The next 5 years: five key opportunities for school leaders

There’s no question that school leaders will face tough challenges in the coming years. But there is also a major opportunity to reshape the school system. This blog, the second based on my London Centre for Leadership in Learning lecture on 19 May, should be read alongside the slides to be found here http://www.lcll.org.uk/event-resources.html.

The nature of the challenges is such that it is not possible for schools and their leaders to manage them alone. They will have to collaborate – whether that builds on what they are doing at the moment or takes them into new territory. Collaboration at both a local and system level provides school leaders with the opportunity to:

  • remodel how we train teachers – using the outcome from the work being led by Stephen Munday there is the chance to reimagine how initial teacher training is delivered. Instead of trying to cram everything into one year with variable development support thereafter, the new model would be structured over the existing first three years of a teacher’s career (their training year, NQT year and NQT +1 year). This would provide time to deliver the new core training content, which should include necessary subject and pedagogical knowledge, classroom skills and the acquisition and practice of research/learning impact skills. Although new teachers would, as now, be ‘employed’ at the end of year 1, their placements might continue over the three years and qualified teacher status would be awarded at the end of year 3. Universities and accredited school groups would work together to organise recruitment and training in each sub-region and routes into teaching would be rationalised.
  • redefine professional development – learning from the improving teacher style programmes, the growth of coaching and the action research focus of many teaching school alliances (TSAs) has shown the power and potential of combining formal learning with modelling, analysing and improving practice in the classroom. This needs to become the universal professional development template for the future. Teachers within and across schools would draw on what we know through insets, online research, reading groups and master classes, and would then work together to improve teaching in the classroom using lesson study, peer coaching, action research (involving pupils in many cases) and online forums. They would be constantly looking to assess the impact of their work together to establish new knowledge and improve outcomes. It is this approach that should form the core agenda for the College of Teaching to champion.
  • recast leadership of learning so that we explicitly acknowledge and encourage the role of school leaders in leading learning between schools and across the system as well as leading learning within their schools;
  • build a leadership pipeline using school groups as the basis for deploying school leaders to different leadership assignments as a way of accelerating their development – supported by leadership programmes run under the aegis of a sector-led Education Leadership Foundation;
  • use resources more productively. Partnerships and multi-academy trusts bring a huge potential for schools to improve their efficiency. They provide the basis for sharing posts and roles – particularly at leadership level and in specialist areas. Either through jointly delivering or procuring services they can use economies of scale to make savings in how HR, education welfare, grounds maintenance, catering, ICT and other services are provided. And groups of schools have the financial clout to employ high level financial and business management expertise to help them plan budgets and identify areas for savings.

So, the next five years offer exciting opportunities for collaboration to make a reality of school-led improvement across the system. However, if a collaborative approach is to deliver these outcomes then school leaders will need to adopt the habits and implement the disciplines of effective partnership. For example, school groups will need to understand scale and how to use small clusters led by executive leaders to realise the value that deep partnership can bring. They will need to link clusters to the resources, expertise and learning available through a TSA, federation and/or academy chain.

Effective collaboration involves hard accountability – structures and systems for holding each school to account for progress and performance and measures for assessing the impact of partnership activity. Governance of TSAs and academy trusts must be clearly structured and populated with able people who understand their role – whether that is at school or a wider partnership level – and who are supported in carrying it out. Achieving a balance between hierarchy and networking is another vital discipline; chains need to avoid erring on the side of hierarchy and TSAs need to make sure they do not just rely on networking.

The next five years could and should see a move towards all schools being part of a local school improvement cluster. Ideally there will be a diversity of structural models – no ‘one size fits all’. In some areas this approach is already well under way and in others it needs kick-starting or nurturing. School groups need to be steered and supported along a path to become mature and capable hubs of improvement. In due course all school improvement groups might be accredited.

Some will interpret a self-improving system as implying there is no need for local authorities or regional schools commissioners. That is naïve – and at variance with how things tend to work in high performing education systems. We need a means to ensure that there is a shared vision for improving education in each area, that every child has a school place, that the needs of vulnerable children are looked after, that no school gets left behind or left out of being part of a school improvement group, that schools are challenged to work together effectively, that weak or declining performance is quickly identified and corrected, that data and knowledge are moved across schools and that there is accountability to local communities.

In a self-improving system the issue is not the existence of some form of middle tier but creating the right culture to make it successful, by employing leaders with high-level people skills to key positions and working with and using school leaders to help carry out its roles. And it should be one system for all schools in an area – not one for academies and one for maintained schools.

So individual schools would be part of a local cluster, that in turn was part of a TSA or multi-academy trust, that in turn was part of a sub-regional system for recruiting and training teachers and developing leaders. This approach could yield a rich harvest: more even rates of improvement, a sustainable model of school leadership and improvement, a better equipped and developed workforce, a rebalancing of the inspection system so that it focused more on development and less on grading and school leaders playing a major role in shaping and running the education system.

Are schools leaders confident enough to drive this agenda? Or will they wait to be told what to do?

Are school leaders sufficiently committed to working with each other to improve the system? Or will they, along with the leaders of multi-academy trusts, retreat into competing baronies as financial constraints bite and they vie for pupils and teachers?

The next 5 years: 10 challenges for school leaders

A new government with fresh enthusiasm for pushing its policies further is not the only challenge that school leaders face over the next five years. The ageing teaching population, the rise in pupil numbers and the implacable forward march of technology would have substantial impacts under any government. In this blog, the first of two based on my lecture for the London Centre in Leadership in Learning on 19th May, I describe 10 challenges facing school leaders over the next five years. It’s a pretty formidable list.

  1. The rise in pupil numbers. By 2020 there will be 650,000 more pupils in the school system than there are today as the pupil bulge continues in the primary sector and starts to feed through into secondary schools. Finding (and funding) the extra forms of entry and commissioning new schools will be hard enough for local authorities but will be made harder because of the fragmented nature of the planning process. 250,000 of the new places are to come via the 500 free schools that the Conservatives have promised – although this implies that free schools would only be approved in locations where places are needed. In addition their manifesto also said that all good schools (including free schools and grammar schools) would be allowed to expand. Stitching together these elements to ensure every child has a place is going to be demanding unless local authorities are given a say in the establishment and expansion of free schools and popular schools.
  1. Teacher recruitment. Stories and surveys abound about the problems schools are having in recruiting sufficient teachers. Over the past three years 6,000 fewer teachers have been trained than the government planned for and the number of teacher applicants holding an offer at the end of April 2015 was down by 3,300 compared with a year before. Maths, physics and languages are among the subjects where there are particular recruitment pressures. This throws into sharp relief the government’s pledge to train an extra 17,500 maths and physics teachers. Questions remain about the coherence and effectiveness of different pathways into teaching and cynics are convinced that the government will use shortages to encourage more use of unqualified teachers.
  1. Growing the leadership pipeline. A great school system requires excellent leaders. Around 10,000 heads, deputies and assistant heads are aged 55 and over and many will be retiring over the next few years. Filling headship vacancies is already a particular challenge in the primary sector and the threat of replacing heads of schools deemed to be ‘Requiring Improvement’ will almost certainly provide a further disincentive for people to apply. The National College for Teaching and Leadership is all but defunct and questions remain over whether the licensing model for leadership development will continue. Meanwhile, the DfE seems to be stepping into the breach with national schemes such as Talented Leaders.
  1. Funding constraints. The Conservatives plan to protect spending per pupil – including the extra pupils coming into schools – but without allowing for the impact of inflation. The Institute of Fiscal Studies calculates that this will, when combined with pension and National Insurance changes and likely increases in salaries, amount to a 12% cut in schools budgets over the next four of five years. The Pupil Premium will also be protected at current rates but no guarantees have been given for post 16 funding – which has already been hard hit. It’s not clear whether the new government will press ahead with a single funding formula for schools or what will happen if schools and academies start running up big deficits.
  1. Curriculum and assessment change. Arguably this is the biggest area of challenge with the introduction of a baseline assessment for 4 year olds, new SATs at Key Stage (KS) 2, compulsory resits for those not reaching Level 4, new curricula and GCSEs at KS4, a requirement for all pupils to take the Ebacc subjects, and new A level syllabuses and exams – not to mention a big rise in apprenticeships. This level of change requires schools to make a huge and sustained investment in teacher development particularly as it can take four or five years for teachers to fully embed curriculum change in the classroom.
  1. Accountability measures. The primary, secondary and post 16 sectors are all due to have new performance reporting regimes with the design of the Progress 8 framework for reporting GCSE outcomes proving particularly contentious. The changes, when linked with new grading structures, will have the downside – often overlooked by politicians – of making comparisons over time much more difficult. Inspection and performance measures for academy groups are also set to become the norm and in September 2015 Ofsted is introducing a revised inspection framework – which if history is anything to go by is unlikely to be the last!
  1. Improving attainment. The latest information from the OECD suggests that the overall performance of schools in England is average, or just above, compared with other jurisdictions. We are certainly not world-beaters. So the challenge to improve outcomes will continue – particularly for disadvantaged students. While some schools are closing gaps in attainment between free school meals’ pupils and other pupils, the gap remains stubbornly large. Set against a backdrop of child poverty rising in the years to 2020 it looks a tall order to expect schools alone to carry the main burden of promoting social mobility.
  1. Impact of technology. Schools vary enormously in the extent to which they are harnessing technology effectively to support learning. Research by Ofcom suggests that we hit our peak confidence and understanding of digital communications and technology when we are in our mid-teens. It drops gradually up to our late 50s and then falls rapidly from 60 and beyond. This surely reinforces the challenge to enable and empower students to co-design with teachers in a disciplined way how they learn and acquire knowledge. The potential for technology to support teachers working with teachers is also woefully underdeveloped.
  1. Managing mission creep. In 2010 the coalition government said they wanted to focus schools on their core mission of educating young people – and the Ofsted inspection regime was pared back accordingly. But since then a whole range of new expectations have been placed on schools: keeping children safe and preventing sexual exploitation, reducing obesity, ensuring mental wellbeing, promoting British values (and preventing extremism), developing personal and employment skills as well as knowledge and providing childcare. School leaders could be forgiven for being confused about the scope of their role – and this confusion in turn belies a lack of consensus in society about what education is for.
  1. Maturing the self-improving system. The rhetoric is all about groups of schools and school leaders being in the driving seat in leading improvement. But the role of school leaders in facilitating support, development and leadership of the system sits alongside the respective responsibilities of local authorities, regional schools commissioners and teaching school councils. Different roles are being exercised by different players in different parts of the country. The challenge must be to create a more coherent middle tier strategy. The Conservative government’s instinct will be to create more academy trusts, even though there is not much difference in performance when you look at the distribution of schools within local authority ‘control’ and compare it with those in multi-academy trusts.

This is a fairly daunting set of challenges – and does not even include issues such as creating high qualify careers advice for all young people or the doubling of early years provision for three to five year olds. Some school leaders may feel a sense of foreboding about the months and years ahead. However, in my second blog – which will be posted on 20th May – I’ll go on to argue that there are also big opportunities for school leaders, if they have the vision, commitment and discipline to seize them.

Balancing the building blocks

I enjoyed reading Sam Freedman’s blog ‘What should we have put in the White Paper?’* He argued that it should have been built more round key principles so that it read less like a laundry list of policies.

Sam suggested that there were three core building blocks for developing a self-improving school led system – namely autonomy, accountability and capacity building. I am not sure Sam’s analysis entirely hits the mark as there were at least two other design principles underpinning the 2010 White Paper. The impact of those principles is still very much with us five years down the line.

First, competition, choice and diversity have been explicit elements of the coalition government’s education strategy. The significance of this driver has been to the fore this week in the argument about the expansion of free schools and the somewhat dubious claim that they have helped raise standards in surrounding schools. A belief that greater diversity of schooling linked to increased parental choice helps sharpen school performance is not confined to just those on the right of the political spectrum.

Nor is competition just limited to attracting pupils and students or positions in performance tables. Increasingly heads are telling me about the competition to recruit  teachers. Chains see themselves as competing against other chains and even teaching school alliances (TSAs) are offering competing school improvement and leadership programmes and packages

However, competitive pressures are not just negative in their impact: they have their upsides as well as their downsides. They can stimulate innovation, make schools more responsive and – given the right leadership – put them on their mettle to sharpen up their act.

Second, the development of system leadership and improvement was also a strong theme in the 2010 White Paper. The growth of academy chains and TSAs – and the associated expansion of NLEs, LLEs, and introduction of specialist leaders of education and national leaders of governance accelerate a strategy started by the last government. The Tory wing of coalition may not have started off as big believers in school-to-school support but structured collaboration has taken root as a driver of school improvement in many areas. It is this element that provides the means to deliver the all-important capacity building identified in the Sam Freedman blog.

However, for me the key question – which Sam also alludes to – is the relative weight that will be given to the various principles or drivers. In the next parliament. Will these various principles be appropriately balanced, as the first diagram below illustrates?

Drivers of improvement1

Or will, as the second chart shows, one principle be elevated above the others and effectively drive how the school system operates? For example:

  • Will accountability continue to be too dominant a force and so skew and undermine the intention behind collaboration because inspection and performance tables focus only on individual schools?
  • Will the growth of cluster working and academy groups be driven by defensive considerations (‘We don’t want to be gobbled up by a predator chain’) rather than a vision of pupils can benefit from schools working together?
  • How can the accountability framework be adapted to maintain rigour while promoting a development rather than a compliance culture?
  • Will tighter funding settlements intensify the pressure on schools to maximise the numbers of bums of seats – even if this at the expense of other local schools?
  • Can other incentives counter the competitive pressures for groups of schools to hoard rather than share their knowledge and understanding?
  • Is it possible for groups of schools in an area to all end up being run by the same sponsor, federation or cluster without limiting parental choice?
  • How can we minimise the risk of some multi-academy trusts emphasising uniformity to the exclusion of innovation?
  • What levers are appropriate for those TSAs (and MATs and federations) that are ineffective practitioners of collaboration and capacity building?

driver of improvement 2

Getting the right balance between the various drivers of improvement is not easy. However, the starting point has to be for the next government – in partnership with school leaders – to develop a shared vision of how it sees school improvement growing over the next five years. And then considering how the various policy levers need to be adapted to meet that objective.

* See http://samfreedman1.blogspot.co.uk Saturday 7th March

Leadership of great pedagogy

I am a big fan of pictures and charts. They help to summarise your thinking and to tell a story. So here are three charts that are taken from one of eight reports that NCTL published on 24th February 2015 on the theme of developing and leading great pedagogy*. The reports summarise the learning that has been taking place over the last two years across a range of teaching school alliances (TSAs) as schools have worked together around different research projects that have all been designed to improve teaching and learning.

The first chart below shows in a conceptual form the challenge that one of the strands of the project was set up to address: how to link and lead improvement of teaching and learning across groups of schools. How can schools work together in a way that both addresses the specific needs of their individual institutions while stimulating new learning between schools and, crucially, generalising that learning within a teaching school alliance? If a school-led system is to really take root we have to ensure that progress is more than just a patchwork quilt of unconnected advances within individual institutions. Undertaking action research on a joint basis can potentially lead to co-constructing and spreading new knowledge more quickly. It can also help us to understand what is replicable irrespective of context and which factors need to be adjusted to reflect the particular needs and circumstances of a school. But organising and leading such projects is far from straightforward.

Leadership at 3 levels

The second chart summarises the findings and identifies key leadership issues for three groups: those leading research orientated teaching and learning projects; the senior leadership team of a school where some of the staff are participating in action research; and the leaders of a teaching school alliance. The report explains the thinking behind each of the findings but if I had to draw out one issue from each of the three headings in the chart it would be as follows:

  • Leadership of project – empower middle leaders. A number of the projects really started to fly when senior leaders let go and let faculty or subject leaders run with the initiative. As one senior described: “Initially by directing and leading the project personally and planning too much myself there was too little buy-in and understanding. As soon as I passed the planning design and review to the middle leaders delivering the sessions the project moved forward much more quickly and the shared ownership at middle leader level in schools created additional understanding of the objectives throughout schools. Essentially, directed work from senior leaders does not always work.”
  • Leadership within school – focus on development rather than assessing performance. A key learning point for the many of the senior and middle leaders was recognising the importance of using a non-judgemental approach and prioritising development over judgements when working on projects that involve classroom observations and teacher-to-teacher development activity of pedagogical skills.  
  • Leadership of an alliance – work to clear strategic priorities. This may sound like an obvious point. However, some TSAs have a business plan or strategy that exists alongside streams of initiatives that do not always reflect the priorities the alliance has supposedly espoused. That may be because the alliance is not sufficiently listening or understanding the needs of its partner schools, or it may be because projects get underway without sufficient thought being given to whether and how they will deliver what the TSA is trying to focus on. Classroom-based learning projects between schools are much more likely to be successful if alliance leaders can see how the work will address key issues facing their schools. They are then in a position to commission, champion and support a project and hold project leaders to account for progress and impact. It’s all part of the programmes and activity of TSAs becoming more mainstream and less of an optional add-on to the development of their member schools.

Leadership of great pedagogy

The third chart summarises the skills that school leaders will need if they are to be effective in leading learning across TSAs. I first developed this chart for my 2008 book for ASCL on leading school partnerships ‘Achieving more together’. Simon Rea and I have now adapted the graphic in the light of the insights of leaders involved in the action research projects. The bullet points in the middle of the chart lists the range of skills that are integral to leadership in any context. The list on the left emphasises some of the particular skills needed in leading an individual school while the list on the right highlights those skills that are more likely to be the fore when leading learning across groups or partnerships of schools. The lists are not mutually exclusive but bring out the need for senior leaders involved in leading partnerships to demonstrate what might be termed a softer range of attributes if they are to make TSAs the engines of great pedagogy.

Leadership skills

*See Research Report 443F (and accompanying case studies) RR 443G: Rea, S., Sandals, L., Parish, N., Hill, R., and Gu, Q.. (2015) Leadership of great pedagogy in teaching school alliances: NCTL final report,Teaching schools R&D network national themes project 2012-14, DfE. The reports can be accessed at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/research-and-development-network-leadership-of-pedagogy-report

Improving schools outside the big cities

On 29th January IPPR hosted a roundtable discussion on how we should be driving school improvement outside of the big cities in England – particularly in rural and coastal areas. I was asked to be one of the speakers who kicked off the debate. We were given four questions to address:

  • Which policies are best suited to driving school improvement outside of big cities, such as in rural and coastal areas?
  • How have schools outside of big cities fostered collaboration and improvement partnerships?
  • How can schools in more remote areas attract high performing teachers?
  • What incentives and structures are needed to ensure that all schools collaborate with each other?

I opened by arguing that although there were some significant differences between developing school improvement strategies within and beyond cities, there were also some aspects in common. Therefore, the starting point ought to be to look at what we know about making system-wide improvement across localities. I drew on work for my 2012 report for the RSA on The missing middle the case for school commissioners* to highlight 10 lessons on leading area-wide improvement.

1.Reform is led at a regional or sub-regional level

2.There is clear strategic leadership and accountability – based on a democratic mandate and strong moral purpose

3.Dedicated resources, school leaders, strategies, curriculum, LAs, employers and other agencies are aligned to support the strategy

4.Reforms empower and develop school leaders

5.Partners understand and agree on their respective roles

6.Strategies combine hard and soft interventions but target struggling schools and improving classroom teaching

7.Strategies build the capacity of the system to support itself

8.Data tracking and comparative data support improvement

9.Reform evolves over time – there are different phases

10.The programme is given time to deliver improvement

Based on my experience of  developing reform strategies in Wales, undertaking research in Lincolnshire and supporting partnerships in other counties I had a slide addressing each of the four questions in turn:

Which policies are best suited to driving school improvement outside of big cities, such as in rural and coastal areas? Draw on the 10 strategies above with particular reference to:

  • Making an honest appraisal of the status quo (strengths/weaknesses) & drivers of failure
  • Developing a vision and strategy grounded in the needs and context of the area
  • Really engaging key partners – school leaders, councils, teachers, employers, HE, FE, parents and governors – doing improvement with, not to, them
  • Thinking about implications for the curriculum, progression routes and broader education offer
  • Using high calibre Challenge Advisers (including the best local headteachers) to diagnose issues & broker support
  • Bringing in school-based improvement expertise from outside the area
  • Developing the skills of middle leaders
  • Improving classroom practice – ITP/OTP and teaching core skills
  • Tackling systemic failure- including leadership and governance

How have schools outside of big cities fostered collaboration and improvement partnerships?

  • Three models: Geographical clusters – particularly in rural areas; hard school improvement clusters, federations and multi academy trusts etc; and soft school improvement clusters such as teaching school alliances and curriculum support networks
  • These models are not mutually exclusive – schools will probably belong to at least two types of cluster
  • Partnership needs steering, nurturing, enabling and facilitating to ensure no school is left behind and partnerships mature – ideally this is best done by a local authorities that understands its new more strategic role in school improvement
  • Executive leadership is important in all models (and can generate savings)
  • Technology can play an import role in partnering in rural areas

How can schools in more remote areas attract high performing teachers? There is no magic bullet but:

  • Develop an area-wide ITT approach/curriculum in partnership with universities, SCITTs and teaching school alliances
  • Use high performing schools as the ‘front of house’ for recruiting to School Direct
  • Use Teach First
  • Use financial incentives
  • Use clusters as a recruitment pool – linked to cluster-wide contracts
  • Formalise and promote a CPD offer
  • Highlight quality of life benefits of living in coastal/rural area

What incentives and structures are needed to ensure that all schools collaborate with each other?

  • Set out clear partnership strategy and pathway following dialogue with heads, governors and dioceses
  • Offer start-up funding based on meeting key conditions
  • Route support/services through clusters – i.e. make clustering mainstream
  • Provide seedcorn funding for JPD/R&D programmes on cluster basis
  • Link leadership development programmes to cross-cluster deployments
  • Devolve special needs funding to clusters
  • Use vacancies and poor performance to create executive heads and hard clusters
  • Enable clusters to learn from each other (particularly on enabling staff to work with each other across schools)
  • Look at the performance of clusters as well as individual schools
  • Challenge schools and partnerships where necessary

Four reservations and a welcome

Yesterday (19/01/15) was a busy day for us education policy wonks. We had the new headteacher standards, the long-awaited result of the Carter Review on Initial Teacher Training. Both documents are good pieces of work and in general I welcome what they are saying and the direction in which they they are taking our education system. However, both reports include missed opportunities.

Take the new headteacher standards. They are clear and well written and feel grounded in the reading of leading and running a school. Also welcome is the inclusion of a ‘domain’ of standards on the role of headteachers in creating and supporting a self-improving school system. But, and here comes my first comment or reservation. the standards seem to be complied on the assumption that a headteacher is running an individual stand alone school. In a self-improving school system we are increasingly seeing different models: executive heads overseeing two or three schools or a head of school working to an executive head. We have schools coming together to support teacher other, either for a specific purpose or period – and sometimes permanently. We have head and schools who see their school improvement model in the context of being part of an overarching teaching school alliance or academy trust strategy for improvement. And we have groups of school that define their mission by improving educational outcomes for all school and pupils in their locality. The standards don’t capture the dynamics of what is now developing in many parts of the school system.

Does this omission or oversight matter? Yes, I think it does because we have a long way to go to communicate to and convince governors and parents that different leadership (and governance) models are to be expected and welcomed in a self-improving system.

My second comment relates to the standard that expects headteachers to:

“Challenge educational orthodoxies in the best interests of achieving excellence, harnessing the findings of well evidenced research to frame self-regulating and self- improving schools”

I hope that this statement will encourage heads to look more critically at the evidence on setting of pupils – as highlighted by the OECD in its report (also published on 19th January) on the progress of educational reform in England**

The Carter review on ITT*** also has lots to welcome. I support the concept of having a core curriculum. I like the emphasis on the development of subject knowledge and the understanding of child development. Basic skills relating to classroom behaviour are covered as are the need to develop consistency and excellence in assessment practice. It was also welcome to see the recognition that universities and schools need to work in partnership to deliver a high quality ITT offer.

One key issue was, however, ducked. The amount of content that Carter is expecting to cram into the ITT year is not realistic. In part he recognises this by saying that ITT is ‘Initial’ training and that the first year should be a prelude to further development. For example, the review calls for “funded in-service subject knowledge enhancement courses to be made available for primary teachers”. But would it not have been better to have more explicit about seeing the ITT, the NQT and NQT+1 years as a continuum? Although teachers could be licensed to practise after their initial year would it not invest QTS with greater meaning if it were actually not awarded until new entrants were proficient in all the elements of the curriculum that Carter has identified – i.e. at the end of the third rather than the first year? Such an approach to QTS could also amass credits towards a Masters. Without this change I am not sure we will see a step change in the proficiency and professionalism of our new teachers.

However, the reality is that even had Carter had made such a recommendation it  is unlikely that it would have been accepted because the government, in its response to the review****, could not even agree with giving greater prominence to QTS rather than PGCE. The most astounding, although honest, sentence in the government’s response was this:

“The two coalition parties have different positions on this recommendation. Therefore the Government cannot take this recommendation forward”

Clearly the coalition government has given up any attempt to resolve outstanding policy differences – so it is just as well there is an election coming!

My final reservation also relates to the government response to Carter. A pity that the government’s plans to support the development of teachers’ subject knowledge are, at this point, confined to “maths, physics, chemistry, modern languages, computing and primary maths”. The humanities and arts again overlooked – the government’s list reinforces a narrow and utilitarian view of education.

* https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-standards-of-excellence-for-headteachers

** See http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/jan/19/education-school-reforms-children-oecd

*** https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/carter-review-of-initial-teacher-training

**** https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/initial-teacher-training-review

To partner or not to partner: it’s a no-brainer question for Ofsted

I spend a lot of my time working with school leaders on developing their partnership, teaching school alliance or academy trust. The most frequent question I get asked – especially when schools are at the early stage of thinking about working with other schools – is, “How do I convince my governors that my school won’t lose out if we start supporting or engaging with another school?” The subtext to the question being that governors are worried about the performance of ‘their’ school if the head and/or some of the best teachers begin to spend some of their time and energy supporting other institutions.

Dig beneath the headlines and this week’s Ofsted report contains some interesting insights that are relevant to this question. Essentially Ofsted is arguing that schools that work just within their own bubble are exposing themselves to risk. Ofsted’s examination of the factors that cause schools to decline from outstanding or good to requires improvement or inadequate found that:

“The main problem common to these schools was that the headteacher, who in several cases had recently left, had allowed the school to lose focus on quality – schools had simply drifted along and become out of date. Often, they had not kept up with developments in education and were not challenged sufficiently by governors or their senior team. In several schools, a powerful headteacher had resisted external intervention and also restricted the development of promising senior and middle leaders.”

In short these schools had become closed rather than open institutions. The same trend comes through in Ofsted’s analysis of converter academies: “Too many are working in isolation”. Half of all academies are not part of a multi-academy trust and are “not doing enough to build networks with other schools”. Academies that experienced a sharp fall in inspection grade last year revealed that:

“Most had not made any arrangement for external support and challenge until it was too late and serious decline had set in. The academies in question had an overly optimistic view of their current position.”

Even where some academies were involved in collaboration it was sometimes as a means to “pool resources and save money, rather than as a way of driving up standards”.

Partnership may not be the complete answer to mitigating these risks but there is a strong case for arguing that schools involved in effective collaboration would be less susceptible to them. Ofsted underlines this by providing not just a negative rationale for school partnership, but also including evidence for the positive reasons for doing so. And, significantly for a body that has often been behind the curve in understanding school-to-school working, the report demonstrates an understanding that such partnership is very often multi-dimensional.

“There are examples of schools, particularly primaries, that are now involved in more than one collaboration. Typically, these provide different types of school-to-school support, such as being part of a teaching school alliance, collaborating with a local secondary school or buying business services from another school. These different types of relationship can all benefit schools through sharing of resources and expertise, giving the schools more scope to succeed than would be possible if they worked in isolation.”

Crucially Ofsted emphasises that the partnership dividend applies to a school that already considers itself strong or high performing. Governors should note that collaboration brings benefits not just to the school that a head and other leaders may be supporting, “but to their own school, enriching their staff and the quality of teaching.” I would add to that list that it also aids and accelerates leadership development within the home school.

However, before I am accused of being all dewy-eyed about school-to-school working we also need to note two cautionary notes flagged up by Ofsted that pose challenges for school partnerships.

First, Ofsted notes the limited impact of governor reviews, that the inspectorate recommends when schools are identified as having weak governance. In my experience school partnerships too often bypass or ignore the development of governors. But just as teachers in different schools gain from planning, working with, observing and coaching each other, so can school governors. Sitting on each other’s governor’s meetings, examining how governance practices work in different schools, undertaking joint governor development and peer reviewing each other’s schools are all options that could and should be added to the partnership menu. Governors, every bit as much as school leaders and teachers, need to see and experience what high quality supportive and challenging governance looks like.

Second, partnerships do not of themselves automatically add value. They can be flabby as well as effective. Ofsted observes how many academies that had improved their grade from good to outstanding “had retained external advisers to inform the debate between headteacher and governors about accurate self-evaluation. This injected a crucial reality check to the conversation”.

That principle also applies to school partnerships. Schools working together may lack a sharp cutting edge or at worst become too cosy with each other. While schools may be comfortable in flagging up areas of development for their peers in a partnership to work on, it requires high trust and a really mature collaboration to agree mechanisms that could, for example trigger intervention in one of the schools. Partnerships may also not be as rigorous as they should be in assessing the impact of their joint work together. Using external advisers – often in tandem with peer assessment – can help to keep partnerships honest.

In many ways it is ironic but welcome that at the end of a Parliament which started out with a focus on individual schools and academies we have ended up with an emphasis on partnership, school clusters, federations and multi-academy trusts. The job for schools, policy makers and politicians in the next Parliament will be to sustain the momentum and bring coherence to the efforts to build a self-improving school system.

10 survival principles for school leaders

This blog is by popular demand – well sort of!

On 5th November I was with leaders from the Derby Teaching School Alliance talking about the thinking behind the government’s government’s reforms over the past five years and using my crystal ball to describe some of the challenges they were likely to face over the next five. As well as outlining the key features of a Conservative or Labour-led  education programme, I also talked about the funding, poverty and technology challenges coming down the road and how they might impact on schools.

The final section of the presentation suggested 10 survival principles for school leaders given the volume and intensity of change that they are having to manage. The principles are an updated version of some work I first did for ASCL back in 2007 in a little book called Leadership that lasts. A number of people on Twitter and some of those present in the room have asked me to share the principles. So here we go.

You can find the slides for 10 principles here http://www.tagmydoc.com/dl/129RPm/gq25 and below I briefly explain what I mean by each of them.

1. Understand what is happening and why. A key role of school leaders is to explain to their governors and staff why they are having to make change. Leaders may not always or even often agree with reforms they are having to make or policies they are having to introduce but it is always a good idea to understand the thinking that has led to the change. In my experience people feel less ‘done to’ and swamped by change if they are able to engage in the rationale for it. So leaders need to spend a bit of time each week reading a journal or an education blog that will help them keep abreast of current education thinking. Part of a school leader’s job is to help interpret what is happening in the world to those for whom she or he is responsible.

2. Stay rooted in your values and moral purpose. Remember why you came into teaching and what you wanted to achieve when you first moved into a leadership role. Focus on the interests and life chances of your pupils and their families and be constantly inspired and re-invigorated by them. I found it encouraging to see how the Derby Teaching School Alliance has thought through its values and vision and is trying to keep them at the forefront of its thinking in its work.

3. Always have a game plan. The key to managing change effectively is not to be pushed around by external factors. Leaders need a strategy that is right for their school – into which change and externally imposed ‘most-dos’ then fit. The crucial skill for school leaders is to identify when they have extracted most value from their existing strategy and need to change tack to keep their school moving forward (see slide 4). And, as the recent work on outstanding primary leadership led by Peter Matthews has so ably highlighted, the game plan will vary according to where a school is on its improvement journey (see slide 5).

4. Grasp nettles firmly. It’s an obvious point but most hard issues don’t get any easier for being put off. Whether the challenge relates to funding, pupil progress and attainment, staff performance, school behaviour or quality of governance the best leaders will act decisively as soon as they see an issue needs to be addressed.

5. Be open to new ways of working. Externally imposed reform forces us to reconsider and adapt. That is often a good thing – it can help to stimulate innovation and creativity. For example, one of the issues raised at the Derby conference was the growing encouragement for schools to collaborate but the lack of resources to facilitate this. As finances tighten things are not likely to get any easier in this respect. But we don’t have to organise the curriculum and PPA time as we have always organised it – or employ or deploy teaching assistants in the way that we have always done. Schools – including some small primaries in rural areas – are demonstrating how through reassigning roles, reorganising timetables and using technology they can use collaboration to drive improvement in the classroom.

6. Work through structured collaboration. This follows on directly from the previous point. Schools working in clusters – under the umbrella of a teaching school alliance, academy chain, federation or other other formally structured partnership – is the future. You need to be on someone’s team. Yes, there are issues of within-school variation to address but schools are more likely to learn and grow by working with others – especially (the evidence suggests) when there is clear executive leadership to drive, co-ordinate and account for the impact of cross-school working.

7. Stay focused on instructional leadership. The temptation when there is so much change swirling around is for school leaders to retreat into their office and meetings with senior colleagues. The mark of an effective school leader is to ensure there are people and systems able to manage new demands (often much easier if managing change is shared across schools) and stay focused on the quality of the teaching and learning in the classroom. Sometimes, as slide 8 illustrates, this will mean taking an overview of performance though drop-ins and analysing data (sitting in the stands), sometimes it may involve coaching of leaders and staff (on the touchline), sometimes it will require leading development sessions (on the training pitch) and sometimes it mean encouraging a colleague who has had a bad day or week.

8. Empower middle leaders. We know that schools and partnerships that make the most rapid change have equipped and empowered their middle leaders to be the engine room of improvement. I have just come to the end of helping to facilitate an action research project for the National College for Teaching and Leadership on leadership of great pedagogy. One of the key lessons from that is the power of releasing and then supporting middle leaders to lead learning – both within schools and between schools.

9. Embrace joint practice development. Collaboration that is really powerful is centred on improving classroom practice through supporting teachers to work with and learn from each other. Whether that is done through a coaching model, working together on schemes of work and lesson plans, peer-to-reviews and learning walks, lesson study, action research or the deployment of SLEs is less important than the principle of aligning formal and subject specialist training with improving practice in the classroom.

10. Communicate, communicate, communicate. John Dunford, a former head and general secretary of ASCL, used to say that school leadership was about 90% communication. I am not sure of the evidence basis for this – but I know exactly what he is getting at. Leadership is about motivating and engaging the team – including pupils, parents and governors – to come with you on the improvement journey. So communicating your expectations (your vision) and your plan for how you are going to get there (strategy) and explaining  why change – whether it is being internal or external driven – are vital. As politicians know reinforcing key messages is essential – keep on explaining and explaining. And, of course, communication has to be two-way – listening to feedback and ideas and adjusting the game plan where necessary.

Primary Focus is on target

Primary Focus* could be viewed as just another report from another think tank about the future of education. But in my view it is more significant than this.

The report calls for all primary schools to be ‘spun’ out from their local authority and for them to choose an academy chain to join.

I can hear the groans all round the staff rooms: yet more policy wonks proposing yet more structural upheaval. That is a perfectly reasonable reaction – and the onus is on those proposing the upheaval to justify it convincingly.

But I think Policy Exchange has made that case. The report argues that moving all primary schools into being part of a formal (academy) grouping represents:

“The best way in which to drive greater strategic capacity and capability in the primary sector. It achieves this by establishing collaborative practices around teaching and learning, by supporting teachers and individual school leaders to focus on what happens in classrooms, and by supporting a culture of continuous improvement and development. In turn, these actions improve outcomes.”

I have been arguing this cause for some years – but that’s not the only reason I welcome the report. The report is significant because it is written by grown-ups. What I mean by that is that although the report originates from Policy Exchange – a right of centre think tank – its recommendations take account of thinking and proposals coming from the Labour Party and others in the education world. The report is not partisan or ideological but draws on thinking from a number of quarters to confront an issue that has been fudged and fumbled (by governments of both parties) for too long.

So although under the proposals primary schools would become separate from local authorities, LAs can choose to set up their own arms length chain or learning trust (echoing some of the thinking in the Blunkett report prepared for Tristram Hunt).

The report recognises that the process of creating a network of primary chains will require steering and joining up – either by Regional Schools Commissioners or – with another nod in the direction of Labour thinking – Directors of Schools Standards.

The report allows schools to change chains – another idea that has been gaining currency. But again there are sensible conditions that would avoid destabilising chains.

The report is mature enough to accept that academy chains do not have the monopoly of wisdom and are not the only school improvement game in town. So the continuing complementary role of teaching of teaching school alliances is also affirmed.

If I have an issue with the report it is the chapter that strives mightily to try and show how structures beget standards. For myself I think the evidence on the performance of academies and academy chains is, at this stage, stretched too far. For me the better argument to make is that we know that school-to-school collaboration can deliver great value and we need to focus more on understanding the conditions that make for effective collaboration. Formalised accountability arrangements and executive leadership – which are what academy trusts provide – are important and necessary but by themselves are not sufficient drivers of successful school partnerships.

So while seeking to create an infrastructure that will result in the creation of primary school chains across England we should also attend to the other preconditions for the successful development and operation of academy chains. And that thought provides a further incentive for me to write the next section of the page of my blog dedicated to effective academy chains**!

* http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/publications/category/item/primary-focus

** See http://roberthilleducationblog.com/academy-chains/

Gove’s end of term report

It has been an interesting period to have Michael with us. He has brought lots of enthusiasm and fresh ideas. Introducing free schools, enabling primary schools to become academies, reworking the accountability system for secondary schools and giving heads and governors more say in the performance management of their staff all demonstrated a boldness of thinking. His passionate commitment to social mobility and his espousal of the Pupil Premium were also widely welcomed.

However, Michael must learn to think harder about his plans before rushing to implement them. For example, some of the problems of the helter-skelter expansion of academy chains could have been avoided if he had adopted the checks and balances which his colleague, Lord Nash, has introduced. Free schools would have caused less dissent and represented better value for money if they had always been linked to the pressing demand for school places. Primary academy status from the start should only been available on a cluster of schools rather than individual school basis. School Direct has a lot to commend it as a way of giving schools a greater stake in recruiting and training teachers but its implementation has been fraught with difficulties. What is more in each case Michael was warned in advance about the problems.

Michael rightly challenged us to raise the bar in terms of standards and attainment but he failed to get a balance between equipping students with the skills as well as the knowledge they need to be rounded and successful 21st century citizens.

Although Michael comes from a Conservative family he found it hard to resist the temptation for the state to control everything. From the curriculum, to the content of examinations, to deciding which free schools should be allowed to open, to dictating which schools must become academies Michael has demonstrated a centralising and authoritarian streak. Agencies – such as the National College for School Leadership – that represented an independent voice in education improvement – have been emasculated. Michael’s treatment of Baroness Morgan and the handling of the Birmingham ‘Trojan Horse’ allegations called into question Ofsted’s independence. This statist stance is all the more ironic given Michael’s criticisms of his predecessors.

Michael was very committed to introducing a school system where headteachers and groups of schools led and drove improvement – a self sustaining and improving system was his aim. Academy chains, teaching schools and the expansion of national, local and specialist leaders of education were the vanguard in driving this change. But his failure to incentivise or recognise collaborative working through the inspection and accountability systems and his refusal to enforce partnership on outstanding converter academies undermined his strategic goal. In addition Michael’s stubborn refusal to countenance any significant role for local authorities in steering and joining up the different bits of the school improvement landscape, coupled with the creation of a parallel school commissioner system for overseeing academies, has left us with a fragmented system for securing progress for every pupil in every school. In short Michael tried very hard and produced lots of work. But overall his actions lacked the strategic coherence necessary to deliver his declared objective.

On a personal level Michael has demonstrated considerable personal charm. This skill will stand him in good stead in his new role but he must resist the temptation to patronise those he does not value or agree with. His characterisation of school governors as sherry drinking, cake-slicing, Kumbaya-singing local worthies was not only inaccurate but gratuitously (and unnecessarily) offensive. Such an attitude can be symptomatic of the terminal political disease that comes to afflict many senior politicians – hubris. The political world will be a duller place if Michael succumbs to this condition too soon.