I spend a lot of my time working with school leaders on developing their partnership, teaching school alliance or academy trust. The most frequent question I get asked – especially when schools are at the early stage of thinking about working with other schools – is, “How do I convince my governors that my school won’t lose out if we start supporting or engaging with another school?” The subtext to the question being that governors are worried about the performance of ‘their’ school if the head and/or some of the best teachers begin to spend some of their time and energy supporting other institutions.
Dig beneath the headlines and this week’s Ofsted report contains some interesting insights that are relevant to this question. Essentially Ofsted is arguing that schools that work just within their own bubble are exposing themselves to risk. Ofsted’s examination of the factors that cause schools to decline from outstanding or good to requires improvement or inadequate found that:
“The main problem common to these schools was that the headteacher, who in several cases had recently left, had allowed the school to lose focus on quality – schools had simply drifted along and become out of date. Often, they had not kept up with developments in education and were not challenged sufficiently by governors or their senior team. In several schools, a powerful headteacher had resisted external intervention and also restricted the development of promising senior and middle leaders.”
In short these schools had become closed rather than open institutions. The same trend comes through in Ofsted’s analysis of converter academies: “Too many are working in isolation”. Half of all academies are not part of a multi-academy trust and are “not doing enough to build networks with other schools”. Academies that experienced a sharp fall in inspection grade last year revealed that:
“Most had not made any arrangement for external support and challenge until it was too late and serious decline had set in. The academies in question had an overly optimistic view of their current position.”
Even where some academies were involved in collaboration it was sometimes as a means to “pool resources and save money, rather than as a way of driving up standards”.
Partnership may not be the complete answer to mitigating these risks but there is a strong case for arguing that schools involved in effective collaboration would be less susceptible to them. Ofsted underlines this by providing not just a negative rationale for school partnership, but also including evidence for the positive reasons for doing so. And, significantly for a body that has often been behind the curve in understanding school-to-school working, the report demonstrates an understanding that such partnership is very often multi-dimensional.
“There are examples of schools, particularly primaries, that are now involved in more than one collaboration. Typically, these provide different types of school-to-school support, such as being part of a teaching school alliance, collaborating with a local secondary school or buying business services from another school. These different types of relationship can all benefit schools through sharing of resources and expertise, giving the schools more scope to succeed than would be possible if they worked in isolation.”
Crucially Ofsted emphasises that the partnership dividend applies to a school that already considers itself strong or high performing. Governors should note that collaboration brings benefits not just to the school that a head and other leaders may be supporting, “but to their own school, enriching their staff and the quality of teaching.” I would add to that list that it also aids and accelerates leadership development within the home school.
However, before I am accused of being all dewy-eyed about school-to-school working we also need to note two cautionary notes flagged up by Ofsted that pose challenges for school partnerships.
First, Ofsted notes the limited impact of governor reviews, that the inspectorate recommends when schools are identified as having weak governance. In my experience school partnerships too often bypass or ignore the development of governors. But just as teachers in different schools gain from planning, working with, observing and coaching each other, so can school governors. Sitting on each other’s governor’s meetings, examining how governance practices work in different schools, undertaking joint governor development and peer reviewing each other’s schools are all options that could and should be added to the partnership menu. Governors, every bit as much as school leaders and teachers, need to see and experience what high quality supportive and challenging governance looks like.
Second, partnerships do not of themselves automatically add value. They can be flabby as well as effective. Ofsted observes how many academies that had improved their grade from good to outstanding “had retained external advisers to inform the debate between headteacher and governors about accurate self-evaluation. This injected a crucial reality check to the conversation”.
That principle also applies to school partnerships. Schools working together may lack a sharp cutting edge or at worst become too cosy with each other. While schools may be comfortable in flagging up areas of development for their peers in a partnership to work on, it requires high trust and a really mature collaboration to agree mechanisms that could, for example trigger intervention in one of the schools. Partnerships may also not be as rigorous as they should be in assessing the impact of their joint work together. Using external advisers – often in tandem with peer assessment – can help to keep partnerships honest.
In many ways it is ironic but welcome that at the end of a Parliament which started out with a focus on individual schools and academies we have ended up with an emphasis on partnership, school clusters, federations and multi-academy trusts. The job for schools, policy makers and politicians in the next Parliament will be to sustain the momentum and bring coherence to the efforts to build a self-improving school system.