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Primary Education News
News The self-improvement school system: the pros and cons of co-operation
The self-improvement school system is still evolving, but early indicators suggest it's working well. Nick Morrison explores the challenges and benefits of this collaborative working method
The concept of school-to-school support is nothing new. Ever since school improvement found its way onto the mainstream policy agenda in the 1980s, the idea of schools offering each other support has been hovering around, often in a low-key fashion.
But headteachers are now getting to grips with an educational landscape where what has come to be known as the self-improving school system (SISS) is taking centre stage. SISS, with the emphasis on the system rather than the school as self-improving, envisages the creation of a network of schools delivering sustainable gains in pupil achievement.
To an extent, it is the product of necessity. As some local authorities disengage from direct involvement in school improvement – under the combined pressure of budget cuts and an increase in the number of schools outside local authority control – headteachers have been forced to look for alternatives. But it is also born of the belief that the best source of support often lies within other schools.
According to Professor David Hargreaves, an expert in this model of school improvement, there are four conditions that need to be met: the creation of a cluster of schools; schools providing their own solutions; a congruence of values, priorities and approaches, and the commitment of key leaders to work towards a common purpose.
One example of how this works in practice is By Schools For Schools, an organisation created in Greater Manchester that works with around 150 schools. "We wanted it to be an inclusive model. The only qualification for membership is the commitment to supporting and using the system," says Vicky Beer, headteacher at Ashton-on-Mersey School in Cheshire and the organisation's co-chair. "Part of our remit is about sharing capacity and knowledge so it becomes self-sustaining."
Participants sign up both to offer and receive support, and By Schools For Schools act as a brokering and a quality assurance service. It also develops some programmes in-house, such as how to move from good to outstanding.
While headteachers have always communicated, Beer says the existence of a formal infrastructure has been crucial in embedding this collaborative approach so it develops beyond an ad hoc way of working and doesn't just become reliant on one or two individuals taking the lead.
It has not been without its challenges. Beer admits that the demands on time can be considerable, and By Schools For Schools has employed a project manager to shoulder the workload. There also have to be controls in place to ensure schools do not profiteer from selling their services and that individual schools become overwhelmed with requests for help.
The organisation's quality assurance role risks ruffling feathers. "We have had some challenging conversations with colleagues about quality assurance," Beer says. "But it does lead to a more open discussion."
Although results have been encouraging in schools that have been supported, and there is a lot of repeat business, Beer says one of the real tests for whether this approach has a long-term future will be if heads continue to put themselves forward to get involved in the organisation's steering group.
A perennial concern about the effectiveness of this sort of co-operation is the effect of competition between schools, particularly in areas where roles are declining. Jo Appleyard, head of Elmridge Primary in Trafford and a member of the By Schools For Schools steering group, says it relies on heads taking a wider view. "There is competition, we have to be realistic," she says. "But that doesn't mean you should close your doors. There are some heads who will take it on and some heads who are quite happy to work within their own silo."
There are a number of other models for delivering improvement, including academy chains and teaching school alliances. But there is a risk that some schools could find themselves left out, according to Vivienne Porritt, assistant director for school partnerships at the Institute of Education in London. "If schools are not in a cluster or an alliance or an academy chain then where do they go for external support?" she says.
There are also concerns around SISS becoming a top-down approach where one or two schools take a dominating role, Porritt adds. Others are concerned that there needs to be an overview in place to ensure the system delivers for all pupils – a role traditionally taken by local authorities.
Although much of this approach is still being worked out, and there is no evidence yet of the effectiveness of a national SISS, results from the London Challenge school improvement programme are promising. "Identifying and supporting heads to work with other schools was one of the most significant strategies for bringing about the enormous improvement in London," Porritt says.
Travis Lathan, executive principal of George Betts and Shireland Hall primaries in Smethwick in the West Midlands, argues that while the success of the SISS relies on the willingness of schools to work together, it offers more flexibility and more opportunities than the local authority-led school improvement model.
"You can highlight a need and react to that quite quickly, without having to go through a local authority brokering service or wait for a consultant to become available," he says. Nor are schools confined to working within local authority boundaries, he adds.
In April his schools will join the Elliot Foundation, an academy trust specialising in primary schools, which has a cluster of schools in the West Midlands. "Sometimes we will have disagreements but you have got to be grown-up about it," he says. "If you are committing to a particular way of working, sometimes it might not work for you, but the bottom line is you have made that commitment."
Since Kings Rise Academy in Birmingham joined the Elliot Foundation in November, it has benefited from support in improving progress in Year 2, while sharing its own expertise in safeguarding. "The advantage of this approach is that we can all learn from each other," says headteacher Paul Edgerton.
With different models developing across the country, the future shape of this approach is still emerging. But while the result may be a patchwork of different local solutions, Vicky Beer at By Schools For Schools suggests it could yet prove more effective.
"At one point we discussed whether we would be needed because there is a teaching school model," she says. "But we need this messy picture to stop people falling through the cracks."