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Primary Education News
News What impact will the new teaching schools have on education?
With 360 of the targeted 500 teaching schools established, Nick Morrison explores their potential for driving school improvement
For Notre Dame High in Sheffield, becoming a teaching school seemed the obvious next step. It could boast a history of outstanding verdicts from Ofsted, and its leadership team had spent 18 months running a struggling school in the diocese. As a result, it became one of the first cohort of teaching schools and the hub of a group which draws its members from not just its own city of Sheffield, but extending throughout South Yorkshire and into West and North Yorkshire as well.
"It was a natural progression for the stage we were at," says Paul Haigh, director of the Hallam Teaching School Alliance and a member of the senior management team at Notre Dame. "We were increasingly working with other schools, but that was a light-touch approach and this was more of a formal role."
Teaching schools evolved from the training schools programme established as part of London Challenge in 2005, and were formalised in 2010 as a key plank of the government's approach to raise standards.
Owing a debt to the teaching hospitals' model, they aim to provide a more cohesive approach to training and development as a way of driving school improvement. The first teaching school alliances were created in September 2011, and there are now around 360 designated teaching schools, with a target of 500.
Their remit has been described as "the Big Six", covering initial teacher training, continuous professional development, leadership training, school-to-school support, promoting specialist leaders of education, and research and development.
Composition of the alliances varies widely. While some have more formal structures, at Hallam there are around 150 schools in a "fluid" relationship. One of the government's stated aims is giving school leaders responsibility for improvement across the system, which Haigh says is central to its appeal. Membership of a an alliance does not preclude participation in other types of school networks, he adds. Instead, it becomes one of a smorgasbord of options open to schools, who can pick and choose which ones work for them.
"It is the freedom to decide what would work best in our area," he says. "It is not shuffling the blame but is the system looking at itself, working together and saying: 'We know what we need to do; let's not wait for someone to come in and do it for us'."
The focus on initial teacher training, for example, means teaching schools can design their own training programmes. It also takes much of the risk out of recruitment by providing a supply of new teachers, while trainees appreciate the continuity of working in one school and the knowledge there is likely to be a job for them when they qualify, Haigh adds.
The teaching school model has also brought added coherence to continuous professional development, says Andy Squires, director of the Denbigh teaching school alliance and deputy headteacher at Denbigh School in Milton Keynes. Development can be tailored to an individual's needs, aligned to the school's own long-term plans. "The main difference is it gives it a strategic direction," he says. "It means we can develop teachers at the right time, and that will bring a real robustness to education."
Bringing schools together in an alliance also provides more opportunities for promotion, aiding retention of good teachers, while school-based training offers the chance for teachers to develop mentoring skills, he adds.
In themselves, none of the Big Six is new to schools. School-based teacher training, for example, took place under the old graduate teacher programme, now replaced by School Direct, while CPD was run under several auspices, including schools, local authorities and independent providers. The change is in bringing them together into a cohesive programme, says Vivienne Porritt, assistant director for school partnerships at the Institute of Education, University of London.
"It provides the opportunity to have a development continuum across the entire span of a teacher's career," she says. "It means you can focus on the needs of individual teachers and a collaborative group of teachers, and plan coherent opportunities to develop them, improve their skills and raise attainment for children."
Although the School Direct programme, in particular, has been seen as a potential threat to the role of higher education in teacher training, Porritt says the creation of teaching schools offers opportunities for universities to work more closely with schools.
Aligning teaching practice with the latest research is a key attraction of this approach, says Sue Snowdon, executive head of Beal High in Redbridge, the hub of one of the newest alliances in the programme, the North-east London teaching alliance. Teachers will also be encouraged to take postgraduate qualifications as part of their CPD, and to develop leadership skills at all levels, she adds.
Although each alliance is based around one school, which has to be rated outstanding for teaching and learning to become a teaching school, a successful approach requires sharing good practice between schools, rather than one school imposing its vision on its partners, says Kate Wilson, manager of the Medway alliance, whose hub is Sir Joseph Williamson's Mathematical School in Rochester, Kent. This involves a recognition that all schools can learn from each other.
"There is a fundamental sense of working collaboratively," she says. "Schools that are helping others will readily acknowledge they have learned as much from the process. It is win-win." In this model, CPD becomes less about delivering courses and more about teachers working together, she says.
Teaching school status brings a financial reward – £150,000 over three years – with the challenge of creating a sustainable model once the funding ends, she adds. There is a risk, however, in creating a patchwork approach to teacher training, with variations in both quality and capacity in different parts of the country. South-west England and the East Midlands, for example, both have a disproportionately low number of teaching schools. "There is a question over what happens in a region where they haven't got access to a teaching school," says Porritt.
There are also uncertainties about what happens should the hub school lose its outstanding grade. So far, schools in this position have been given a breathing space to win it back and retain their status, but longer term this could be a problem.
Building capacity should, given time, ensure hub schools do not end up spreading themselves too thinly, says Haigh. He recognises the danger of one school claiming a monopoly on teaching wisdom, and says a collaborative approach represents the best chance of making teaching schools a success. "We have got to be careful that we're not saying 'This is the only way of teaching'," he says. "We're not trying to tell people how to do their jobs; we're trying to help them find a better way."