Making MATs work for village schools

Can the multi-academy trust model (MAT) be made to work for village schools? This is a vital question as there are 4,000 schools in England with fewer than 150 pupils and 1,400 with fewer than 75 pupils.

In some circles and among some academy groups there is an assumption that the MAT model is not viable for these small schools. And, given their business and operating model, it would indeed be hard for some of the larger more established MATs to take in and support schools with just 30 or 50 pupils each.

However, the MAT model can be applicable to our smallest schools provided certain conditions are met. In reaching that conclusion we need to draw on the evidence of how federations in rural areas have helped to safeguard the future of small schools that otherwise might no longer be viable – and look at the experience of the rural MATs that are already up and running.

First – and perhaps obviously – small schools need to pool all their back office, administrative and support functions so that they are all run directly by the MAT – and/or outsourced to another organisation to provide. Most MATs adopt such a strategy but normally take a few years to completely integrate these functions. Village MATs would need to bite the bullet and be prepared to start off with centralised business functions from day one.

Second, the model will only work if there are a number of village schools in the same locality that can be formed into a cluster or clusters. These clusters then need to be run as a virtual single school – for example, sharing school leaders, subject leaders and special needs co-ordination. An executive head would lead the cluster with a nominated teacher (or in a larger village school, ‘head of school’) designated as the responsible person on the site for day-to-day contact with parents. This would strengthen leadership and expertise but provide a more cost effective model for providing schooling.

Critics or sceptics of this approach, which might include parents and governors of village schools, would argue that they would be losing control of ‘their’ school. That need not be the case. They could, for example, retain a Local Governing Body. Each school should also be encouraged and expected to retain its own sense of identity and engagement with the local community.

Third, the MAT would ideally include 1,000 pupils or more. This might be achieved by, say, 15 schools operating through three clusters. Fewer schools/clusters could be viable if they were conceived as being the rural hub or hubs of a MAT that also operated one or more urban clusters – this is a model RSCs should be encouraging.

Fourth, village schools might have to contribute a topslice that is a bit higher than the average (of four to five per cent) – but for many of them that would be no different from what they have been paying to their local authority.

Fifth, the DfE, the Church of England National Society and the Catholic Church would need to revisit their National Memoranda of Understanding. Roughly a third of primary schools are voluntary aided or controlled and they normally co-exist in close proximity to village schools. It makes sense for faith-based and community school to be able to work together in MATs – while respecting and safeguarding their distinctive traditions. It’s crazy to force them to work in separate silos. The Church of England is happy to accept community schools into diocesan and Anglican faith-based MATs, but both faith traditions resist ‘their’ schools joining in a mixed MAT if they are not able to nominate the members and thus oversee the appointment of Board trustees/directors. They are worried that any dilution of faith control would lead to the loss of ‘their’ schools to the state. The Memoranda of Understanding in effect acquiesce in this concern.

There are, however, alternative models. For example, one or two dioceses have agreed, as an exception, to a faith school being part of a non-faith led MAT and for an addendum to the Funding Agreement being used to safeguard the religious character and governance of the school. That model should become much more common. It would enable sensible geographical clusters to develop while safeguarding the legitimate concerns of the church authorities. Issues related to land and assets would also need to be accommodated – but that cannot be any more complex to resolve than PFI!

Governors and dioceses need to put aside their vested interests and consider what is in the best interests of the children. Although many village schools are delivering a high quality of education the model is fragile – it only needs one teacher to go sick or perform poorly or for the head to hand in their notice and the school can end up in a vulnerable position. Recruiting heads for these schools is becoming harder and in some cases impossible. Moreover being part of a MAT would free teachers from many administrative burdens and give them access to a much richer range of professional development. Pupils would have access to a richer repertoire of teaching and have new opportunities to work pupils in other schools.

The clinching argument is this. Unless some village schools are prepared to change they risk being closed. The economics of education funding over the next few years will make it harder for them to survive. We should be supporting the retention of village schools – which are often central to the sense of identity and vitality in a community – by enabling them to adapt to a changing environment. The government should earmark some of its capacity and growth funding to support the development of more MATs focused on rural schools – learning from federations and those village-based MATs that are already up and running.

Where is the MAT agenda going?

Now that Justine Greening has announced that the government is abandoning plans to coerce all school into becoming academies – at least for the time being – it’s a good moment to reappraise where we are with the academies and the multi-academy trust (MAT) agenda.

Here are ten issues for school leaders, governors and policy makers to reflect on:

  1. Schools (apart those deemed inadequate by Ofsted) can now decide in their own time whether and how to become an academy and join a MAT. They have the space to find partners with a shared vision and values and undertake due diligence. There is now no excuse for forming what I call ‘manic MATs’ – i.e groups (of often local) schools rushing to huddle together because they are frightened of being ‘done to’ or taken over by a ‘predatory’ MAT. A school now has the time to consider and identify those schools and/or MATs that will best help it to meet the challenges it faces and deliver the best outcomes for its pupils.
  2. Many of the early stand-alone converter academies may find that they need to review their position. Given the scale of change and challenges facing schools, it is questionable whether operating as a single school represents a wise long-term policy. However, I suspect that many stand-alone secondary academies will find it hard and painful to make the journey from what they perceive as ‘autonomy’ to real and deep collaboration. And some will leave it too late to to make the move.
  3. The rationale and narrative for joining or forming a MAT needs to shift. Instead of MAT status being seen as a punishment for weak academies it should be conceived as the route to the deepest form of school partnership. MATs provide a vehicle for schools to work together but within a  disciplined framework – lacking in many other partnership initiatives and structures – that holds school to account both individually and collectively for their progress and impact.
  4. The practice of many MATs in helping to develop talent, introduce new leadership models and forge a leadership pipeline should be shared more widely. It’s a message that governors worried about finding or recruiting  a replacement head need to hear.
  5. The opportunity to reorganise business functions and so free school leaders to  focus more on teaching and learning  is another plus for the MAT model. It could also provide a route to reducing the admin workload of teachers.  And, of course, economies of scale increasingly come into play as MATs grow. This will be vital as budget pressures increase. Those MATs that want to remain small will need to examine buying business support functions lock, stock and barrel from another MAT or organisation – rather than spend lots of time and effort trying to make their own operation viable.
  6. There needs to be much more emphasis on the core business of MATs: school improvement. What is it that the best MATs are doing that is helping to accelerate progress and impact? How are they organising quality assurance oversight, developing staff,  organising coaching, facilitating inquiry-led learning, moving expertise around academies and co-constructing curriculum and lesson plans?  Which issues and approaches are mandatory across the MAT and which are are left to individual academies?  It’s a scandal that the DfE is not commissioning independent research on this.
  7. More resource needs to go into organisational capacity building. The DfE does provide capacity building funds to fledgling MATs – though whether all of them use the money wisely is another matter. It has also facilitated the start-up of various CEO development programmes. But it’s been woefully late in the day and is nowhere near being delivered at the scale that will enable, over time, the establishment of 2,000 highly effective MATs.
  8. Mergers between MATs are popping up here and there. We can expect more as part of a consolidation of the sector – we need to understand how to do this effectively. Watch this space for a future blog!
  9. Regional Schools Commissioners seem to be struggling to find sufficient sponsors to support all those schools requiring significant or substantial improvement. As well expanding capacity-building efforts, a clear set of principles or a template for providing financial support to MATs that take on such schools might help – particularly if the approach were applied consistently across the country.
  10. As the post below this one argued there are a range of governance issues that need sorting out. This should not all be left to the government – the MAT sector needs to come together and provide leadership. We need a stronger voice for MATs. A school-led self-improving system requires this!

A huge amount of effort and public money has gone into developing MATs. Arguments rage about whether it has been worthwhile. In my view it’s still too early to make that call – but what I am clear about is that the investment is more likely to be justified if we attend in greater detail to building MATs carefully and sustainably.

 

 

 

 

 

Governing responsibly: tackling the weaknesses in the governance of academy trusts

The conduct of academy trusts is never far from the news. Just last week the spotlight was on the Education Funding Agency’s (EFA) for its failure to publish a review into alleged financial irregularities at Bright Tribe Academies Trust. The Labour Party at its conference promised to give local authorities greater oversight of academies’ finances.

In many ways the question marks over academies are unfair. Most trusts are being competently led, managed and governed. Indeed the academy governance model has a number of virtues. It is more flexible and less bureaucratic than the traditional model of governing maintained schools. The advent of board decision-making has placed a greater emphasis on getting people with the right skills round the table. The separation between board and school-level governance roles is enabling schools leaders to focus more on leading learning

However, as in other other areas of life a relatively few bad apples are tarnishing the reputation of the whole multi-academy trust (MAT) sector and eroding public confidence in the academy model. There have been four problems:

  1. Over-rapid expansion of academies. It hasn’t just been one MAT but probably up to 20 that have been encouraged and allowed to expand too fast. Sir David Carter and Michael Wilshaw were pretty damning about this in their evidence to the Education Select Committee in July. And it is not entirely clear to me that the lessons have been completely learnt. Where were boards of directors when this level of expansion was driven by over-ambitious CEOs took place? Where was the exercise of due diligence?
  2. Poor financial oversight. Since March 2014, 45 academy trusts have been issued with financial notices to improve. In some cases the issue relates to deficits, in some cases to lack of financial systems, in some cases to fraud and in some cases to inappropriate payments (in particular the issue of third party payments to those connected with the board and associated failures to declare interests, follow due process and adhere to proper contractual procedures).
  3. Questionable remuneration packages. In July  The Observer exposed ‘the extravagant expenses’ paid to  a number of senior MAT employees. In March Sir Michael Wilshaw tartly told the Secretary of State in March 2016 that the “Salary levels for the chief executives of some of these MATs [subject to batch inspections by Ofsted] do not appear to be commensurate with the level of performance of their trusts or constituent academies.”
  4. Weak control of academic standards and progress. Since 2012, more than 160 academies have received warning, pre-warning or termination notices (50 in the last academic year). In part this is related to the over-rapid expansion of academies between 2010 and 2013 but in part it is separate. Between September 2015 and June 2016, 119 academies had to be re-brokered from one sponsor to another And the rate of progress in moving schools out of Ofsted categories is nothing to shout about – though  we should remember that MATs have taken on some of the toughest schools in the system.

These are the symptoms of something being amiss with academy governance in at least part of the sector. The symptoms are serious but we also need to dig below the surface and identify the deeper problems. To start with some boards and CEOs seem to have lost their moral compass. They may have started off committed to improving outcomes and life chances for young people but somewhere along the way they got seduced into building empires, making money and rewarding friends and colleagues. They fall into a mindset where they seem to think that that they own the MAT – it is ‘their’ organisation to do with as they please.

Second, MAT governance is too heavily weighted towards upward accountability – i.e. to Ministers via regional school commissioners – and not sufficiently rooted in reporting to parents, pupils and the local community. A system built on heavy upward accountability tends to foster a culture of compliance and game playing in order to meet targets and expectations. A process that values stakeholder engagement requires a more open, transparent and inclusive approach to performance and the rate of progress. They are not, of course either/or options – both are needed. But funding agreements prioritise accountability to the centre rather than to the locality.

Third, there are structural weakness in the academy governance model. There is not a sufficient separation between those who serve as members of a trust and those appointed as directors. So when it comes to appointing (or dismissing) directors the decisions are effectively in the hands of a self-perpetuating caucus. In addition the respective roles of the chair and the CEO are not always thought through and delineated.

Some MATs have made the mistake of carrying over the culture of governance and the personnel from the schools they inherited without understanding the  statutory responsibilities of director. In other MATs they have failed to properly consider and agree which decisions are to be taken at board, which at cluster and which at academy level. Consequently they find that their schemes of delegation are confusing and directors and local governors come into conflict with the central MAT.

Perhaps most worrying is the misapplication of the concept of earned autonomy. The assumption in some MATs is that if a school is performing strongly it should have maximum freedom and the MAT should not interfere with its leadership and management. Of course the strengths and identify of such academies should be respected but the whole point of a MAT is to grow a teaching and learning model where schools are continually and ever more deeply engaging with, learning from and support each other. That requires a shared purpose, shared leadership, shared systems, shared resources and shared accountability. MATs are, at best, unlikely to reach their potential and, at worst, storing up problems for the future if the MAT is simply a holding body for a series of largely autonomous units.

Fourth, some MATs have  believed their own hype. Business guru, Jim Collins, describes the classic pathway to failure of once highly successful corporations: they succomb to ‘hubris born of success’, engage in ‘an undisciplined pursuit of more’ and practise ‘a denial of risk and peril’. Those descriptors apply all too aptly to the actions of some of our MATs.

Fifth, there are systemic weaknesses in compliance systems. In some MATs monitoring systems are patchy – they do not have a real-time grip on academic or financial performance and pupil wellbeing. Internal audit procedures are not always well entrenched. External auditors are missing key issues. The EFA is overstretched having to oversee more and more and more academies with fewer resources. We have to rely on Freedom of Information requests and whistle-blowers to identify a number of the worst abuses.

Sixth, some MATs are struggling to get full value from their trustees/directors. In part this may be – particularly in fledgling MATs – there is a failure to appreciate the implications of being on a company board means and exercising the legal responsibilities of a director. In part it may be because boards fail to get the right blend of skills round the table and in part it may be because a trust does not put sufficient effort and resource into training and developing its board and governors (or academy council members).

So what’s to be done about this state affairs? Here is another of my ‘lists of 10 useful suggestions’ – this one targeted on improving MAT governance.

  1. Establish and live by your values throughout the organisation. Effective MATs are grounded in the vision and mission of what they are trying to achieve and have adopted core values of how as a group of academies they will work together.  Leaders model these values which have been been discussed with staff and shared with the wider school community. Developing and instilling the value base of the organisation is probably the single most important way of improving MAT governance.
  2. Review the governance structure. Review how many members the MAT has and make sure that most of them do not serve in a dual capacity as directors. The EFA should consider lowering the threshold for having an audit committee from £50 million to £10 million but in the meantime MATs need to make sure that their internal audit mechanisms and reporting arrangements are robust.  A remuneration committee should also be the norm (it won’t meet many times a year) and it should have access to good independent advice.
  3. Be clear about what’s to be decided at what level within the MAT and reflect that in detailed schemes of delegation, governance handbooks and training programmes. Getting this right may be demanding and involve hard conversations but ideally the arrangements will be co-constructed and so command support across the MAT. All who are exercising responsibility – board members, the centrally employed staff of the MAT, governors/academy council members and senior and middle in individual academies – each needs to have a precise understanding of their respective accountabilities. That includes CEOs and chairs of boards having a clear understanding of how they will exercise their remits.
  4. Adopt a growth strategy having regard to a MAT’s wider context. There is a lot of pressure on MATs to expand – both to reach what is considered a viable economic scale of operation and to help with improving struggling schools.  Those can be perfectly reasonable objectives. But good governance will also consider another dimension of growth – depth. What does the MAT need to do to develop its organisational capacity and business systems, its staff and leaders and, above all, what are the priorities for improving teaching and learning? These factors need to be looked at alongside expanding the number of academies. Sometimes growth means having a period of consolidation rather than accepting more academies. As and when expansion is the right course then the board needs to insist on applying thorough due diligence to each and every academy it is minded to take into the MAT.
  5. Operate real time tracking systems across all areas of activity. Smart data systems and easy-to-read dashboards should, of course, track educational progress and performance and monitor financial out-turns. But they should also encompass other areas of activity such as attendance (of staff and pupils), pupil mobility, staff turnover, behaviour, exclusions, health and safety, applications for entry, safeguarding and looked after children. Directors need the information to able to spot worrying trends,  provide challenge and authorise and – where necessary – insist on corrective action.
  6. Step up a gear on training and development for directors and governors/academy council members. That starts with MATs looking at their induction programmes to ensure that new trustees understand their statutory responsibilities as company directors. For those in governance positions in local academies it will mean them understanding what their role is – and how fits into a broader governance framework. It will also involve identifying accurately the development needs of directors and governors. Doing this then provides a platform for a cross-MAT training programme. By bringing together those involved in governance across the MAT, training sessions will help forge links and relationships and contribute to building the social capital of the MAT – as well deepening knowledge of key issues.
  7. Practise strong local accountability so that a MAT feels answerable to local stakeholders alongside its obligations to government. A MAT can do this by adopting a transparent and open approach that enables local people to access its data, finances and outcomes of its meetings. MATs can also engage with parents and local communities through parent councils, family learning, online communication and consultation sessions. I would also argue that mature governance would see MATs encouraging their schools to be collegiate: collaborating with other schools and the local authority on issues such as place planning, admissions, special needs and vulnerable groups of children.
  8. Observe the advice of Russell Hobby, General Secretary of NAHT. Russell argues that headteachers (and MAT leaders) should be paid through a single base salary, set by the trust and approved by the trustees. If senior leaders are undertaking additional work over and above their normal roles the proper way for that effort to be recognised is through their salary rather than them taking a share of any income generated for the trust. Russell also advises MAT leaders to avoid employing close relatives and related-party transactions which have been open to abuse.
  9. Provide a stronger mandate to and oversight of external audit and establish an independent regulator. It is wishful thinking to expect the EFA to oversee and check the financial proprieties of each academy trust. The rising number of academies and MATs will just swamp the diminishing resources of the EFA. Better for the EFA to focus on improving the quality of external audit  by ensuring the audit framework is fit for purpose, that appointment of auditors is undertaken properly and that audit firms are held to account for weaknesses and irregularities they fail to spot. And better still if there were also an independent regulator of academy finances that reported to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.
  10. The sector (i.e. MAT leaders) to step up and provide leadership. We are moving to to a school-led system. So, just as we are looking to school leaders to provide the system leadership and commitment to improve all schools, we should likewise expect MAT leaders and board chairs to step up to the plate and lead moves for more effective governance – as has been done in the corporate sector. The MAT sector might draw up a code of conduct for MAT directors. It could develop some training and self-evaluation tools for MATs,  provide opportunities for debate and exchange of practice and establish a forum for engaging with regulators and the media.

It’s not too late to do something about the weakness in MAT governance. But time is running out. Each new scandal and fresh revelation chips away at the trust in the academy governance model and provides ammunition for those who would be quite happy for MATs to fail. Let’s act before it’s too late.

Selection brings policy carnage

I am clear that the decision to reintroduce selection big-time into English schooling is a huge error. But this post does not debate the evidence or arguments about selection but looks at what the decision tells us in more general policy terms.

First, the Theresa May government is dysfunctional. Tony Blair, for whom I worked for five years, was criticised for centralized sofa government. But this decision shows that No 10 is even more dominant. The policy has all the hallmarks of being devised and written by someone who has just left his post heading up a lobby group – with all the skewed results that leads to. Frankly it feels like Theresa May’s chief of staff, Nick Timothy, is the de facto Secretary of State for Education. Justine Greening and the Department for Education have been completely railroaded in a way that even Blair never got near to. I also suspect that given the summer break the policy has not been through being tested in a full cabinet committee process. No wonder the May government is having such trouble devising a Brexit strategy if its policy-making procedures are in such disarray.

Second, the concept of a school-led education system appears to be as dead as the proverbial Monty Python parrot. What was the role of our best headteachers in shaping and devising this policy? They have been ignored and sidelined. The only way that we can now give meaning to a self-improving school-led system is if school leaders find their collective voice and say very clearly ‘Up with this we will not put’.

Third, the policy leaves the rest of education policy in confusion. Selection has been parachuted into the education arena with all the finesse of a clown blundering into the ring during a delicate a highly complicated circus routine. The best education systems ensure that the policies align and reinforce each other. The government’s strategy had been to encourage, incentivise and (where necessary) require schools to work together through teaching schools, multi-academy trusts, school direct groups and research networks. Selection – particularly in the secondary sector – will undo 25 years of effort since the Grant Maintained era in getting secondary schools to work together for the welfare and outcomes of all young people in their area and not just those in their own school. Comparing the performance of grammar and selective schools – as Theresa May did in her speech – was incredibly divisive.

It’s also not clear where we now stand with wanting to move all schools to being part of MATs – can the government fight on this front as well as take on the selection battle? What will happen to what was arguably the most progressive reform in the Education White paper – the introduction of Achieving Excellence Areas? They were targeted precisely at those communities and those schools that Mrs May said were her priorities.

Fourth, selection makes the fundamental error of giving in to the politics of distraction – i.e. they detract from other effective ways for education systems to become world-class. As the chair of the Education Select Committee, Neil Carmichael argued on Newsnight on Thursday evening (8th September) the real focus should be on improving the quality of teaching and learning in all classrooms in all schools. Professor John Hattie has written lucidly and compellingly on this issue:

The evidence shows that what’s most important is to focus on the classroom – that is, championing teacher expertise, and spreading it from classroom to classroom.

Hattie explains how getting fixated on school structures, selection and choice distracts from this agenda. It’s a lesson that politicians in England seem reluctant to learn.

This has been a depressing week for those of us committed to improving schools and education. I take some comfort from the fact Theresa May is going to find it hard to get her proposals enacted. But the school community needs to show leadership and halt the policy carnage. School leaders must be insistent that this will not do and say to the government:

We are not opposing your plans, Mrs May, out of political dogma but because we want to improve the life chances of all children – not just a few who are selected to go to a different type of school. Our ambition is bolder than yours: we want all schools to be good schools and we believe we can achieve this by schools working together to share knowledge and improve teaching and learning rather than competing against each other.

Could do better – end of term report on government’s school improvement strategy

Below is the end of term scorecard I presented to the London Teaching School Council’s conference on 8th July 2016 on the government’s performance on school improvement. With the end of the Cameron era, now is a good time to take stock on where the school system in England is.

The 10 principles or descriptors against which the government’s performance is judged are based on work by Ben LevinMcKinsey and Company  and the background research that I undertook in 2013 as part of a broader report for the Welsh government on school improvement.

The commentary for each principle summarises the government’s school improvement policy approach and highlights what I see as the key challenges and weaknesses – which then leads to an overall grading for each area.  The gradings are, of course, subjective but do serve to highlight relative areas of strengths and weaknesses. The overall verdict must be ‘Could do better’ – particularly in the areas of alignment, co-ordination and pace of policy of policy development and implementation and building a guiding coalition for change.

Principle

Commentary

Grade

  • Set high expectations for  all school to improve and succeed, focused on a small number of ambitious yet achievable and well-grounded goals
The Government has clearly raised the bar and set high expectations at each key stage

All schools are expected to improve but it’s more arguable whether the focus on ‘resits’ for KS2 and Ebacc contributes to the success of all pupils

There are lots of metrics but what are the key “ambitious yet achievable well grounded goals”? 

B+
  • Prioritise the quality of teaching by recruiting, training and developing teachers to high professional standards
The Government recognises the significance of this but sees teacher development as a professional rather than a system issue

Reforms to teacher training aim to improve the quality of new teachers but the ITT system is fragmented and we are struggling to recruit and retain sufficient teachers

Professional development and coaching is episodic and variable and classroom-based, inquiry-led learning far from being embedded

B
  • Engage and win support from leaders at different levels of the system to build a ‘guiding coalition’ for reform

 

MAT CEOs, headteacher boards and members of Teaching School Councils have a growing, though still limited, role in the system

There is no consent or consensus on the key areas of the reform agenda – not has there been a serious attempt to build a ‘guiding coalition’

Local authorities – even good ones – have been frozen out of the picture

C
  • Empower school leaders to set direction, lead learning, develop staff and school capacity and manage performance
School leaders in England enjoy considerable autonomy to lead and be accountable for their schools

The prescriptive nature of key stage assessment, GCSEs and A levels constrains curriculum and assessment autonomy

Watch this space for the freedom of school leaders to lead within MATs 

A-
  • Build the capacity of the system to improve by enabling school leaders to support, work with and learn from each other and lead improvement across localities and networks
The roles of NLEs and Teaching School Alliances reaffirmed and given a sharper focus

Ofsted breathing space for RI and inadequate schools and new National Teaching Service

Support for sector-led leadership development but how will the new system work?

No recognition of the role of peer preview

MATs can potentially develop and move good practice across schools quickly but how well will they interact with other schools?

A-
  • Use timely transparent data to monitor progress, evaluate the impact of interventions, diagnose schools and groups of pupils with problems and enable schools to learn from each other
The English education system is data rich – at pupil, school and system levels – but does less well on knowing the impact of interventions – though the work of the EEF and the use of RCT is starting to change the culture

Performance tables for MATs are welcome

Use of data for benchmarking is the exception rather than rule

Too much of the data is used to support high stakes accountability rather than to develop and improve schools

 

B-
  • Co-ordinate school improvement programmes at a city or sub-regional level in order to integrate network activity, deploy expertise and identify and target problem issues, areas and schools
Model separates leading/co-ordinating school improvement from dealing with ‘failure’

No recognition of the sense of locality felt by many heads or of the growing number of LA/school partnerships

Will RSCs be able to cope and will LAs play more of a role than planned?

How will sub-regional networks of Teaching School Councils and Head Teacher Boards evolve?

The emerging City Mayors agenda overlooked

 

C
  • Align priorities, reforms, accountability, inspection, capacity building and funding with careful implementation ensuring policies all pull in the same direction
The components of a reform programme are present but they are at risk from:

  • A disproportionate focus on structural reform – i.e. mass academisation
  • Flawed implementation – e.g. life beyond levels, baseline and KS2 assessment, late A level syllabuses, interaction of new grading systems and performance tables and sustainable MAT models for small schools

Arrangements for admissions run as a fault line through the system

C-
  • Address inequities in student performance through good early education, classroom support for pupils falling behind and a reduction in inequalities more generally

 

Pupil Premium sustained and Alternative Provision reformed

Achieving Excellence Areas and MAT sponsors targeted on underperforming areas

How will funding pressures impact on support for vulnerable pupils?

Children who arrive at school in the bottom range of ability tend to stay there

Links to wider drivers of educational inequality not addressed

B
  • Sustain reform over time and over more than one electoral cycle but adapt strategies to reflect the performance of the system and growth in capacity

 

The reform programme has been sustained and there is broad continuity in the general direction of travel towards a school-led self-improving system

However, the scale and pace of reform seems indigestible

All aspects of the system – curriculum, assessment, teacher training, leadership development, accountability, funding and structures – are being reformed (and in some cases re-reformed) at the same time

 

B-

 

 

Five points on academies U turn

Most policy announcements never turn out entirely as expected but here are five initial judgements about Nicky Morgan’s academy U-turn.

  1. It will lead to more a more sensible growth in the academy and MAT landscape – headteachers and governors are now more likely to make sensible decisions about whether and how to convert to academy status and whether to join or form their own MAT. And, hopefully, we are more likely to avoid the over-rapid expansion of some MATs – a real risk still in my view.
  2. The condition that forced academisation could still be on the cards for schools in those areas where too few remain with a local authority to make their schools improvement function viable,may perversely put peer pressure on schools to eschew academisation because it undermines the viability of their authority.
  3. The announcement has repercussions for other bits of the Education White Paper. For example, is it feasible, to now withdraw all school improvement funding from local authorities? If heads and schools are to be given a window of grace to turn round weak or failing schools before Ofsted comes calling, how will this interact with and impact on the definition of failing local authorities?
  4. We need to see the small print of the government’s new legislation – particularly its definition of what constitutes a poorly performing local authority – which will remain as a trigger for compulsory academisation. The tougher the rules the government proposes the more it will come under pressure to also apply them to diocesan schools and poorly performing MATs.
  5. The government in general and Nicky Morgan in particular are damaged politically (particularly as this is just the latest in a longish line of government policy U-turns) . The U-turn may well encourage resistance to other aspects of the government’s reform programme – such as the testing and assessment regime. The odds on a new Secretary of State for Education in a post-Referendum reshuffle have also shortened.

School improvement & the White Paper: the strategy and challenges, some scenarios and some policy adjustments

The government’s narrative on school improvement

I have now read chapters 4 and 5 of Educational Excellence Everywhere several times but I am still not clear about key aspects of the government’s model for school improvement. In as much as it has it has a clear narrative it seems to be this:

  • Schools leading improvement across the school system is the government’s strategic ambition.
  • The role of local authorities in supporting and overseeing school improvement will be phased out as schools become academies
  • In future many schools will draw their school improvement from MATs.
  • But the government does not want to create monopolies and schools will also be able to choose “the partnerships that will [best] deliver continuous improvement for their own school and for others”.
  • Other sources of support will include teaching school alliances and system leaders “with high standards in their own schools”.
  • The role of teaching school alliances will in future focus on co-ordinating and delivering high quality school-based ITT, providing high quality school-to-school support and providing evidence-based professional development.
  • Areas with concentrations of underperforming schools will receive targeted attention.
  • RSCs will be responsible for making sure that inadequate schools are taken on by a strong MAT and that coasting schools have a strategy and action plan for improving performance.
  • Heads (and presumably MATs) will be given a reasonable period to turn round a failing school but RSCs will transfer schools from one MAT to another in the event that a MAT cannot effect improvement and, in extremis, a poorly performing MAT will be wound up.

Some confusing issues

So far so good – in that whether you agree with the approach or not the plan is at least clear. But then comes the first area of confusion. Paragraph 5.7 of the White Paper states:

“We therefore intend to legislate so that responsibility for school improvement will sit squarely with the best leaders and the best schools – meaning that those with experience of turning schools around and achieving high standards will be able to drive change across the system. This change will also allow schools to form clusters and draw on support based on their school’s specific needs and requirements.”

That paragraph clearly implies legal entities with formal statutory responsibilities. What are these clusters? How will they acquire statutory responsibility? Will their responsibilities only apply to the schools in the cluster or extend to other schools? What form will the responsibilities take – will they be allocated some of the duties previously the preserve of local authorities? How will their role dovetail with that of the Regional School Commissioners (RSCs)?

One possibility that might make sense of the paragraph is if the wording is referring to teaching schools that are to be given the role of being:

“…brokerage ‘hubs’ for other system leaders, facilitating access to improvement support by coordinating the supply and activity of NLEs and SLEs. They will be responsible for providing or brokering effective support for schools that need extra help.”

Most teaching schools are already doing this – though the practice is much more well-established and effective in some alliances (TSAs) than in than others. However, giving TSAs statutory responsibilities – if that is what is intended – would turn them into entirely different beasts. They would need to adopt more formal governance and accountability structures. It would also completely change the dynamics of what they do and how they work. They would move from being learning networks to accountable school improvement bodies.

Even if the new legal provisions don’t relate to TSAs (but to some other unspecified school cluster entity) the role of TSAs still looks as though it is going to become more formal.

“From September 2017, school improvement funding will be increasingly routed through teaching schools in line with their core functions outlined above. In turn, they will be held to account more effectively for the quality, reach and impact of the support which they broker. This new fund will focus on building capacity across the system and ensuring the most vulnerable schools improve and do not fail.”

The last sentence is, of course, a bit of White Paper hubris – if TSAs are to ‘ensure’ that the most vulnerable schools don’t fail that presumably means there is nothing left for the RSCs to do! In practice the government knows this won’t be the case. In fact there is a real issue about what teaching schools would do as brokers and what – in an increasingly academised world – RSCs would do. For example, RSCs will control the intervention fund for “failing and coastal schools” so they would presumably call the shots around brokering support in these circumstances

The other thing about the proposals in chapter five is that they are all written from the perspective of individual schools. Individual schools choose (or are helped to find) where and how to access support. Intervention is brokered for individual schools. But in a world of MATs it will be the MAT rather than the school – particularly where a school is struggling – that will make the calls on the form of support that is most appropriate. Designation and deployment of national and specialist leaders of education (NLEs and SLEs) will involve negotiation with MATs.

Chapter 5 switches between being appropriate to the current pattern of school organisation and a post-MAT world without explaining which bits of the proposals are more likely to be applicable at which points in the development of a school-led system.

Perhaps I am being obtuse – or seeing complexities where they do not exist. If there are simple answers to these points then let’s hear them.

Four scenarios and risks

As the graphic below highlights there are a number of ways in which the government’s school improvement agenda could pan out. One scenario is that, as the government intends, the combination of a MAT-led system, refocused teaching school alliances, an expansion in the number of NLEs and SLEs and a focus on underperformance in particular localities results in progress towards an energised school-led system.Slide1But it might also be the case that the process of mass conversion to academy status, along with the political furore and skewing of leadership time and attention it will entail, proves to be a major distraction from improving teaching and learning. We know from both education and other public services that structural upheaval always brings some short-term loss of focus on performance. The risk of this occurring is even greater in this instance as the government is changing just about every other aspect of the education system at the same time. The curriculum, key stage assessments, tests and exams, accountability frameworks, funding formulae and teacher training arrangements are all changing fundamentally – and in some areas one reform comes before the last one has been implemented. The scale of constant upheaval and challenge is likely to encourage experienced headteachers to opt out rather than stay on.

Another scenario is that MATs become the default home for the vast majority of schools but at the expense of the school system becoming very fragmented. MATs focus most of their energies on progress and learning within their organisation and compete with other MATs for pupils and staff. Teaching schools struggle with their new roles and the brokerage of support for underperforming schools becomes patchy and confused – particularly as RSCs struggle to cope with the workload of a fully academised system.

Perhaps the most likely scenario is the hybrid one – i.e. there is further progress towards a school-led system but at the expense of some distraction and fragmentation.

Four policy adjustments

I would propose that the government could make better and faster progress towards its policy objectives if it made the following adjustments to its school improvement strategy:

  1. Provide a very clear policy direction of travel in terms of schools working through MATs – and support with incentives and Growth Fund – but do not compel mass academisation. Explain and advocate the potential benefits (rather than just using academisation as a punishment if a school is struggling) but make the quality of MATs rather than the quantity of MATs the acid test of progress. In the health service hospitals were only allowed to become Foundation Trusts when they met key requirements.
  1. Set an expectation that every school should be part of a broader local school partnership as well as being a member of a MAT  In some cases this might be a teaching school alliance or Challenge Partners but in other cases this may be an improvement partnership operating at a local authority level. There are already quite a wide range of innovative models that involve joint school and local authority improvement boards that oversee the progress of all schools in the area, using shared data and peer review. They then commission improvement support where it is needed. In other areas authorities and schools have jointly set up school improvement companies to offer support and improvement services on a traded basis. In some instances both models are operating alongside each other. As the school-led system develops in each locality school leaders are taking more of a role in leading this work. The concept of place matters: school-led oversight and support in an authority can provide the cohesion and glue that school systems need. MATs need not and should not be at the expense of collaborating at a locality level to ensure that all children in an area receive the best education.
  1. Instead of writing local authorities completely of any school improvement role, formalise arrangements for RSCs to use local authorities (and the school-led oversight arrangements described above) as their local agents in knowing what is happening in schools.This approach reflects the reality of what is currently happening on the ground in most areas.  RSCs would also use authorities and local school leaders to suggest or help develop solutions to local problems. Using authorities in this way would have the merit of avoiding the need to build a massive new RSC bureaucracy.
  1. In those areas where there is a directly elected mayor make the RSCs accountable to the mayor. This would in turn point to aligning, over time, the RSC boundaries with those of the new city regions and counties that are being established. It would help to establish the democratic legitimacy of RSCs and bring the RSC system more into line with the approach I argued for in The Missing Middle: the Case for School Commissioners

Making these changes will bring not perfection but would support greater coherence. Crucially they might also defuse some of the current tensions and enable reforms to focus on what should be the key objective for all: improving teaching and learning in the classroom.

Train long, plan smart, teach less, teach deep – tackling teacher recruitment and retention

The problems and pressures of recruiting teachers have been well rehearsed. If anyone was in doubt about the scale or reality of the challenge the recent report by the National Audit Office should torpedo any complacency[1]. The government has missed its recruitment targets for four years in a row – though there are some signs that this year’s numbers may be more encouraging. However, fewer secondary classes are taught by teachers with a relevant post-A level. In addition the proportion of qualified teachers is down and teacher vacancies have doubled – from 0.5% to 1.2%.

As worrying are the statistics on teacher wastage:

  •  around 10% of teachers leave teaching each year (higher for secondary than primary) – and the rate rose between 2011 and 2014;
  •  the proportion leaving for reasons other than retirement rose from 64% to 75%;
  •  an estimated 100,00 teachers trained in the UK are working in the international sector, says Ofsted chief Inspector, Michael Wilshaw[2];
  •  Over a quarter (28%) of newly qualified teachers leave teaching within five years – and if all those who started teacher training are included the figure rises to around 55%[3]; and
  •  since 2000 more than 55,000 teachers have never taught after finishing their training – and the rate of non entry is rising[4].

These headline numbers reveal the scope of the problem but they don’t tell us the cause. Of course, teachers’ pay is lagging behind the private sector and is becoming less competitive but that is far from the full story. There is a deeper malaise affecting the teaching profession. I would suggest we are contending with the following factors:

  • a fragmented initial teacher training (ITT) system. The forecasting model is clunky. There is a lack of clarity for potential applicants surrounding the diverse routes into ITT and the multiple funding options. Universities and schools are competing when they should be collaborating. We are shoehorning into a single year’s training both pedagogical and subject knowledge as well as classroom skills and practice. Not surprisingly trainees’ fitness to teach at the end of the year is variable.
  • pupil behavior – just because the teacher unions argue this point does not make it invalid. Surveys consistently show that low-level pupil disruption saps teacher morale.
  •  workload – many jobs are demanding and many professionals work long hours. So in that sense teachers are no different from many of their peers. So we need to beware of special pleading. However, the combination of preparation, assessment and extra curricular activity alongside the intensity of engaging with young people in the classroom for five or six hours a day is undoubtedly demanding – though arguably no more so than a junior doctor or social worker dealing with child protection issues. However, I suspect that what tips the workload factor into being a burden is the relentless treadmill of constant change coupled with an accountability system that continues to raise the stakes. The recent example of the late changes to the assessment of writing at Key Stage 2 is a classic example. Too much of the change feels like teachers and schools are being ‘done to’, with too little space for ‘bottom up’ innovation and reform.
  • teachers in England get less time for professional development, networking and group or individual research than elsewhere[5]. A feature of those education systems that are performing strongly is the time they give to their teachers to develop their knowledge, prepare their lessons and improve their practice.
  • the introduction of the EBacc is arguably leading to some subjects being sidelined or seen as second tier and this may be affecting applications for subjects such as geography, music, business studies; and
  • there no unifying sense of what it means to be a teaching professional – while we should never go back to the days when education was a secret garden and teachers kept their doors closed to other practitioners we need to develop a sense of teachers having a collective autonomy over their own practice. This was meant to be the mission of the College of Teaching but progress on that front seems very slow.

So what we should do about this situation. Here are four big reforms we might consider.

Reshape the way we recruit teachers. We need to end the artificial distinction between university and school based teacher training and streamline the routes into teaching and the means of financial support. There should be a rolling allocation of places based on a combination of national modeling and sub-regional analysis. Universities and schools should build on the existing sub-regional networks to jointly recruit and select ITT trainees, deliver the training and assess trainees’ progress. All schools should be part of such a network (even if they are not directly involved in delivering the ITT package)

Remodel how we train teachers. There are two dimensions to this. First, as the graphic below summarises, a core curriculum for trainee teachers should embrace key 21st century competences. These include building and teaching subject knowledge, understanding the principles of great pedagogy, knowledge of child and brain development at different ages, effective assessment and classroom practice, developing independent learners and research and learning impact skills.

Revised system for training teachersRemodelled ITT

The second linked reform is to move away from trying to cram all this content into one year and instead conceive of acquiring qualified teacher status over three years. Throughout that time trainees would mix classroom practice with theoretical learning and research. They would continue to have placements across the sub region (so building their experience of teaching in different contexts) but after the first year they would, subject to satisfactory progress, have a licence to teach and be paid a starting salary (at the current level). The revised three-year training programme would account for a substantial proportion of credits for a Masters. Trainees could, if they wished, acquire a full Masters, by writing a thesis either during their training or after acquiring the revised Newly Qualified Status at the end of the third year.

Redesign the way that teachers work in schools. We know the huge difference that good teaching can make to the progress of pupils – particularly those from a disadvantaged background. And we know that within many schools there are big variations in the quality of teaching. That surely points to making teaching much more of a collaborative practice both within and between schools– as Michael Fullan has written: “Good collaboration reduces bad variation”[6]. So we should be making:

  •  joint curriculum and lesson planning the norm;
  •  coaching an everyday experience for teachers and leaders;
  •  knowledge-building and sharing a habit;
  • more time for collaborative inquiry-led learning to create new knowledge;
  •  pupil voice, self-evaluation and peer review the go-to tools for assessing and reflecting on teaching and learning practice; and
  • teachers and staff confident participants in randomised control trials and skilled users of effect size data in order to evaluate the impact of teaching and learning interventions.

If school leaders take this approach seriously it will result in teachers spending more time out of the classroom. Many schools will see this as impractical at the best of times and completely barmy at a time of budget cuts. But if the evidence from other education jurisdictions is that giving teachers more time to prepare, learn and evaluate is what makes for a more effective outcome then we would be crazy not to reconfigure how we organise schools in order to achieve this. Some approaches that would help to generate more time for teacher learning, research and reflection include:

  •  using the practice of marginal gains (borrowed from sports and business management) to reduce the time teachers spend on administrative issues;
  • reviewing homework and assessment polices with a view to improving feedback to students while reducing time spent marking;
  •  adopting smart timetabling, including more intensive teaching for four days;
  •  practising online teacher-to-teacher collaboration across schools as a way of sharing lesson plans, classroom practice (by posting video clips), feedback on interventions and peer review;
  • introducing reading clubs for groups of teachers as a way of generating ideas and discussion about pedagogy and improved classroom practice;
  • holding common insets days across schools and hosting teach-meet style sessions;
  • combining sets and/or classes for some lessons to make the best of a particular teacher’s expertise and free up a colleague either to observe or have time on other learning tasks; and
  • training support staff to oversee in a disciplined and effective way students’ individual and group learning time.

It may be not easy to achieve this cultural shift. But to those who say that it is cloud cuckoo land for teachers to have up to a day a week for planning, coaching, learning and inquiry-led research, I would remind them that we had similar objections when the 10% PPA entitlement was first agreed. Redesigning the teaching week is possible.

Rethink how we lead teaching and learning. There are three important principles here. First, the career options and pathways towards being a subject or curriculum specialist, expert classroom practitioner, pastoral leader or school leader should be clearly set out. Below is a chart that adapts an idea that the Education Select Committee first proposed in 2012. Whether it is this model or a variant of it, teachers embarking on their career should aspire to be expert professionals and they should understand the different options for becoming involved in leading teaching and learning.

Routes in to teaching leadership

Second, we need to develop a greater focus on what, in the United States, is called instructional leadership. The graphic below shows what that looks like for leaders of schools in different contexts – i.e. those leading learning in an individual school, those leading learning across school groups and those leading learning across a local authority, sub-region or region.

Leading learning in different contexts

Different roles of teaching leadershipSource: Graphic adapted from an idea developed by Joanne Quinn, Three keys to maximising impact, 2015

Third, we need to put resources into facilitating teaching and learning between teachers to enable them to work together across schools. Coaching and modeling and inquiry-led learning won’t develop in a systematic way between schools unless it is orchestrated. As more schools become part of multi-academy trusts, teaching school alliances, federations and other school partnership groups there is a great opportunity to reprioritise instructional to support inquiry-led learning and empower teachers to be the professional learners they should be.

 Facilitating teaching and learning across school groups

Leading teaching and learning

Schools and school groups have to use the new school structures to focus on learning together and moving learning around. That is the role and purpose of executive leaders and directors of teaching and learning. Unless they are focused on this they are little more than an expensive on-cost in a school’s budget. But if we can develop a cadre of leaders committed to developing their staff and learning with them about how to improve practice and outcomes, we will be well on the way to refining what it means to be a teacher in the 21st century. And that in turn is the long-term answer to tackling teacher recruitment.

[1] National Audit Office, 2016, Training new teachers, 2016, based on DfE data

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/feb/26/uk-schools-suffering-as-new-teachers-flock-abroad-warns-chief-inspector

[3] DfE, Statistical First Release 21/15, School Workforce in England, Main and Additional Tables

[4] DfE, Op cit

[5] OECD, 2013, Key Findings from the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), England

[6] See http://edsource.org/wp-content/profiles/symposium/Michael%20Fullan-EdSourceSymposium-6.14.pdf

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