Heads Up: change route into headship

Today’s publication of the Future Leaders’ report, Heads Up[i], on the problems of recruiting headteachers is very timely. The report just does not describe the scale of the problem but also identifies what factors that are contributing to a lack of applications for headteacher applications. It picks out the pressure of a high stakes accountability regime, the potential unattractiveness of working in some locations, the career risk involved in taking on a struggling school and the potential bias in the selection system again Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic candidates.

To that list I would add two other factors. First the demise of the National College for school leadership. At its peak the College was acting as a beacon and a rallying point for school leaders: it was a demonstrable affirmation of headship. The centre in Nottingham was a vibrant hub of leadership learning and research. More practically the College was co-ordinating work undertaken at a regional level to estimate the future demand and supply for leaders. It also had an integrated set of courses and programmes designed to lead teachers through to headship which were latterly were delivered through licensed consortia. Of course, both the College and NPQH had their limitations but by dismantling much of the leadership development infrastructure the government has weakened rather than strengthened the school leadership pipeline.

Second, in my work with school leaders I am often told about the gulf between being a deputy and being a head. There is a step-change in the level of responsibility. It is not uncommon to find deputy heads who are happy to continue in the number two role and see little incentive to take on the hassle, responsibility and stress of being the number one leader.

So what are we going to do about the situation? The contributions in Heads Up rightly argue for school leaders to give more attention to identifying developing and supporting the development of emerging leaders. But my own view is that the contribution from Jan Renou, the Regional Schools Commissioner for the North, is much nearer the mark in arguing that we need to rethink the school leadership pathway.

“For future school leaders, the emerging career ladder offers exciting opportunities around well-defined roles: head of school, headteacher, executive headteacher and now chief executive officer (CEO)”

The key point she makes is seeing the role of head of school as the route into headship. ‘Head of school’ is about much more than a semantic change of name. As Jan explains:

“Developing a head of school by giving them more space and time than can be found in a deputy post allows them to learn the ropes with a focus on teaching and learning, and provides them with a ‘safety net’, a mentor, and time.”

Developing the concept of the ‘apprentice’ headteacher has to be a key part of the solution to the leadership recruitment challenge. And it would help if the pay and conditions of service framework gave greater acknowledgement to the ‘head of school’ role.

In practice a ‘head of school’ role can really only work if schools are part of a group with an executive head supporting and overseeing a cluster of schools. Echoing another of Jan Renou’s points this model is more likely to be possible and work best in formal school structured partnerships – such as federations and multi-academy trusts (MATs). Indeed rather than seeing MATs as some sort of quick fix to school failure the government would do much better to promote MATs as the pinnacle of school partnership – helping to grow both teachers and leaders.

MATs also provide the means for strategically deploying young and emerging leaders across the academies in the trust and giving them experience of leading in other schools and context. A strategy that will be all the more powerful if, at the same time, it is linked to them participating in formal middle, aspiring and senior leadership programmes.

To be fair much of this agenda can be and is being developed in the best teaching school alliances but it relies on high trust between schools and governors in order to achieve it and is more likely to be practised opportunistically rather than strategically.

So let’s redefine the career path to headship, affirm the role of ‘head of school’ and encourage more schools to come together in federations and MATs to make it a reality.

[i] http://www.future-leaders.org.uk/insights-blog/heads-up-challenges-headteacher-recruitment/

Standards + Structures = A Strategy

At the beginning of November we had two highly significant education announcements on consecutive days.

On the 3rd November the Secretary of State announced a £10 million fund for five academy sponsors to take on schools and build academy sponsor capacity in the north east[1].

The next day the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in partnership with the Northern Rock Foundation also announced a £10 million package[2]. This fund is aimed boosting literacy levels for disadvantaged primary school pupils in the north east, and seeks to involve all 880 primary schools in the region.

Taking a leaf out of Ben Goldacre’s book, it would be interesting to track the relative impact on school improvement of the respective strategies over the next five years because the two announcements are quintessentially symbolic of the different approaches being taken to education improvement in England.

The government has put most of its eggs in the basket of structuralism. It believes that the academy sector is, in the long term, the best vehicle for harnessing the power and potential of the best schools to drive improvement across the system. In effect the government narrative has changed from being focused on autonomy for individual schools to autonomy for groups of schools.

Structural reform is where the government’s heart lies. But almost as a sideline it continues to back another horse – namely more organic learning networks which tend to be more inclusive and focus on improving curriculum and pedagogic practice and leadership of learning. This can be seen in the creation and sponsorship – under the previous government – of the EEF and the establishment of teaching school alliances (though the performance of alliances has been as mixed as that of multi-academy trusts). In funding terms learning networks are a Cinderella – they have been financed on a relative shoestring.

The roots of this structures/standards dualism go back as least as far as Tony Blair. Having accepted Sir Michael Barber’s advice and led Labour into government with a focus on standards, the former prime minister then recanted and decided that structures were after all more important as agents of reform – and duly introduced Foundation schools, Trust schools and sponsored academies.

Of course, the two approaches are not mutually exclusive – we don’t have to make a binary choice. The most effective school systems combine and align a range of different improvement levers, as the graphic below (taken from the recent CfBT report on approach to urban school reform) illustrates and reinforces [3].

Photos Library 2

My conversations with school leaders have brought home the manner in which the current emphasis on structuralism is leading to a very fragmented school system. We have a patchwork quilt (perhaps mish-mash might be a better term) of school groupings, improvement programmes and interventions. Some schools have the nous to belong to several groups (both formal trusts and learning networks) in order to maximise learning and support while others struggle to find the right partner and are getting left behind. The maturity and depth of partnership work is very variable. Learning between schools and groups of schools is haphazard. Some are pretty closed in guarding their approach to learning while others are more open.

Nobody really has a clear remit for all the schools in an area – Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) are required to focus primarily on dealing with failure in both the maintained and academy sectors. Some local authorities do still see themselves as responsible for the education and wellbeing for all children in their area – whatever type of school they go to – but rely on soft influence and the shared moral purpose of local headteachers to develop coherent local solutions. Other authorities have given up on seeking to play any significant school improvement role. And anyway the government seems hell-bent on forcing local authorities out of the picture altogether.

The creation of separate headteacher groups to support RSCs and run regional teaching school councils further reinforces the binary divide between structures and learning networks.

Learning from other parts of the world suggests that this is no way to run a railroad let alone a school system. In each part of the country we should be focusing on aligning different strategies to drive improvement. The arrangements might look different in different parts of the country but school improvement should draw on the principles of the Challenge-style programmes and, compared with the existing RSC regions, be organised on a smaller scale but with a bigger remit:

  • sub-regions rather than regions should be the basis for co-ordinating school improvement – the current RSC boundaries are artificial and too big. There are 39 Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) covering the whole of England and these might well provide a sensible starting place for brigading education improvement activity and linking the work of schools to the skill needs of the local economy. In some cases it might make sense to group LEPs together – particularly in city region areas.
  • co-ordination should be steered and led by commissioners – appointed from individuals with a background of effectively leading school improvement in a geographical area or across a group of schools;
  • commissioners should be supported by a board of headteachers and system leaders with proven expertise in facilitating school improvement and research-based pedagogy;
  • the remit of the boards and commissioners would focus not just on struggling/failing schools but would embrace building the capacity of schools to improve teaching and learning and accelerate pupil progress. The sub-regions would also provide the right scale for co-ordinating the planning of school places, the recruitment and training of teachers and the development of school leadership; and
  • commissioners would be accountable to elected mayors in all the parts of the country that had them – reflecting the devolutionary thrust of the government’s policy agenda.

These sub-regions would work with and through:

  • local authorities to plan places, commission new schools and integrate the delivery of other services relating to the safety and wellbeing of children;
  • multi-academy trusts, federations and teaching schools to ensure all schools were part of an accredited schools group that would be accountable for the development and performance of the schools in the group;
  • schools to peer review and benchmark performance and share and move knowledge and expertise around the region;
  • teachers and leaders with the skills to lead enquiry-based learning across networks of schools;
  • universities to train and develop teachers; and
  • employers to develop career pathways and placements; and

Aligning roles in this way would maximise the resources of the school system, marry structural diversity with programmes to improve teaching and learning and ensure that no school was left behind.

It’s time for us to move beyond structures or standards and find a sensible way to combine the impact they can both bring.

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/nicky-morgan-one-nation-education

[2] https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/news/category/news-releases

[3] See https://www.cfbt.com/en-GB/Research/Research-library/2015/r-interesting-cities-2015

The rise and rise of multi-academy trusts – latest DfE data

Last week the DfE released the latest statistics on the numbers and size of multi-academy trusts in response to a Freedom of Information request that I submitted at the beginning of August.

At the end of July 2015 there were 846 multi academy trusts in England. To put this in perspective there were 391 MATs in March 2011. So that is a pretty rapid rate of growth.

However, the overall numbers only tell a small part of the story. The chart below shows the number of MATs by size of MATs. Two hundred and twelve MATS consist of just one academy – a nearly tenfold increase on the 2011 number. The response from many would be to say, ‘How can they be a multi-academy trust if they only have one academy – that is a contradiction in terms?’ That would be to misunderstand what is going on. Many if not most of these singleton MATs are signaling their intention to grow – a good number of them will have been approved to be academy sponsors (as of July 2015 the number of approved sponsors had grown to 739 and increasingly it is schools that are swelling the sponsor ranks). In other words these academies have established a MAT structure because their intention is to work in partnership with other schools.

Number of multi-academy trusts by number of academies in the trust

Photos Library 2

The rise in the number of MATs that comprise two to five academies – up from 224 to 517 since 2011 – reflects the Department’s change of strategy half way through the last Parliament. Instead of investing in a few large MATs the gameplan has been to encourage a lot of smaller academy groups.

Many of the smaller MATs that were fledgling trusts in 2011 have now grown to have between six and 20 academies. Most of the 105 MATs in this category fall under one of three headings:

  • Long-established MATs such as the Cabot Learning Federation, Leigh Academies Trust or Outwood Grange Academies Trust that have chosen to grow at a slower and, some would argue, more sustainable, rate;
  • Newer academy groups such as the Northern Education Trust, The Wakefield City Academies Trust, Creative Education Academies Trust, Enquire Learning Trust or The Glyn Learning Foundation. Some of these MATs have grown quite quickly as groups of schools have converted together and in other cases the relatively rapid growth reflects the entrepreneurial nature of the MAT Board or CEO; and
  • Diocesan Trusts – this group probably represents the largest and fastest growth in the MAT sector. The form that diocesan trusts take varies enormously and this is an area which would benefit from more in-depth research.

There are 12 MATs that have 21 or more academies – though the number rises to 13 if you include REACH2 which technically is currently a series of MATs working within a wider trust framework but in reality is an integrated organisation. The 13 largest MATs and the number of academies in each of them are as follows:

  • *E-ACT – 23
  • Greenwood Academies Trust – 27
  • *Ormiston Academies Trust – 27
  • *ARK Schools – 31
  • The David Ross Education Trust – 34
  • *The Harris Federation – 35
  • Plymouth CAST – 35
  • REACH2 – 39
  • *Kemnal Academies Trust – 41
  • *United Learning Trust – 42
  • *Oasis Community Learning – 44
  • *School Partnership Trust Academies – 46
  • *Academies Enterprise Trust – 61

The nine MATs marked with an asterisk constituted the largest MATs when I led a study of academy chains back in 2011/12.

The final figure that is worth highlighting is the total number of academies that are part of a MAT – 3,044. That represents around 15 per cent of all secondary, primary and special schools and, even more significantly, nearly two-thirds, of all academies.

So, some illuminating data from the DfE. What we now need is for the Department to get on and finalise the arrangements for publishing performance data for MATs. The consultation on this took place just before the election. If proposals are not forthcoming soon perhaps another Freedom of Information request might be the order of the day!

You can find the data released by the DfE as part of my FoI request at https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/number_of_multi_academy_trusts_a?nocache=incoming-699386#incoming-699386

Corbyn: the problem not the cure

It’s the school holiday so this blog takes a break from education matters. Instead the Labour leadership election is the focus. It’s a blog about the poverty of the intellectual debate that besets this contest.

On one side of we have Jeremy Corybn articulating a view of socialism and equality and a statist view of life that he has been consistent in advocating since he and I were colleagues in the National Union of Public Employees over 30 years ago.

Opposing him are Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. The first two have found themselves tacking towards Corbyn’s position (on welfare, for example), giving repeated mea culpas for being part of the Blair years (in which they were active movers and shakers) and arguing that Labour is not electable with Corbyn as leader.

Liz Kendal also makes the unelectability point but has also been trying articulate an alternative vision but has not yet found the voice or language to do this.

Labour cannot win with Corbyn – that’s true but in a way that is beside the point. We have to take on his arguments particularly on a key issue in the Corbyn campaign – the role of markets in our society. David Ward, the General Secretary of the Communications Workers Union, spelt it out in his an interview with the Today programme on 31st July. In disgracefully suggesting that Blairism was ‘a virus’ within the Labour Party he said that market liberalisation had been a disaster for working people like him. It’s that sort of prejudice and superficial analysis that is fuelling much of the Corbyn surge.

It’s a reaction to the inequities and excesses of the banks and corporatism of much of economic life. There are too many estates and communities that have been left behind and groups workers who have been exploited or cast aside

But the answer is not to in effect reinstate the old Clause 4 and pretend that state control is the answer to everything. We need a new strategy for a new time.

First, let’s recognise that market liberalisation has been far from a universally bad phenomenon.

Liberalising markets opened up telecoms and ended the three-month waits for a phone line and paved the way for internet access – remember those times?

Embracing liberalisation was what saved the British car industry: re-creating jobs for hundreds of thousands of UK employees.

Market liberalisation of the media has opened up a host of TV channels and a rich stream of opportunities for creative talent.

Liberalisation helped to generate the growth and the wealth that Blair used to invest and reform public services.

Liberalisation of the health service under Blair and the introduction of external providers of cataract and orthopaedic surgery was one of the reasons we were able to cut NHS waiting times so dramatically – an advance that is being undermined by the Tories.

Liberalising social care has given thousands of elderly and disabled people the power to control their own care budgets.

Liberalising education funding has empowered headteachers to lead and run their schools, appoint the staff and better meet the needs of their pupils.

Yes, of course there are problems with markets. But we need intelligence not slogans in addressing those problems

Sometimes the answer to the abuse of market power is more not less competition. For example, one of the things wrong with the energy market has been the domination by the big six energy giants – which is now being challenged by new players in the market. Labour should be arguing for stronger action against virtual monopolies and cartels. – a case the Tories have reluctantly been forced to concede.

Sometimes it is producers that need protecting – whether they are milk framers who need a fair price from the supermarkets or workers that are suffering from effects of casualisation of labour.

And sometimes tougher more forensic regulation is needed, as the banking and finance sectors show.

But for Labour to try to turn its back on markets is not only naive but a dereliction of duty. It fails the people who need a government that will help them achieve their aspirations and be on their side when market forces fail.

Along with bold policies that enable markets to deliver a better deal for more people Labour needs fresh thinking in other areas. The quality of the leadership debate has been sterile and dire. The best ideas will come from Labour on the ground engaging with the key challenges that society faces.

Labour should use the opportunity of directly elected mayors for our great city regions to renew our infrastructure, develop with employers, schools, colleges and universities the skills pathways that meets the needs of their local economies. And they can experiment with new ways of managing health and social care budgets in an integrated way. Out of this experience will emerge fresh thinking grounded in the knowledge of what works.

In education Labour should colonise academy trusts and chains as an opportunity to develop an approach to schooling that is about more than delivering an exam production line – as the former Blair adviser, Peter Hyman, is doing at School 21.

Labour Party councilors and directors of housing associations should be coming up with the ideas for radically reforming the planning and finance systems to boost the supply of affordable homes.

Those committed to the NHS should not just be rehearsing the mantra about preserving a NHS ‘free at the point of use’ but working with GP practices and Clinical Commissioning Groups to address the rising tide of demand for healthcare. Every time I go to my GP practice – which is well run and organised – it is heaving. How could we better empower groups of patients with diabetes to be more responsible for their own care? How can we combine regulation., lifestyle and ‘nudge’ policies to tackle our obesity epidemic? How can we better support the carers of dementia sufferers?

The leadership candidates should be building on the thinking of MPs like Graham Allen and Frank Field on early intervention and the experience of the troubled families initiative to develop ideas for scaling up action in some of our most deprived communities.

Thinking on these issues would help guide work on a tax and benefit framework that would balance providing incentives to work with a safety net for those that can’t.

But as far as I can see none of this is being debated. Is it too late to change the discourse of this election? I don’t know but as Liz Kendal has been arguing, we have to try.

Robert Hill was an adviser and political secretary to Tony Blair from 1997 to 2002 and subsequently advised Charles Clarke from 2002 to 2005.

PS And for those who seriously think that Blairism is a virus see below 10 things that every Labour Party member should still shout about what the Blair government achieved.

10 key achievements of the Blair government

  1. Restoring elected government to Greater London and devolving government to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
  1. Cutting NHS waiting times from 18 months to 18 weeks and the rate of deaths from cancer and heart disease
  1. Improved rates of literacy and numeracy and using academies to target educational improvement in deprived areas
  1. The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland
  1. Free entry to national museums
  1. The introduction of the Minimum Wage and giving all workers the right to 24 days paid holiday
  1. Introduction of paternity leave for fathers, Sure Start centres to support families and free early education for all three and four-year olds
  1. Scrapping Section 28 and introducing civil partnerships
  1. Doubling the overseas aid budget
  1. Leading the fight against ethnic cleaning in Kosovo and helping to end the civil war in Sierra Leone

Education and Adoption Bill: right aim, wrong means

The Secretary of State has to be right. No child or young person’s future should be jeopardised by being educated in a school that is judged inadequate.

Schools where pupils do not make the progress they should, ought also to be challenged and supported.

And I am an advocate of the careful growth and nurturing of multi-academy trusts (MATs).

Put all this together and you might think that this means that I support the content of the government’s Education and Adoption Bill. But I have reservations.

First, it’s partly the underlying culture and message of the Bill. I thought we were meant to be moving towards a system where schools led improvement. That has been the government’s mantra. But this Bill feels like yet another notch is being turned on the rack of central intervention. It is more of the ‘done-to’ heavy duty accountability regime which is in danger of becoming increasingly counter-productive.

Second, it reinforces the image of academy trust sponsorship as being a punishment for ‘bad’ schools rather than MATs being held up as the deepest and – when practised properly – most effective form of school-to-school partnership. I want MATs over time to become the partnership of choice for schools – not because they are mandated but because they show themselves to the best vehicle for schools to support each other.

Third, we have to be honest. Academisation and sponsorship – which are to be the automatic fate of schools found to be inadequate – have not been a success in every instance. In 2013/14 a school was proportionately more likely to be rated by Ofsted as ‘requiring improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ if it was a primary or secondary sponsored-led academy than if it were a local authority maintained school*. Getting on for a hundred academies have had to have a change of sponsor either because the original sponsor has either collapsed or has not been able to make the improvement required. I understand a further 100 academies are currently under consideration for being transferred to a new sponsor.

I have no problem in acknowledging that in some cases take over by an academy trust might well be the best and most appropriate route for a struggling school, but to rule out federations, intervention by a National Leader of Education or a package or support from a teaching school alliance as other options seems perverse. Ironically Clause 4 of the Bill requires governing bodies of schools subject to intervention to formally accept exactly one or more of these broader forms of support. But the requirement to academise trumps everything else if a school is inadequate. I don’t follow the logic of that.

One of the consequences is that faith schools judged inadequate will probably only be able to be supported by other faith schools since it is often very tricky to transfer voluntary aided schools into a MAT that is non-faith sponsored.

Fourth, removing the requirement for consultation may speed things up but irritating and irksome as the process can sometimes be it is not a bad discipline to have to explain the rationale for change – even where some parents or community groups use consultation to orchestrate opposition. I feel uncomfortable about the imposition of a new school organisation without parents having any voice in the matter. If people are going to be obstructive there is every chance that some of them will resort to judicial review given there will be no other means of making their point once the Bill becomes law.

Fifth, the Bill does nothing to clarify the respective roles of Regional Schools Commissioners and local authorities – in some ways it adds to the confusion. We have a very messy middle education tier.

Sixth, the action on coasting schools is based on a false premise – as Professor John Hattie pointed out in his excellent publications for Pearson last week**. He reinforced what Professor David Reynolds has previously highlighted – namely the issue of within school variation. Coasting is as likely to be found within a school as between schools. Defining a particular set of schools as coasting misses the point.

The Hattie challenge is to focus on this variability and mobilise collaborative expertise within and between schools to ensure that every child makes at least a year’s growth for a year’s input. Hattie’s eight-point agenda for improving the impact of teaching and learning on every young person underscores the irrelevance of most of this Bill to what is going to make a difference to teachers and young people in the country

If I were the Secretary of State I would stop legislating. Period. Instead I would do whatever it took to get John Hattie over here to work with the school system on embedding the principles of Visible Learning.

Now that really would provide a giant rocket booster to the trajectory of a self-improving school system!

* See HMCI Annual Report 2013/14: Schools https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/384707/Ofsted_Annual_Report_201314_Schools.pdf

** See https://www.pearson.com/hattie/solutions.html

Cities and Devolution Bill: the glimmer of a more localist approach towards education?

The content of the Government’s Cities and Devolution Bill* is probably not high on the list of school leaders’ concerns to find out about or think about – even presuming that they are aware of it in the first place. But over time this legislation could turn out to be very significant for schools.

The Bill is the vehicle for creating elected mayors and delegating more powers and finance to the areas that are come under the heading of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. Schools and education are not specifically mentioned in the Bill – the focus is on giving combined authorities, over which a directly elected mayor will preside, control of transport, housing, strategic planning, health, social care and skills training. It is these functions that are seen as integral to boosting economic growth. Mayors can also potentially take on the functions of the Police and Crime Commissioner for the area, although this will require the consent of all the authorities involved.

The Bill validates an argument I made in ‘The Missing Middle: the case for School Commissioners’** that in England we are in the process of moving to sub-regions being the architects of local economic strategies and growth – and using sub-regional bodies to co-ordinate the strategic planning and delivery of public services to support these plans. It’s an idea whose time is long overdue in what has been a very centralised state.

No service has been more centrally driven in the past 30 years than education. Indeed it is one of the ironies of the post 2010 regime that the Conservatives – who theoretically espouse a smaller state – took stronger central control of the curriculum, accountability targets and school organisation than New Labour ever did. And the Education and Adoption Bill with compulsory academisation of inadequate schools and centrally driven action on ‘coasting schools’ continues this trend.

However, this is where things get interesting. While the Education and Adoption Bill continues along the nationally determined state-centric path, the Cities and Devolution Bill could herald a change of direction – in due course. As I understand the legislation (and I am grateful to Steve Munby for alerting me to this) the Cities and Devolution Bill contains clauses that would allow the Secretary of State for Education to delegate the functions she currently delegates to Regional Schools Commissioners (i.e. tackling underperformance in academies, getting academy sponsors etc) to the new mayors of the combined authorities. There are conditions – the combined authorities would, for example, have to make the case that the powers would be better delivered via the mayor. But if it is appropriate for mayors to oversee the skills agenda is it so far-fetched for them to also have a role in education more generally? Doesn’t it make sense to relate the strategy for meeting a region’s skills needs to the development of young people throughout their school years?

So the Education and Adoption Bill could represent the zenith of England’s nationally driven education revolution. Could we see the mayor for Manchester asking, and in a few years being granted, the overall authority for school performance with that role being exercised through a Commissioner accountable to him or her rather than the Secretary of State. After all as the GLA, Scotland and Wales all illustrate a first delegation of powers is followed by a second and third phase of devolution.

And if Manchester and the other combined authorities in the north-west and the north are granted oversight of education then surely London, which already has an elected mayor, will want the powers as well.

Change will not happen quickly but perhaps, just perhaps, the Cities and Devolution Bill represents the first signs of a resurgence of a more localist and accountable approach towards schooling.

See http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2015-16/citiesandlocalgovernmentdevolution/documents.html

** https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/reports/the-missing-middle-the-case-for-school-commissioners/

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