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 http://www.cfbt.com/research/research-library/2014/r-partnership-working-2014.

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 (http://www.cfbt.com/research/research-library/2014/r-partnership-working-2014), but over the next few days I’ll also post these lessons on this blog.

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