Primary Focus is on target

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


** See

Gove’s end of term report

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

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

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

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

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

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




The Blunkett Review – making it a reality

David Blunkett’s ‘Review of education structures, functions and the raising of standards for all’ is a significant document. It highlights and reinforces the weaknesses of the current mishmash of arrangements for overseeing the development and improvement of all schools. More significantly, for the purposes of this blog post, it provides a real sense of direction about the likely shape of Labour’s education policy and priorities a year out from next year’s general election.

A strong welcome

Blunkett’s proposals offer the opportunity to bring coherence to school improvement. The principle of school autonomy remains – not a surprise really since Blunkett did much to affirm the autonomy of schools when he was Secretary of State for Education: substantially raising the level of financial delegation to schools. But the vision is for autonomy to operate within a context of partnership and collaboration. Getting this balance right is strengthened by David’s recognition that the actions of one school can impact on another. Education improvement has to be more than a zero sum game – we need all schools in every area to move forward. So the plans to amend schools admissions, enforcement and appeals procedures and integrate place planning are welcome. And (hallelujah!) there is a single framework for overseeing the progress and development of all schools – irrespective of their type or status.

The document also contains some innovative ideas. For example, encouraging and enabling academies to move in and out of chains to bring greater geographical coherence. Or focusing funding agreements on outcomes and renewing them every three of five years – as recommend by the RSA/Pearson Academies’ Commission. The proposals for commissioning new school places rightly maintain a strong competitive ethos but bring coherence to a system which in many areas has been thrown into chaos by the ad hoc establishment of free schools. The creation of Education Incubation Zones would encourage the education system to continue to evolve in order to meet the changing demands of 21st century society.

Three caveats

I have three reservations about the proposals. I can see the case for kitemarking the supply of major school improvement providers – though I am not convinced that the market is broke. A better way forward might be for the kitemarking to be a voluntary arrangement in the first instance.

I also wish that the review had grasped the nettle of clarifying the role of the Office of Schools Commissioner and making it a statutory independent function. There is case for a revamped Schools Commissioner role to include the functions of the Schools’ Adjudicator – thus creating a single regulatory focus.

The approach towards the Pupil Premium is also slightly worrying. Yes, there is evidence that not all the money is being well used at present. But we are on a journey here. The role of the Education Endowment Foundation, the impact of the Ofsted inspection regime, the role of John Dunford as the Pupil Premium champion and the work of a good number of local authorities means that the additional funding is increasingly being better targeted and used. There is a growing focus on impact, so we should be wary of making major changes to the system at this point.

Be prepared

What does Labour need to do next? The Party must learn from its experience of coming into government in 1997. More was achieved more quickly in those policy areas where the detailed policy thinking and work had been done in advance. So having produced this paper Labour cannot rest on its laurels. Here are five ideas on some next steps the Party might take:

  1. Develop its education narrative – the Blunkett reforms are right but they need to be communicated in a way that parents, the media and the wider public can understand. Simple key messages might be:
  • Schools improve at a faster rate when they work together
  • Pupils enjoy better learning when teachers have the opportunity to work with staff from other schools on planning and reviewing lessons
  • There needs to be a fair and level playing field when it comes to admitting pupils to schools and assessing how well schools are improving
  • Supporting schools to improve is best organised locally rather than being decided by Whitehall Ministers and officials
  1. Draft instructions to counsel – for those not familiar with the Whitehall policymaking process this means preparing a policy document that enables the specialist lawyers to prepare a Bill for Parliament. This would provide a discipline for Labour to define the role and powers of the Director of Schools Standards (DSS) and the education panels that would support them. It would also help to think through how the proposed public duty for local authorities, schools and other providers to cooperate with the DSS in brokering collaboration would work.
  1. Consult with the Local Government Association on the new school oversight arrangements – particularly in relation to potential groupings of local authorities and relations between a DSS and constituent authorities. I don’t take the view – put forward by Jonathan Simons and Sam Freedman on Twitter – that local authorities are being completely written out of the script. As suggested in the Blunkett review it might make sense to take the boundaries of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) as the starting point – since this would help to integrate work on careers advice and post-16 provision. However, there are already some groupings of education authorities developing – particularly in London – and so there is also scope to explore whether these might provide a basis for some of the new arrangements.
  1. Set up some demonstration models – it might be possible for local groups of Labour local authorities such as in Manchester (where local authorities and schools have a strong history of working together collaboratively on school improvement) to appoint a DSS in a shadow form. However, any such scheme might be stymied if the Government’s formally appointed Regional Commissioner for overseeing academies refused to collaborate with the initiative.

Where authorities could progress the Blunkett agenda without hindrance would be encouraging the creation of Community Trusts for groups of primary schools. Several authorities have already or are currently working with their schools on forming local clusters. Legislation relating to Trust schools is already on the statute book and so the organizational vehicle is there to create formal groupings of primary schools. The only restraint is that it is difficult for voluntary aided faith schools to be formally part of such a Trust – because they are already a Trust. This needs discussion with church representatives – we should be encouraging faith schools to work with other local schools rather than just retreat into faith-based academy chain enclaves.

  1. Assess the costs – the coalition will no doubt try and dub the proposals as bureaucratic and costly. But the Blunkett plan would be able to build on the savings made from scrapping the regional Commissioner posts. There are also substantial resources going into employing a small army of civil servants and brokers who are monitoring, tracking and, where necessary, intervening in the 3,000 plus academies. These costs need to captured and quantified. It might also be possible to make savings from the Education Funding Agency budget. The more transparent financial regime advocated by Blunkett allied with the adoption of prudential corporate governance practices could reduce the need for the extensive financial monitoring that the government has put in place.

And for its next trick…

The Blunkett review marks a big step forward in Labour’s thinking. For its next trick it might want to think about how to turn the Ofsted regime (which has become an excessively high stakes regime) into something that retains rigour but is more supportive of school development!

Partnership working among small primary schools – 10 lessons x 3

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.

Small can be beautiful (and very effective)

“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.

E-ACT and four challenges for DfE

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. 

Quality not quantity is the litmus test for academy chain expansion

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

Making sense of the school improvement jigsaw

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!

Marking my words

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.

HMIs: inspectors not improvers

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.