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.

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