First things first. In order to comprehend this post and keep up-to-date with the burgeoning alphabet soup of government acronyms, you need to know that SRIBs are Sub-Regional Improvement Boards, SSIF is the Strategic School Improvement Fund and TLIF is the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund.
In each of the eight RSC (Regional School Commissioner) regions local authorities (LA)s are being grouped together into SRIBs. In some cases a single large authority might constitute a sub-region – particularly if it has a significant number of weak or underperforming schools. In other cases the sub-region might comprise several LAs. Although a formal announcement has yet to be made we can expect there to be around 35 of these SRIBs.
SRIBs will bring together Teaching School Council representatives, LA directors of children’s services (or their representative), diocesan representatives, RSCs and/or their deputies and a representative of the DfE’s regional delivery division (of which more anon).
MATs will not be directly represented on SRIBs but through regular sessions between RSCs and MAT CEOs their views will be fed into the Boards.
The remit of SRIBs will – at least to start with – be focused around coordinating the effective use of the £140 million a year of SSIF funding that will run through 2017/18 and 2018/19. SRIBs will identify improvement priorities for their area through data and local intelligence; agree the packages of support that are required to address thematic weaknesses and the challenges of particular struggling schools; make recommendations to the DfE on bids for SSIF funding; and monitor the progress of successful applications.
So is this just more centralist bureaucracy or is it an enlightened and welcome development? Let’s start with the positive.
The good news
SRIBS build on what has already been developing informally in some RSC areas. The school system has become very fragmented and so it is very welcome that there is to be a forum for bringing together the RSC, LAs, diocesan and Teaching School representatives. It’s also welcome that the new arrangements are place-based and cross the maintained school/academy divide and take an overview of local school improvement issues – irrespective of the school structure or designation. This is long overdue.
The plans also represent a sensible evolution of the original and unrealistic proposals in the 2016 White Paper that envisaged Teaching Schools as the sole or main brokers of school improvement support. But it’s good that the DfE has not thrown out the baby with the bathwater and that teaching school aliances are still being recognised as playing a key role in the improvement agenda.
So far so good – I suspect ministers will not have found it easy to accept the need for this sort of machinery but credit to them for biting the bullet.
Questions and reservations
Having said that I have a number of reservations and questions about the new arrangements.
First, the DfE is making the same mistake that New Labour made post 2000. A whole range of funding pots are being established which require groups of schools to submit bids. As well as the SSIF and TLIF there is funding for Opportunity Areas, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), the Academy Growth Fund and LA commissioned school improvement. The history of competitive bidding (both within and outside education) as a device for distributing funding to support improvement is not that strong. It sucks up a lot of time putting bids together, some bidders syphon off funding to help plug baseline funding gaps and prop up their main budget. Improvement effort also tends to fall away when the funding stops – the risk is that the programme is seen as an add-on rather than being mainstream.
Second, the funding for the SSIF only runs for two years: all interventions must end by March 2019. That’s crazy – many projects will really only just be getting into their stride when they have to stop. The lesson from so many programmes (e.g. Excellence in Cities and London Challenge) is that you need to sustain the strategy over a much longer period. You also need to refine interventions evaluating impact as you go. The learning from an 18 month project (which is what the phase 2 applications will be) is bound to be be limited.
Third, it is a deficit model – SSIF is focused on weaknesses. High-performing jurisdictions such as Ontario focus on all schools working together to effect improvement across the board. So is it sensible to separate the SSIF and TLIF agendas – particularly as the sums involved are not that large and only the SSIF will come within the remit of SRIBs?
Fourth, will SRIBs have enough financial muscle? £140 million a year may sound a lot but £600 million was cut from school improvement support when the Education Services Grant was axed. Moreover sharing the SSIF funding among 35 SRIBs would mean mean just £4 million per sub-region. That’s welcome additional support but hardly an abundance of riches. However, adding in the £75 million from the TLIF, the £50 million allocated to LAs and the extra £20 million for the EEF would double the sum each sub-region received. This would provide a much more realistic pot for supporting a holistic school improvement strategy for a sub-region.
Fifth, SRIBs as constituted at this stage, perpetuate a centralist model. Yes, co-ordinating the views and work of a range of stakeholders is a good thing. Basing SSIF recommendations on the views of a National Expert Panel is sensible and progressive. But decisions are still ultimately being taken by Ministers. Civil servants are in the driving seat at every level of the process. Surely it would have been more interesting and innovative to have let SRIBs make their own decisions and compare and contrast how different sub-regions operated and made impact.
The DfE still essentially sees itself as a giant local education authority responsible for all schools in the country. A tendency that is likely to be reinforced as the department extends its regional operations and delivery functions. Sitting alongside the RSCs and their staff will be a new Education Standards team. Their remit will cover wider school improvement, teacher sufficiency and teacher leadership and development issues. In practice I foresee some tensions between RSCs and their Education Standards colleagues with academies having to respond to demands from both teams.
Sixth, excluding all MAT CEOs from SRIBs seems a bit odd. They constitute some of our most able and strategic school thinkers and leaders. The reason given is that there might be a conflict of interest – i.e. MATs might be subject to intervention and/or be involved in a SSIF bid. But teaching school council representatives on SRIBs will also face some of those issues in that they will be very much involved in bids. Surely MAT representatives could be involved but recuse themselves from any matter in which their MAT was involved.
Seventh, how does this agenda fit with the role of other local bodies? Some LAs, for example, have their own highly effective improvement board arrangements, in which school leaders play a leading role. City mayors may not have a formal remit for education but if the example of London is anything to go by a concern about skills will quickly move mayors into engaging with the quality of schooling.
Some of these concerns may be unfair. After all we are only at the start of a process and changes could be made along the way. I hope that SRIBs really do add value and that this leads to greater trust in local arrangements. But I am left with this question: will SRIBs and SSIF become an effective platform for harnessing, steering and realising the full value of school-led improvement expertise or do they represent the beginning of the end for the vision of a school-led improvement system?