Where do we stand?
Education debates in this country are often lively and mostly polarised. The media thrives on, and to a great extent needs, robust argument and adversarial comment but has less space for identifying where there is agreement and consensus. However, there are many issues in education where there is substantive agreement between the political parties, where consensus has developed and been sustained over time. One such area is in the shared understanding that good heads, teachers and schools can help others to raise standards and improve outcomes and that the skills to improve the system lie within the system itself. Politicians, across the board, want schools to take more responsibility for themselves and each other in delivering a true self-improving school system. The All party Education Select Committee, in its recent report on school partnerships and co-operation, reflected the established consensus that high quality collaboration through partnerships delivers improved outcomes. The Committee said: “School partnerships and cooperation have become an increasingly important part of a self-improving or school-led system. We believe that such collaboration has great potential to continue driving improvement to the English education system.” Meanwhile Ofsted, back in 2010, said that whole system improvement is the holy grail of education reform.
There are a number of ways, according to Professor Toby Greany of the Institute of Education ‘ in which school-to-school support and system leadership can be brokered and structured, none of which are mutually exclusive. The key models in place include structural governance models (such as multi-academy trusts and federations), designations based on formal criteria (such as National Leaders of Education and Teaching Schools) and role related partnerships (such as where an executive head oversees two or more schools).’
These partnerships ,he says, are being seen as the answer both at the “failing” end of the spectrum (where academy chains, ideally led by outstanding schools, are brokered to take control), as well as the “upstream” improvement of existing teachers.
The London Challenge and to a slightly lesser extent the Manchester Challenge, have been used as examples of how good partnership working and collaboration can work across a system of schools. Of course, with London’s success, as some have suggested, there were a number of key factors at work which are difficult to disaggregate and isolate as to their direct effect on outcomes. There was an overarching commissioner, Tim Brighouse ,who helped provide moral leadership and drive, there was extra funding made available (and the disadvantaged areas targeted were becoming wealthier over the period of the Challenge) education experts known as Challenge Advisors played a significant role and good use of data packs allowed schools to compare their performance with other schools with very similar characteristics (ie comparing like with like-so there was no place to hide). There was also a plentiful supply of outstanding Heads and teachers in London from which to draw (in a sense London is exceptional in this respect)
The overarching challenge is to try and ensure now that effective collaboration and partnerships work across the system, to deliver systemic improvement from the bottom up rather than top down. Currently collaboration is very good in some areas but signally lacking in others. The system is fragmented. In some of the most disadvantaged areas there is the least evidence of partnership working. In other words it would be wrong to assume that collaboration is the default position. And if you are relying on collaboration to deliver improved outcomes, then surely this is a prerequisite.
When the Challenge ended the concept of Teaching Schools, which had been pioneered as part of the London Challenge, was continued, while the number of National Leaders of Education was more than doubled. Teaching schools appear to be a success but their effects are patchy. The big challenge for politicians now is to ensure that the system has incentives (carrots and sticks) to deliver more collaboration, across the system, drawing inspiration from good collaboration projects including, of course, the London Challenge, while accepting that some elements that made the London Challenge successful are difficult or impossible to replicate and up-scale in other areas, for example in rural areas and coastal towns .
Research ‘Lessons from London schools’ due out this year is being carried out by CfBT Education Trust with Centre for London and LKMCo . This might provide some useful evidence and insights to help inform this debate and some pointers as to the way forward.