Improving schools outside the big cities

On 29th January IPPR hosted a roundtable discussion on how we should be driving school improvement outside of the big cities in England – particularly in rural and coastal areas. I was asked to be one of the speakers who kicked off the debate. We were given four questions to address:

  • Which policies are best suited to driving school improvement outside of big cities, such as in rural and coastal areas?
  • How have schools outside of big cities fostered collaboration and improvement partnerships?
  • How can schools in more remote areas attract high performing teachers?
  • What incentives and structures are needed to ensure that all schools collaborate with each other?

I opened by arguing that although there were some significant differences between developing school improvement strategies within and beyond cities, there were also some aspects in common. Therefore, the starting point ought to be to look at what we know about making system-wide improvement across localities. I drew on work for my 2012 report for the RSA on The missing middle the case for school commissioners* to highlight 10 lessons on leading area-wide improvement.

1.Reform is led at a regional or sub-regional level

2.There is clear strategic leadership and accountability – based on a democratic mandate and strong moral purpose

3.Dedicated resources, school leaders, strategies, curriculum, LAs, employers and other agencies are aligned to support the strategy

4.Reforms empower and develop school leaders

5.Partners understand and agree on their respective roles

6.Strategies combine hard and soft interventions but target struggling schools and improving classroom teaching

7.Strategies build the capacity of the system to support itself

8.Data tracking and comparative data support improvement

9.Reform evolves over time – there are different phases

10.The programme is given time to deliver improvement

Based on my experience of  developing reform strategies in Wales, undertaking research in Lincolnshire and supporting partnerships in other counties I had a slide addressing each of the four questions in turn:

Which policies are best suited to driving school improvement outside of big cities, such as in rural and coastal areas? Draw on the 10 strategies above with particular reference to:

  • Making an honest appraisal of the status quo (strengths/weaknesses) & drivers of failure
  • Developing a vision and strategy grounded in the needs and context of the area
  • Really engaging key partners – school leaders, councils, teachers, employers, HE, FE, parents and governors – doing improvement with, not to, them
  • Thinking about implications for the curriculum, progression routes and broader education offer
  • Using high calibre Challenge Advisers (including the best local headteachers) to diagnose issues & broker support
  • Bringing in school-based improvement expertise from outside the area
  • Developing the skills of middle leaders
  • Improving classroom practice – ITP/OTP and teaching core skills
  • Tackling systemic failure- including leadership and governance

How have schools outside of big cities fostered collaboration and improvement partnerships?

  • Three models: Geographical clusters – particularly in rural areas; hard school improvement clusters, federations and multi academy trusts etc; and soft school improvement clusters such as teaching school alliances and curriculum support networks
  • These models are not mutually exclusive – schools will probably belong to at least two types of cluster
  • Partnership needs steering, nurturing, enabling and facilitating to ensure no school is left behind and partnerships mature – ideally this is best done by a local authorities that understands its new more strategic role in school improvement
  • Executive leadership is important in all models (and can generate savings)
  • Technology can play an import role in partnering in rural areas

How can schools in more remote areas attract high performing teachers? There is no magic bullet but:

  • Develop an area-wide ITT approach/curriculum in partnership with universities, SCITTs and teaching school alliances
  • Use high performing schools as the ‘front of house’ for recruiting to School Direct
  • Use Teach First
  • Use financial incentives
  • Use clusters as a recruitment pool – linked to cluster-wide contracts
  • Formalise and promote a CPD offer
  • Highlight quality of life benefits of living in coastal/rural area

What incentives and structures are needed to ensure that all schools collaborate with each other?

  • Set out clear partnership strategy and pathway following dialogue with heads, governors and dioceses
  • Offer start-up funding based on meeting key conditions
  • Route support/services through clusters – i.e. make clustering mainstream
  • Provide seedcorn funding for JPD/R&D programmes on cluster basis
  • Link leadership development programmes to cross-cluster deployments
  • Devolve special needs funding to clusters
  • Use vacancies and poor performance to create executive heads and hard clusters
  • Enable clusters to learn from each other (particularly on enabling staff to work with each other across schools)
  • Look at the performance of clusters as well as individual schools
  • Challenge schools and partnerships where necessary
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