 and Grade 6. Over the next year, we will add content for the SCS.

You will find learning that everyone needs to complete, called mandatory learning.

You will see that learning is categorised as practitioner, advanced and expert. This is to help you plan the order of your learning, and set expectations about the standards you should aim to achieve. You will see some learning categorised by discipline: leadership, media, strategic communication, marketing, internal communication, and external affairs. This is to help you select learning that is relevant to your current or future role. It will also help you see skills or knowledge gaps based on your experience to date.

The GCS Curriculum will be updated regularly. Initially, the priority will be to develop its breadth and depth so that there is more consistent content across grades, disciplines and standards. After that, updates will be made to keep pace with emerging trends and best practice.

What you need to do next

  • Visit the ‘curriculum’ section of the GCS website and check the relevant section of the GCS Curriculum for your grade.
  • Spend some time making yourself familiar with the different learning. Have a look at mandatory learning, and learning at practitioner, advanced and expert standards for your grade.
  • Keep a record of what learning you haven’t done yet and what you think is most relevant to your role and development needs. It will be helpful for you to refer to this when you develop your PDP.

Section 2: what are CPD points, why do I need them and how do I achieve them?

You get Continuing Professional Development (CPD) points by spending time on learning and development.

In the GCS, one hour of learning and development roughly equates to one CPD point.

You will be expected to get 30 CPD points each performance year. This equates to roughly 30 hours or approximately one day a quarter.

Remember – just completing the learning isn’t enough. You need to be able to demonstrate that you’ve learnt a new skill, better understand a key concept, or are able to put that new knowledge to practical use in another way. This should be recorded on your PDP and discussed with your line manager (see Section 3).

Different types of learning

You don’t just get CPD points for going on training courses. You can see in the table on the next page that a wide range of learning and development activities count.

As a general rule, the majority of your L&D should come from experiences you get on the job or through doing practical work, with the rest coming from learning from relationships with other people (like a coach or mentor) and formal training.

You might find it helpful to use a 70/20/10 guide to check you are going beyond formal training in your learning plans. This means achieving 70% on-the-job learning, 20% learning from relationships and 10% learning from formal training, like content from the GCS Curriculum or a professional body.

70% on-the-job learning
learning through practical work

20% learning from relationships
developing through your networks and relationships

10% formal training
learning through GCS Academy and other sources

Alternatively, you could count CPD points as a guide to help plan different types of learning. Around 20 points or more should come from on-the-job learning, 5 to 10 CPD points should come from learning from relationships and around 2 to 6 CPD points from formal learning, like through GCS Academy resources.

The table on the next page provides examples of different types of learning and the number of CPD points that you gain for different learning activities.

On-the-job learning

2 CPD points

  • observing and minuting a significant meeting outside of your day job (e.g., agency pitches, ministerial meeting with officials, ministerial media interview)

5 CPD points

  • being an active participant in a halfday workshop outside of your day job (e.g., to generate creative campaign ideas, or a stakeholder mapping workshop)
  • job shadowing for a day
  • working with a corporate network to improve the quality of your work (e.g., more inclusive/accessible campaign materials)

10 CPD points

  • regularly representing your department on a cross-Whitehall group
  • being a GCS board or GCS shadow board member
  • providing a week or more holiday cover to a member of Perm Sec or ministerial private office
  • spending 7 hours on a relevant research or learning project, including corporate contribution in your department

20 CPD points

  • delivering a challenging or new work project or event, including training programme for others (e.g., temporary promotion, sustained crisis communication project)
  • leading a cross- Whitehall working group (e.g., Head of Discipline)
  • 14 hours on a relevant research or learning project, including corporate contribution in your department
  • producing GCS best practice guidance

30 CPD points

  • writing a professional guide for GCS
  • writing and publishing a communication related book

Learning through relationships

2 CPD points

  • setting up and leading a briefing meeting with a GCS stakeholder or supplier (e.g., advertising agency on upcoming government campaigns, or a media agency on latest media insights)

5 CPD points

  • setting up and attending a half-day workshop with a GCS stakeholder or supplier on latest industry trends

10 CPD points

  • being a mentor or having a mentoring relationship with regular meetings
  • being a coach or having coaching with regular meetings

20 CPD points

  • holding a voluntary position where you learn new transferable skills (e.g., trustee, school governor)
  • setting up and leading a cross-directorate or organisation network (e.g., senior information officer, diversity and inclusion, carers) with regular meetings and clear deliverables

Formal learning

2 CPD points

  • listening to a relevant podcast
  • watching a GCS or comms-related webinar
  • attending a GCS comms exchange
  • attending a team or local department training session

5 CPD points

  • delivering a GCS comms exchange
  • writing and publishing a GCS blog
  • participating in half a day of training hosted by the GCS Academy or within your department
  • reading a whole book from the GCS Academy or Alex Aiken’s reading list

10 CPD points

  • participating in a full day’s training hosted by the GCS Academy or your department
  • attending a professional event or conference (e.g., Civil Service Live) for its duration (minimum one day) and provide a formal briefing to your directorate on what you learned

20 CPD points

  • creating and delivering a one-day training course

30 CPD points

  • completing a GCS accelerated development programme (e.g., Inspire, Impact, Power of Choice)
  • completing a relevant academic qualification


Here are some examples that show different ways you could achieve 30 CPD points over the course of the performance year (April to March) through a mix of learning types.

30 CPD points should be seen as a minimum mandatory target

Person 1 (CPD points)Person 2 (CPD points)Person 3 (CPD points)
Formal trainingWatching a GCS on-demand webinar (2)Participating in half a day of GCS training (5)Completing a book from Alex Aiken’s reading list (5)
Learning from relationshipsSetting up and attending a half-day workshop from a GCS supplier (5)Being a mentor and having regular meetings (10)
On-the-job learning (example 1)Completing a large corporate contribution project in your department (20)
Leading a cross-Whitehall working group (20)Taking temporary promotion for 2 months (20)
On-the-job learning (example 2)Using a corporate network to advance a skill and knowledge in a particular area (5)Observing and minuting a senior management team meeting which is outside of your usual role (2)
On-the-job learning (example 3)Job shadowing (5)
Total CPD points323235

What you need to do next

  • Check you understand what a CPD point is and that you know you need to complete 30 of them in the coming performance year.
  • Make sure you have considered and understood the full range of activities that count as CPD points. Reflect on what you already do and the kind of activities you might need to help you learn and develop in the year ahead.
  • Check that you understand you should plan to have roughly a 70/20/10 split of L&D (70% on the job, 20% from relationships, 10% formal training).

Section 3: what is a PDP, how do I create one and how should my line manager support me?

By 30 April 2021, you will need to have agreed a PDP with your line manager.

A PDP is a document that helps you think about what you need to learn or do better. It helps you to plan how and when to do L&D, and prompts you to reflect on what you have learnt and how you will use your learning to help others. It is also where you keep a record of the CPD points you have earned.

You will find the GCS PDP on the GCS website. The version shown on the next page has been completed as an example, to show you one way it can be completed. You should download a blank version from the GCS website and use it to plan your own learning and development.

You should review your PDP with your line manager regularly. Initially, you should agree your PDP with your line manager before 30 April 2021. You may find it helpful to have a conversation about your learning and development needs before you start writing your PDP, or you might prefer to bring a first draft of your PDP to discuss with your line manager so you can work on it together.

You are responsible for keeping your PDP up-to-date and bringing it to your quarterly performance review with your line manager.

Your line manager is responsible for making sure you go through your PDP at your quarterly performance meeting. You should make sure you are not just counting CPD points, but truly reflecting with your line manager about your future learning and development needs and what you have learnt over the past quarter. The conversation you have with your line manager is one of the most important parts of your PDP. It is not enough to simply write down a plan. Discussing how you have got on with that plan and if the next quarter’s aspirations are realistic is the key to success.

What you need to do next

  • Prepare for a conversation with your line manager about your learning objectives for the year ahead by reflecting on your learning priorities and coming up with ideas about the type of learning you will do (following the 70/20/10 guide).
  • Review and download the GCS PDP from the GCS website – make sure you understand how to complete it.
  • As well as having a conversation with your line manager, finalise your PDP document before 30 April 2021. Make sure you review and update it at your quarterly performance meeting with your line manager.

Section 4: how will the GCS monitor its collective progress in learning and development?

L&D will be prioritised as part of driving excellence in professional practice and raising standards across the GCS.

A new GCS Curriculum and standards board will agree how the curriculum should be developed. It will also agree how to measure improvements in standards across the profession.

The GCS Curriculum and standards board has agreed it will assess progress by:

  • reviewing whether PDPs have been completed by 30 April by sampling 5% of PDPs from Whitehall departments – your Director of Communication will be responsible for making sure that everyone has a PDP in place by then
  • creating a new ‘Communicator of the Month’ award, to find and share the best examples of excellence in L&D
  • stipulating that people applying for promotion in GCS should have an up-todate PDP and asking candidates questions at interview about the L&D they have done and how it has been used
  • checking that people on the top row of the 9-box talent grid have demonstrated excellence in their attitude to personal development, not just excellence in their day job

What you need to do next

  • Complete your PDP by 30 April 2021.
  • Keep your PDP up-to-date so that you can provide it to your line manager for departmental and/or GCS conversations about talent, or refer to it when applying for roles on promotion.
  • If asked, provide your PDP to your Director of Communication for consistency checking and sharing of best practice across your team and the GCS.
  • Look out for examples of excellence in L&D, and be ready to nominate yourself or colleagues for the Communicator of the Month Award.

Role of the GCS Curriculum and standards board


Setting strategy for the GCS Curriculum and standards.


Monitoring how well standards are being met.


Making sure the GCS Curriculum is delivered effectively.


Agreeing communications about the GCS Curriculum.


Monitoring improvements in L&D and standards.


Joining up with the Civil Service Curriculum and the direction in which the Reshaping GCS project is developing the GCS of the future.


Role modelling excellent L&D practice.

We have also set up a GCS Curriculum and standards working group so departments and arm’s-length bodies can work together on improving the curriculum and its delivery. In particular, they will work on how the curriculum can be better delivered through a learning management system, a website designed to deliver online training and assess learning.


Simon Baugh, Chair of the GCS Curriculum and standards board, Director of Communications at Home Office:

I am delighted to be the chair of the GCS Curriculum and standards board. One of the most important duties we have in public service is to leave our professions in a stronger position than when we joined. I am genuinely excited by the opportunity this programme gives us to raise the standards of our L&D offer to all of you. In so doing we will allow individuals to reach higher, and our profession to go further than we ever thought it could.

A big part of the new curriculum is making sure we have a broader and more relevant offer for you as a member of GCS. But just as important is the expectation we are setting about how you must prioritise time for your own learning and development – at least 30 hours in the year. The most common reason I hear for people not having invested in L&D is that they haven’t had enough time. If we believe L&D is critical to our development and wellbeing, to our effectiveness, and to the quality of service that we offer then it must be a priority.

This is not about having time – it is about making time. We need to take responsibility for prioritising learning and development in our schedule and be clear on the consequences of not doing so. It is also about changing our mindset – thinking about how we’re learning from new experiences in our roles, reflecting on what we take away from inspiring or even challenging relationships at work, and more formal learning that stretches our knowledge, equips us with new skills and energises us to perform at our best.

This guide should be a starting point for you to think more creatively about L&D. With the support of your line manager, I encourage you to think carefully about what you want to learn in the year ahead, shaping a PDP that meets your unique goals. Remember, it’s an investment in our profession but also an investment in you – for now and in your future career. Make yourself a priority, because you are the biggest asset we have. Your skills, capability and resilience are worth taking seriously.

What you need to do next

  • Visit the GCS website to review the GCS Curriculum.
  • Plan your 30 CPD points, applying the 70/20/10 approach to learning.
  • Agree your PDP with your line manager by 30 April 2021, and keep it up-to-date.
  • Prioritise discussing your PDP with your line manager as part of your quarterly performance review.

Your questions answered


  1. Can I only do the L&D set out for my grade in the curriculum?

No – you can access all learning in the curriculum. However, you should start by doing the learning set out for your grade and work through the practitioner, advanced and expert levels.

  1. Can I do training that’s not on the curriculum?

Yes – you should start by doing the learning set out for your grade on the curriculum, but you can and should supplement this with other L&D. You should do this through learning you get on the job and through relationships (for example, mentoring), as well as formal training run by your team, department or wider Civil Service (see CPD section for more information).

  1. I’ve got suggestions for the curriculum, who should I contact?

We’re always delighted to get suggestions and feedback. To get in touch with the GCS professional standards team please email gcs@cabinetoffice.gov.uk. You can also provide feedback through your Director of Communications, development advisor or representative on the GCS Curriculum working group.

  1. Why do some bits of the curriculum have more content than others?

We have devised the first version of the curriculum by bringing together and more clearly structuring existing GCS material. This has shown that there are inconsistencies across grade, standards and disciplines in the learning we provide. In the coming year we will develop a plan to add more content to the curriculum to address this.

CPD points

  1. Do we need CPD points, don’t they make things more complicated?

CPD points are widely adopted across a range of industries to help measure time spent on L&D. Our aim in introducing CPD points is to help us to better quantify how much time we should spend on L&D and on different types of L&D.

  1. There’s a lot of information on the curriculum that I haven’t looked at, can I do more than 10% formal learning?

The 70/20/10 approach to learning is a guide but not a strict rule. You should use your judgement and agree with your line manager what range of learning best meets your development needs. Some formal training will naturally equate to a larger proportion of the 30 point minimum – such as completing a set of modules for a course which equals 20 points in total.

  1. What happens if I don’t manage 30 CPD points in a year?

Each of us will be expected to complete 30 CPD points. You will need to be able to explain to your line manager and Director of Communications the reason for not achieving 30 CPD points – we would expect this to be in a very small number of exceptional cases.

  1. The learning I want to do isn’t captured in this guide, will it count towards my CPD points?

If your planned learning isn’t captured in the examples shown in this guide you should contact the GCS professional standards team. They will be responsible for agreeing new CPD activity and their points with the GCS Curriculum and standards board and communicating this with GCS members.


  1. My team has its own PDP template, can’t I keep using that?

No – to help monitor and compare progress across the entire GCS we are asking everyone to use the same template.

New joiners or newly promoted

  1. I’m new, how much L&D should i do?

If you are new to the GCS we expect you to invest more time on L&D than people who are established in their roles.

You are expected to complete induction material in addition to 30 CPD points. You are responsible for completing your induction, but if you have problems managing your workload, please let your line manager know so that they can help you to prioritise.

Workload concerns

  1. Why are you asking me to do more L&D when when we are exceptionally busy or if I work in a very fast-paced area?

We want you to be able to learn and develop at all times, even during exceptionally busy periods. Arguably, the more complex the work, the more competent you need to be. 30 CPD points or one day per quarter should be a manageable investment of time, particularly as a greater range of on-the-job learning and learning through relationships counts towards CPD. For most people, formal training away from the day job will represent a smaller amount of time spent on L&D.

  1. My line manager says I don’t have time for L&D, what should I do?

A good line manager will never say you don’t have time for L&D – they will recognise that it is a critical part of your job.

You should consider the full range of L&D activity that counts towards the 30 CPD points. Challenging or exceptionally busy roles provide excellent opportunities for on-thejob learning. If you have concerns about the level of support you’re getting from your line manager on L&D, constructively raise it with them or seek advice from your development advisor or trusted colleague.


  1. Why aren’t the SCS included in the curriculum?

This is under development and will appear shortly. In addition, SCS have a range of learning expectations which are partially catered for elsewhere in the Civil Service. Irrespective of this, all SCS in Whitehall departments are expected to have a PDP by 30 April 2021 and we hope SCS in many other organisations will do the same.

Line managers

  1. What are my responsibilities as a line manager?

You play a critical role in supporting your direct reports to shape and achieve their learning and development goals. You need to do this by creating time and investing thought in high-quality PDP conversations at quarterly performance reviews. You also need to enable your team members to invest the time they need in learning and development activity. You should challenge your team members if they say they are too busy to do L&D, and find ways of delegating or sharing their tasks if they need to take time away from their usual tasks for formal training.

  1. I’m a manager of a busy team and I’m concerned that we don’t have time for all this L&D.

As a manager, making sure your people are learning and developing is a fundamental part of your job. Every member of your team – including you – needs to have a PDP, tailored to developmental needs and reviewed regularly.

Of course, we all recognise that during exceptionally busy times it may not be sensible to, for example, book a day-long course. But refusing permission should be the exception, and we encourage you to speak with your team about learning regularly, to role model a learning mindset yourself, and to emphasise the different ways of learning – for example, on-demand courses or on-the-job skills development.

  1. My team is high-performing, why do they need to do more L&D?

Government communications and the media landscape is constantly changing and everyone needs to keep their skills and knowledge up to date. As a line manager, you should not view someone’s current performance as an indicator of whether they need to do L&D activity. It is mandatory that everyone has a PDP in place and achieves 30 CPD points each year.


  1. Why are you only rolling this out to Whitehall departments?

From April it will be mandatory for all members of the GCS who work in central Whitehall departments to adopt the approach set out in this guide, but all resources will be available on the GCS website. We encourage the use of these by communicators working in arm’s-length bodies, non-departmental public bodies and other public sector organisations.

As well as learning from the initial launch and adding more content to the curriculum, we will communicate plans to expand mandatory adoption of this approach later in the year.