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!

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