My post earlier this week summarised the findings from the CfBT report on partnership working among small rural primary schools see

Below I have listed from the report the 10 lessons that schools, local authorities and policymakers need to respectively address if partnership  is to become a more systemic and powerful driver of improvement across the primary school system.

Ten lessons for schools

1. Build on existing partnerships and relationships – partnership grows out of partnership.

2. Keep partnerships geographically focused – distance inhibits the frequency and intensity of schools’ joint work.

3. Develop strong headteacher relationships, shared values and commitment by meeting regularly, visiting one another’s schools, phoning and emailing frequently and welcoming new headteachers to a partnership school.

4. Be clear about governance arrangements, funding and accountability, and involve governors in school-to-school development and training.

5. Ensure that the leadership of partnerships reaches down to involve middle leaders and coordinators.

6. Use action plans to prioritise and clarify what partnerships will do together.

7. Focus partnership activity on improving teaching and learning through teacher-to-teacher and pupil-to-pupil engagement and learning – including the use of digital contact between staff and pupils.

8. Focus any dedicated resources on providing dedicated leadership or project management time to organise activity and/or cover transport costs.

9. Be prepared to engage in multi-partnership activity and for the form and membership of partnerships to evolve over time.

10. Monitor and evaluate the impact of partnership activity.

Ten lessons for local authorities

Lincolnshire is far from being the only shire county or local authority to promote partnership programmes. Learning from Lincolnshire and other authorities suggests that effective strategies cover the following ten areas.

1. Provide a clear vision of the future in terms of school-to-school working.

2. Be flexible about the structural arrangements for partnerships but encourage a direction of travel that moves to more structured arrangements – and formalise the arrangement, whatever form it takes.

3. Expand the use of executive headship, using soft influence and hard levers (for example, intervening when schools are failing or struggling to recruit a new headteacher) to reinforce the growth of local clusters and the recruitment and retention of high quality school leaders.

4. Insist on schools agreeing on measures of progress and success – which they track and monitor.

5. Focus any allocation of ring-fenced resources on providing some dedicated leadership or (startup) project management time to coordinate partnership activity and/or cover transport costs.

6. Reinforce a partnership strategy by the way that other policies on areas such as children’s services and place planning are framed and implemented.

7. Use simple practical initiatives to help foster partnership depth – such as time at headteachers’ briefings for cluster heads to work together, appointing the same professional link adviser to all the schools in a partnership and enabling partnerships to jointly procure CPD.

8. Identify headteachers to champion the strategy, build ownership among their peers and provide a guiding coalition for change.

9. Support networking and communication between schools and partnerships through newsletters, micro-websites and conferences.

10. Stick with the initiative – recognising that elements of the programme will evolve and that the full benefit will take time to come through.

Ten lessons for policymakers

1. Set a clear, consistent vision and strategy for primary schools – and small primary schools in particular – to work together in small clusters but without being prescriptive on the form it should

2. Recognise in the way that policies are developed that schools are likely to engage in partnership with other schools on a number of different levels.

3. Affirm the role of local authorities in steering and enabling clusters to develop and grow.

4. Work with faith bodies to encourage and facilitate cross-church/community school partnerships.

5. Aim to develop 3,000–4,000 executive leaders of primary schools and provide a career path and training and development to match this ambition.

6. Encourage governors to work and train together across clusters, and encourage moves towards exercising governance at cluster level through federations, trusts and multi-academy trusts.

7. Reinforce the strategy of cluster working by enabling school forums to allocate lump sums to clusters as well as to individual schools.

8. Communicate the value of partnership working to parents and the wider world in order to provide more support for the efforts of small schools in developing partnerships.

9. Ensure that the accountability regime balances the competitive pressures among schools to recruit pupils with measures that value partnership working.

10. Evaluate the impact of partnership working at national level and provide tools to help schools assess the impact of partnership initiatives.

“The primary responsibility for improvement should rest with schools themselves” – that was the clear underpinning theme of the coalition government’s White Paper in 2010, The importance of teaching.

Many of the policies rolled out over the past four years reflect this philosophy. The growth of existing academy chains, the promotion of new academy sponsors, the roll-out of teaching schools, the expansion in the numbers of national and local leaders of education, the introduction of specialist leaders of education and the development of School Direct are all initiatives designed to strengthen the capacity of schools to support their own improvement.

The challenge of small schools

But relatively little thought has been given to how this agenda affects small primary schools – particularly those in rural areas. Nearly a quarter of the 16,700 primary schools in England have fewer than 150 pupils and 1,400 have fewer than 75.

Small schools bring a range of benefits. For example, leaders and staff know each pupil well and are able to engage regularly with parents about each child’s personal development. In terms of school improvement it is easy for staff to work together to plan curriculum changes and implement improvement strategies. It is also quicker and easier for leaders to know what is happening in every classroom, to identify and resolve problems and ‘pop in’ to help sort things out.

But small schools also have a distinct set of challenges. Recruitment of good senior leaders is hard. Heads often have to spend more time teaching and carrying out administrative tasks, squeezing out time for leading the development of staff. Small schools can also become very isolated and find it difficult to release staff for professional development activity. Evidence also shows that one or two weak teachers has a disproportionate effect in a three- or four-teacher school

The case for partnership clusters

The growth of academisation and the advent of teaching schools will not by themselves address these problems. Although academy groups of small schools can be successful and viable, diseconomy of scale works against this as a solution for the whole sector. Similarly some teaching school alliances are embracing rural schools but the distribution and reach of teaching schools currently falls a long way short of providing a systemic answer.

However, a more obvious straightforward and proven solution is available. For some time I have argued that the government should, as a deliberate act of policy, encourage and incentivise all primary schools to work together in organised local clusters. This would result in the primary sector being led through 4,000 executive heads rather than nearly 17,000 individual school leaders.

A number of local authorities in shire areas have effectively adopted this approach. A research project commissioned by CfBT Education Trust, which I undertook in autumn last year in partnership with NfER, provided an opportunity to see if such strategy was making a difference

The Lincolnshire approach

In Lincolnshire CfBT Education Trust has provided all the school improvement services for the county council since 2002. In 2012 CfBT decided to move from using an opportunistic approach to developing federations and executive headship to a more strategic partnership programme.

After a false start, when it came up with a scheme that school leaders and governors considered was too rigid, CfBT switched to a more enabling strategy. All small schools were grouped in clusters, with each school receiving pump-priming funding of £20,000 when the cluster had agreed its priorities for action and confirmed in a binding written agreement how it was going to work together and govern itself.

Most of the cluster partnerships were informal but there were also some that were more structured, with the schools in federations or primary academy trusts. Partnership activity has included sharing data and information on performance, continuing and joint professional development, developing middle leaders, joint programmes and events for pupils, school business management and governor development.

The trend over time has been towards partnerships working together more deeply. In a number of cases schools are moving from collaborating on ad hoc initiatives to agreeing and working to a shared improvement plan for their schools. There were also examples of schools sharing out the leadership of subjects and specialisms across their schools.

We found that federations and academy trusts were more likely to employ executive heads, deploy staff across schools, have joint leadership teams and use common systems in areas such as data tracking classroom observations and procurement.

In terms of impact, the performance of small rural schools in Lincolnshire has improved significantly over the past two years – as measured by performance in Key Stage 2 tests, the number of primary schools below the government’s floor target and the outcome of Ofsted inspections. Of course, not all of the improvement can necessarily be attributed to partnership work. Schools’ individual efforts and the actions of CfBT on behalf of the local authority have also been instrumental. However, analysis of Ofsted reports and feedback from heads and governors indicates that collaborative effort has also been a strong contributory factor

Partnership working has also been hugely beneficial in two other ways. First, it is developing a sustainable leadership model for small rural schools by providing incentives for the most able leaders to stay working in relatively small schools. They are able to realise their ambitions through taking on the leadership of other schools – rather than moving on to a bigger school after a couple of years. Moreover as heads lead more than one school they are developing, deploying and growing the next generation of leaders.

Second, school governance has benefited from the partnership programme as governors have been able to meet, train together and observe different ways of working.

Lessons for others

The research report identifies how to build on the Lincolnshire approach to make partnership between small schools working a driver for improvement across the school system. You can find the respective 10 lessons for schools, local authorities and policy makers at (, but over the next few days I’ll also post these lessons on this blog.

In the light of the announcement that E-ACT is ‘handing back’ 10 of its academies, there are four important challenges for the DfE and government ministers.

First, will the process for allocating the new schools to new sponsors be open and transparent? The pupils, families and staff in those academies deserve to have the best educational support. Some of the problems with over-rapid expansion of academy chains occurred because the Department appeared to acquiesce in awarding academies to favoured sponsors. The process for the 10 E-ACT academies finding a new home needs to be swift but also robust and open – with a premium on the capacity of sponsors being able to make a real difference to the schools.

Second, what judgement has been made of the longer-term capacity of E-ACT to become an effective academy sponsor. Do the changes leave the chain in a better shape – in terms of the geographical configuration of their academies, their central capacity, their financial health and their school improvement model – to be a more effective chain? Or has E-ACT just lost the schools with which they were struggling the most with the chain still lacking coherence and long-term viability?

Third, in the light of this action in respect E-ACT (and, potentially, AET?) what possible reason is there for not publishing statistics on the performance of academy chains? The government has made much of all the schools data that it has put in the public domain but fails to publish (even though it collates and analyses) the progress and value added by academy chains.

Fourth, will the DfE manage to avoid taking and applying the wrong lessons from the E-ACT experience to other chains? Some of the academies being targeted by the DfE have been academies for a good while and intervention in these cases may well be justified. However, if the Department is too zealous in expecting dramatic improvement there is a risk that it will a) put sponsors off applying to take on some of the toughest schools and b) lead to action action being focused on short term gains rather at the expense of the deeper seated reforms that these schools often need. There needs to be at least a three to five year trajectory for improvement discussed and agreed with  sponsors when they take on a school. And that trajectory should be made public. The criteria for success and the rate of progress to be expected would then be open for all to see. 

However, despite these challenges the problems of E-ACT do not sound the death-knell of academy chains. Chains founded round strong schools with clear geographical coherence, deploying and developing high calibre leaders and practising a shared approach to improving teaching and learning, still represent a good way for the school system to develop. The task is to ensure all chains are developing and working to these sound principles. 

This week Toyota had to issue yet another recall – this time for 1.9 million Prius vehicles. Quite a blow for the company that has the concept of Kaizen – continuous improvement – at the heart of is approach to design and manufacture. Analysts say that Toyota’s problems date back to a decade or so ago when it decided to become the world’s biggest car maker in the world. The company achieved its aim but at the price of running into quality issues.

The successes and travails of Toyota are a long way from the development of academy chains – but there are some parallels.  Those chains that have gone for growth and expanded the most rapidly have been the ones to struggle. The quantity of academies has seemingly trumped the quality of school improvement. In three years some chains went from having ten or a dozen academies in their chain to having 30, 40 or, in one case 70. Not surprisingly they have run into problems. The Department for Education (DfE) is issuing edicts telling chains they have to up their game (particularly in those academies where the chain has failed to make an impact), while Ofsted is inspecting chains with the highest concentration of underperforming academies.

A predictable and predicted scenario

What makes the situation worse is that the problems were not only predictable but were predicted. In the 2012 report on academy chains commissioned by the National College, that I and a group of colleagues from Isos researched, we very clearly identified both the advantages and the risks of academy expansion (see table below).

The advantages of expanding academy chains The risks from expanding academy chains
  • Extends the chain’s impact in terms of raising standards of education for more young people
  • Creates a broader base for developing leaders
  • Increases the scope for sharing learning, subject specialisms, school improvement expertise and CPD
  • Provides more opportunities for staff deployment and promotion within the chain
  • Increases economies of scale in the running of central services and provides greater purchasing power
  • Opens up new opportunities to build new primary/secondary curriculum and transition model
  • Enables central costs to be shared across a larger number of schools
  • Provides a bigger platform for supporting innovation
  • Provides a stronger brand to attract parents and applications for admission
  • Damage to the reputation of the chain as one of the (new) academies gets into difficulties or improvement proves very intractable
  • Too many new schools are taken on at one time and there is insufficient leadership capacity to manage the challenge
  • The chain reacts to having more academies by becoming more bureaucratic and a more rules-based organization
  • Diseconomies of scale start to emerge – for example, communication becomes much harder and it is difficult to keep everyone informed and involved across all the academies in the chain
  • The core infrastructure (central services) becomes overstretched
  • Existing schools in the chain start to slip back as energies are focused on new joiners
  • The growth in the number of academies makes the chain impersonal, eg key senior and middle leaders and staff don’t really know each other

Source: Hill et al, (2012), The growth of academy chains: implications for leaders and leadership, National College for School Leadership

Lessons from US Charter school chains

We also highlighted the experience of Chartered Management Organisations (CMOs – the equivalent of academy chains in the United States) that were being much more cautious in their growth strategies. In the US CMOs considered that opening three to five new schools a year constituted aggressive growth. On average, CMOs with four or more schools were opening no more than one new school a year for the first six years. After seven years of operation, the average pace picked up to approximately two new schools a year. After 10 years they had on average 13 schools in their chain. The rate of growth was slower for smaller CMO chains.

Some academy chains in England – the Cabot Learning Federation and the Outwood academies – have broadly followed that path. Similarly Harris and ARK, although they have grown to having 27 academies each, have done so over a decade or more.

Unregulated growth

The DfE largely ignored the National College report because it was more concerned with expanding the number of sponsored academies. For  nearly three years years after it came to power the government continued to throw schools at the largest sponsors with little assessment of a chain’s capacity to take on schools with demanding and entrenched school improvement challenges. In addition the ‘award’ of schools to chains was, to say the least, an opaque process. One of the common complaints we heard during research for our 2102 study was from chains committed to making a fundamental difference to the schools they took on. They were aggrieved: they felt that they were being penalized when presenting comprehensive plans for dealing with the root cause of a school’s weakness. Governors and local authorities were opting for softer options from chains that were flavor of the month and the DfE was acquiescing in the process.

The most mature chains were wise and confident enough to grow at their own pace and in accordance with their own strategy. They took active steps to manage the risks – and were prepared to say ‘No’ to the Departmental brokers if they felt that a particular academy was not right for their chain.

The chains that went for an aggressive expansion strategy also share the blame for the problems they are now wrestling with. They ignored, as did Michael Gove, the need to create or use geographical clusters as the basis of their expansion. They failed to practise thorough due diligence in terms of bottoming the scale of the liability and challenge of the schools they were taking over.

A change of tack

The  appointment of Lord Nash as academies ministers and the introduction of new advisers in the DfE brought a change of tack. Interestingly the application of lessons from the corporate sector has been at the root of their revised approach. Restrictions have been placed on the further growth of some chains. There is now a much thorough assessment of a chain’s resources and capacity to improve a school before it is allowed to acquire it. There is a much greater emphasis on chains having geographical coherence and strong governance. Grants have been provided to small chains to help them build up their capacity.

Another sensible policy shift has seen the encouragement of a whole plethora of new sponsors – particularly amongst outstanding schools. In other words growing chains through having more of them – rather than creating mega chains. In January 2014 the DfE’s approved academy sponsor list had 558 names on it – most of them schools. Whether the Department is being as rigorous as it should be in assessing and approving sponsors is another matter.

Top tips

Many of these fledgling chains are now looking to grow for the reasons set out in the chart above. But as they seek to do so we need to avoid a repeat of the problems that some of their big brothers have encountered. Here are my top tips for measured academy growth:

  • Be clear about the vision and the core and values of the chain
  • Develop a medium-term business strategy that balances the desire to achieve economy of scale with the capacity to absorb schools into the chain
  • Ensure there is a clear understanding of how to undertake school improvement that is shared across the chain
  • Prioritise the development of teaching and learning across academies in the chain and empower staff and students to lead this – in other words attend to what Jim Collins calls ‘the primary flywheel’ of the chain’s core business
  • Maintain a clear geographical focus and work through clusters of academies of no more than four or five overseen by an executive leader
  • Deploy emerging and senior leaders (and other staff with specific expertise) across academies in order to grow a broad leadership talent pool
  • Recruit high calibre governors – both as directors/trustees of the chain and on local governing bodies
  • Encourage good and outstanding schools that share the chain’s values to join in order to boost the critical mass of school improvement expertise within the chain
  • Track performance closely and intervene early where there are problems
  • Agree the relationship between the corporate centre of the chain and individual academies on the operation of policies and the delivery of  back office functions, systems and services
  • Conduct a thorough due diligence exercise before sponsoring or taking on another school
  • Consider appointing an organisational coach to help the chain mature

Today the National College for Teaching and Learning held a symposium of leaders from academy chains, local authorities, dioceses and teaching school alliances. The focus of the day was on how, in a system that was increasingly school-led, earlier action could be taken to identify and support schools that had weaknesses, were starting to slip back or required urgent intervention. The 50 or so participants debated, through examining live examples from around the country, how the various pieces in a more complex and fragmented school-improvement world could and should fit together.

To kick off the day I outlined seven assertions in terms of what is happening on the development of school partnerships:

  • partnership working covers a broad spectrum – from informal collaboratives to federations and multi-academy trusts that share the same approach to pedagogy;
  • partnerships are dynamic and evolving over time – I endorsed the David Hargreaves hypothesis that there is a relationship between partnership depth and having more formalised partnership structures
  • partnerships are multi-dimensional – and many schools will be involved in several forms of collaborative activity at the same time;
  • The larger partnerships become, be they chains or teaching school alliances, the more they need to organise themselves to function at a cluster as well as at a corporate level;
  • partnerships are increasingly straddling local authority boundaries, but proximity remains vital for successful cluster working;
  • the most effective partnerships are reinforcing a move from continuous professional development to joint practice development as the main means of developing their staff; and
  • partnership provides a range of measurable and real benefits (see box below) provided that partnerships/chains are given time to make an impact and that they are founded on sound principles and structured and run effectively[1].
Improved outputs from partnership working Improved outcomes from partnership working
  • Broader and better range of range professional development
  • New ideas for schemes of work
  • Ready access to specialist expertise
  • Means of addressing areas of weakness
  • Improved staff retention
  • Increased cadre of able school leaders
  • Budget savings
  • Shared view of what constitutes effective pedagogy
  • Better teaching and learning
  • Faster rates of improvement in attainment
  • Higher level of inspection outcomes
  • Better value for money
  • Excellent practice spread more quickly
  • Succession planning taken care of

The main part of the presentation argued for five hypotheses which were debated – and generally endorsed – throughout the day. The hypotheses were:

  1. ‘Knowing’ a school is about more than looking at the data (vital though that is). Understanding performance (in a partnership) is as likely to come from learning walks and shared classroom observations as examining spreadsheets. Indeed the more that ‘challenge’ comes through leaders and teachers jointly planning, observing, reviewing and coaching each other, the faster improvement is likely to take root.
  2. Partnerships with hard governance have a stronger platform for challenging and holding each other to account. But interesting new examples (such as the Bradford Schools’ Partnership) are developing may challenge this hypothesis and could result in it having to be reframed.
  3. Hard-edged school-to-school accountability will take time to develop and become the norm because many schools are not part of effective partnerships; partnership maturity does not take place over night; and the current accountability system does not incentivise shared accountability (unless you are part of a multi-academy trust or federation).
  4. Translating school-to-school led accountability on to a system level will require deep maturity between schools in a locality and with local authorities and dioceses. A few local authorities are showing what is possible by pooling performance information with key school partnerships in their area, co-commissioning or delegating responsibility for improvement to partnerships and in one or two cases using partnerships as their ‘agents’ to know and assess how all schools are performing.
  5. Joining up the system for deploying support is as challenging as identifying who needs it. DfE brokers, the soon-to-be-appointed Regional Commissioners, Ofsted, local authorities chains and teaching school alliances all have their fingers in this pie. Some element of steering or co-ordinating across a locality is needed to ensure that every school is part of an effective partnership and no school is left behind.

The National College will in due course be writing up the discussions and summarising the outcomes of the day.

[1] A discussion of what constitutes effective organissation of school partnerships will have to await a separate blog!

For my sins I have just had to read though some 80 or so Ofsted reports. Once I got past the cut and paste nature of some of the inspectors’ comments (literally whole paragraphs that are identical crop in up some reports) two issues jumped out.

First, the huge number of schools where marking or pupils’ work and the provision of feedback is in adequate. Typical comments include:

  • Marking is inconsistent. It has improved during the year, but it still does not always tell pupils clearly enough what they need to do to improve their work.
  • Making sure marking clearly identifies strengths and areas for improvement and giving pupils time to respond to the feedback given
  • The difference between English and mathematics in the support and guidance for pupils exposes an insufficient amount of monitoring of pupils’ exercise books and inconsistencies in teachers’ implementation of the marking policy in particular.
  • Marking has improved recently, but pupils do not routinely know what they need to do to improve their work from marking or from feedback in lessons to help them make the most progress.
  • Improve achievement by reviewing the systems for the marking of pupils’ work and the setting of targets, to ensure that pupils are consistently given clear guidance on how to improve their work and reach the next step in their learning. 

  • Marking has improved and there is some emerging good practice in the marking of writing. This is not consistent across all classes, nor does it extend to subjects other than English. Even the most constructive marking loses its impact when pupils are not given the opportunity to act on advice on how to improve their work.

It would be unfair to say that this issue featured in every report but it was an extremely frequent occurrence. Nor is the problem explained by the reports I examined being of disproportionately poorly performing schools – they weren’t, though outstanding schools were probably a bit under-represented. In fact the problem is more serious than the comments above might suggest because the second big issue to emerge from my marathon reading session was that inspectors were even more critical of the use of assessment data. These two observations – one analytical and the other exhortatory – illustrate the general weakness:

  • Assessment of progress is not always accurate and so cannot be reliably used by all staff to identify pupils at risk of falling behind and give them extra help 
  • Secure good or outstanding teaching in all lessons by ensuring that all teachers use assessment information effectively to pitch tasks at levels that enable pupils of different ages and abilities to make good progress.

I am not saying anything particularly startling or new  - indeed the Chief Inspector referred to the issue in his last annual report.  Explaining what characterised poor teaching and learning  Sir Michael said:

“Marking is irregular or not detailed enough. Teachers don’t tell pupils how to improve. When they do, the information is too vague or pupils can’t read it. As a result, pupils have little idea about how to improve their work.” – The report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills: Schools, 2011/12.

But how is it that in the 20 years since Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam published their seminal work on formative assessment the school system as a whole has not made more progress on providing better feedback to pupils?

How is it that initial teacher training and professional development are failing to embed key skills?

What is the answer to securing a step-change in practice?

Will School Direct change the culture or just perpetuate and pass on existing bad habits?

Will teaching schools or academy chains prove any more effective in this area?

It’s these issues that practitioners, policy makers and politicians should be addressing rather than constantly fiddling with the examination system.

Here is an extract from a recent letter sent by an HMI following an Ofsted monitoring visit to a school ‘requiring improvement’. After the normal analysis of where progress is being made and where further action is needed, the letter goes on to say:

        “HMI  will offer support through:

  • Brokering links with other similar schools elsewhere in the country to enable collaboration on school improvement
  • Once roles in the re shaped leadership team are established, offering to support the new team in refining the new quality assurances processes
  • Offering to provide some training for governors”

So it’s official: Ofsted are now acting as school improvement brokers and providers of school improvement services. It’s not clear from the letter whether these services are being offered free of charge or whether the school will be charged for them.

Leaving aside Ofsted’s capability to be a school improvement broker this is a worrying development. That may sound somewhat churlish since, it could be argued, the common good is best served by using all effective means available to support struggling schools to improve. However, it strikes at the very heart of Ofsted’s role as an independent regulator.

When Ofsted returns to the school how can it be in a position to assess objectively – and to be seen to be assessing objectively – progress in the areas which it is supporting?

What if quality assurance is still unsatisfactory? Will an HMI criticise the efforts of the HMI colleague who has advised on new processes?

How can Ofsted properly assess the quality of governance if it has been instrumental in training governors?

And won’t there be a risk that inspectors will pull their punches because the school is using another school recommended by Ofsted?

Ofsted are on a slippery slope. Those in local authorities may remember that we used to have a social services inspectorate that was part inspector and part improver: it didn’t work.

I understand Sir Michael Wilshaw’s desire to use Ofsted’s expertise to accelerate progress in schools. But he would be better advised concentrating on continuing the supply of the  generally excellent thematic/subject reports and leadership critiques produced by Ofsted. If Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector is up for more fundamental change then he should look at how to move Ofsted inspections from being a predominantly high stakes judgmental process into being more of a developmental one. Greater use of peer inspectors in inspection teams would be a good starting point. Including an assessment of the extent to which a school was moving in the right direction would be another possibility.

But once HMIs cross the line from being inspectors to improvers they erode their capacity and credibility to undertake their basic function. After all the in ‘I’ in HMI does stand for Inspector.

I have been meaning to write this blog for some time and Michael Gove’s comments at the National College’s Seizing Success conference in Birmingham this week provided the final spur to start tapping away.

In his Q&A session the Secretary of State was asked what was going to replace National Curriculum levels and sub levels. By way of reply he said that essentially it was up to every school for itself to decide what to do.

This seems to be an incomprehensible decision at many levels.

First, how is achievement and progress going to be assessed and reported in the tests that will accompany the new national curriculum in mathematics and English. Are we just going to be back to pass and fail? We ought to know how assessment is going work. If levels of achievement are appropriate for even the new GCSE why are they so inappropriate at other key stages?

Second, if we accept that one of the better things the government has done is emphasise tracking of pupil progress how will we assess progress made between key stages in the national curriculum regime? What will be the equivalent of the measure that reports the ‘proportion of pupils making the expected levels of progress’?

These are not unreasonable points given that the Secretary of State’s own response to Tim Oates, who chaired the Expert Panel on the Curriculum Review, said that it was “critical” to:

“recognise the achievement of all pupils and to provide for a focus on progress”.

The letter went on to say that there would, therefore, be:

“Some form of grading of pupil achievement in mathematics, science and English will therefore be required…We will consider the details of how this will work.”

Well, Michael, that was written in June 2012. One year on we are still none the wiser about how it will work.

Third, it has taken a long time for the National Curriculum levels to become embedded and for there to be a common understanding of what progression through the curriculum looks like for children. Moreover it is an understanding that teachers can take with them as they work in different schools and as they engage in professional dialogue with other practitioners. The curriculum levels provide a national vocabulary of learning.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, it has the potential to undermine pupil learning. I have visited a lot of primary schools in the last six months. As I have been round classrooms I have found the existing levels and sub levels translated into language, charts and targets that pupils can relate to. The pupils know what they have to do to reach another sub-level. The curriculum levels are being used to empower pupils as learners.

Michael Gove says that the current system of National Curriculum levels is ‘confusing for parents and restrictive for teachers’. Many, many teachers would, I suspect, dispute that. The Secretary of State may say that he was acting on the advice of the Expert Panel though he has rejected the Panel’s alternative of how pupils progress and ‘mastery’ of subjects should be applied.

It seems to me to be little short of education vandalism to tear up something – which may not be perfect but is understood and being used on a daily basis with pupils – before you have worked out how your alternative is going to work and what the implications might be. Especially when the issue is so fundamental to how your education system works.

June 2013

Much of the coverage and debate on the Public Accounts Committee report  on managing the expansion of the academies’ programme  ( will no doubt focus on the scale of the unbudgeted extra cost. The Committee says that in the two years from April 2010 to March 2012, the Department spent £8.3 billion on academies – of which £1 billion was an additional cost to the Department and not originally budgeted for this purpose. That is some finding. However, the debate should not overlook the second part of the Committee’s report which raises important issues on the oversight of academies and academy trusts.

There are two issues here: financial oversight and scrutiny of educational performance. The Committee makes three telling observations.

First, in 2011/12 over half of academies submitted their self-assessment returns late, and nearly 100 academy trusts failed to file their statutory accounts on time.

Second, the Committee remains sceptical  as to whether the DfE has “sufficient systems and resources to oversee the [academies] programme programme as it continues to expand”. The “wider reductions to central resources and headcount which the Department has recently announced” increase the Committee’s concerns on this score.

Third, the Committee is not convinced that there is sufficient clarity about “who is accountable for performance monitoring and intervention in academies, nor how the Department can know whether the system is operating consistently, effectively and with minimum bureaucracy across different localities and academy structures”. The report says that this risk  is likely to rise as more schools  that are “less high-performing” join the academies programme.

These are telling criticisms and reinforce the need to rethink the scrutiny and oversight of academies – while preserving the principle of school autonomy. However, the Public Accounts Committee’s critique presents a major opportunity not just to tinker with the existing system but to rethink the educational governance landscape more radically. Here are eight reforms that could be made:

  1. Introduce proper and transparent accreditation of all organisations and schools that want to become academy sponsors. This role is best undertaken at a national level.
  2. Ensure that the allocation of schools to sponsors is competitive and transparent and examines thoroughly the capacity and due diligence of the proposed sponsors.
  3. Move the emphasis of the academy conversion programme towards schools converting in groups or in partnership, with multi-academy rather than individual trusts becoming the norm. A  strong school should be an integral part of all such trusts to ensure that there is sufficient education DNA in each trust.
  4. Devolve the holding of funding agreements from the Department of Education to education commissioners appointed on a sub-regional basis. Commissioners to be appointed jointly by local authority lead members in the area and the Secretary of State for Education.
  5. Make funding agreements real – i.e. like the authorisation of charter schools in the US with powers for commissioners to reassign and terminate agreements when educational and financial performance seriously and persistently falls below acceptable levels.
  6. Publish data on the financial and education performance of chains in a standard format. The government has made available a huge amount of performance information on an individual school basis. It is possible to aggregate this data to assess the performance of academy chains but it is complex to do and not readily accessible to the public. The data published should include financial as well the educational performance of academy chains.
  7. Regional commissioners should work with local authorities to challenge the performance of all schools, including academies, that are not making the progress expected. The responsibility for school improvement, however, should continue to rest with school leaders and governors of schools/academy trusts, unless the performance is such (e.g. a school is in an Ofsted category or below the floor targets) that more radical intervention is needed.
  8. Ofsted to inspect academy chains with five or more schools in their chain – but for those chains found to be operating at an ‘outstanding’ level then Ofsted would cease to inspect the individual schools in the chain unless data showed particular cause for concern in  individual schools. Those chains found to be inadequate should be given notice of the possibility of their schools being transferred to an alternative provider.

Radical reforms along these lines will help ensure that children and young people receive the quality of education to which they are entitled and enable the public to judge value for money. Some will argue that the introduction of commissioners represents an unnecessary level of bureaucracy but the reforms  should be seen in the context of a major downsizing of the the DfE and its role. High calibre commissioners will also be able to relate the mission and work of schools to the wider sub-regional economic agenda and address the wide variations in the performance of local authorities which local government enthusiasts are prone to overlook. The principle of academy autonomy would be retained but operate within a more accountable framework with an incentive for academy chains to raise their game for all the schools in their chain.

There is a strong correlation between a child’s socio-economic background and their performance at school. Levels of parental of education, occupation and income are key factors affecting how well a child achieves at school. However, there are a growing number of schools that are managing to break the link between educational attainment and disadvantage. In 2011, for example, there were 203 secondary schools in England where the proportion of disadvantaged pupils achieving five A*-C GCSE grades including English and mathematics is at or above the national average for all schools[a].

The impact of schools on attainment can, therefore, be significant. Although there  clearly are issues influencing social mobility that are beyond the control of the school system, schools can still make a significant difference to the life chances of disadvantaged students.

“Carefully designed school improvement interventions, which pay attention to research about ‘what works’, can help schools to narrow the gap in attainment between more and less advantaged pupils.”[b]

It was against this background and the growing significance of the Pupil Premium that ASCL commissioned me to write a guidance note for school leaders on promoting social mobility through closing gaps in attainment. The guidance is based on research evidence and the practice of school leaders with a proven track record in this area. It focuses on seven main issues.

  1. Establishing a strong culture of high expectations and achievement for all pupils
  2. Identifying the performance and progress of FSM pupils
  3. Analysing and understanding the issues blocking progress
  4. Reviewing and selecting potential interventions
  5. Setting success criteria and agreeing how to measure impact
  6. Implementing interventions
  7. Developing the roles and skills required of school leaders

The guidance provides a good framework for thinking about how to plan and deploy the Pupil Premium as well support schools in strategically identifying individuals and groups of students that need specific support. At the end of the guidance note there is a checklist for school leaders.

Checklist on closing gaps in attainment for school and college leadersThe school leadership team should review each statement (individually and then collectively) and assign a value to each statement.1 = Strongly disagree; 2 = Disagree; 3 = Not sure; 4 = Agree; 5 = Strongly agree
The school/college has a strong high expectations culture that is visible to staff, students and parents and reflected in its arrangements for impartial information and guidance

The school/college has a named individual on the senior leadership team who is responsible for championing and driving forward action in relation to FSM pupils

The school/college uses data well at whole-school and year group and subject level to identify and track the performance and progress of FSM students

In discussion with students and the involvement of all staff the school/college has identified the main within-school factors contributing to gaps in attainment for FSM student 

The school/college understands the relative merits of different strategies and interventions for supporting disadvantaged students and has adopted strategies to meet the specific challenges identified

The school/college has set challenging achievement goals for all FSM students in partnership with them and their parents

The school/college has resourced, carefully planned and secured support for the intervention strategies it is going to use

The school/college has monitored and evaluated the impact of interventions, using a mix of methods

The school’s/college’s strategy on closing gaps in attainment for FSM students is integrated into its self-evaluation and the school development plan

The school ensures that where setting or ability grouping is used, pupils in different groupings should have equal access to high quality teaching and learning

The school/college has carefully considered its criteria for allocating bursary awards to ensure that it has identified and targeted those students that are most disadvantaged 

You can find a full copy of the guidance at

ASCL has also published a further paper and literature review by Professor Becky Francis of Kings College London that addresses the broader changes that need to tackled both within society and the wider education system if all young people are to have the opportunity to fulfil their potential irrespective of the circumstances of their birth. The papers are available on the same site.

[a] Collins, K, 2012, I’m on the side of the ‘hopeless optimists, TES 4th May 2012

[b] Ainscow, M, et al, 2010, Insight 2 Social inequality: can schools narrow the gap?, British Educational Research Association



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