Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Up in the air?

Lady juggling apples

The support given to schools in difficulty is contradictory at best, but more often damaging, says John Dunford. There is no overall support strategy and a particularly confusing picture for the staff of the school being 'supported'.

An ASCL member recently emailed me using his private address to tell me about the 'support' his school is receiving. It was too risky, he thought, to use his work email.

The school is under an Ofsted notice to improve, which imposes one set of issues to address, and also under the scrutiny of the School Improvement and Targets Unit (SITU) of the DCSF, which creates an entirely different set of targets and, incidentally, takes no account of other government policies, such as inclusion and Every Child Matters.

Under SITU it is not every child that matters; it is the SITU targets that matter.

The head reports that his key middle managers are wilting under the pressure and looking for easier jobs. He himself is answering to five different people - SITU, the school improvement partner (SIP), the local authority, Ofsted and the governors.

This is typical of the situation that the system imposes on schools in need of improvement.

Another member wrote to tell me that her school had a 'satisfactory' Ofsted report with 'good' capacity to improve. But the local authority (LA) has put the school on its 'causing concern' list and is pushing the school into failure with its aggressive and unsupportive approach. Significantly, perhaps, among the staff in this LA the highest level experience of secondary leadership is as head of department.

I have been saying for at least three years that the DCSF needs to develop a clearer, more strategic approach to support for schools in difficulty. No action has been taken by the department, so I shall present a paper to them at the next meeting of the New Relationship with Schools (NRwS) consultative group and try to set the ball rolling.

Support for schools in difficulty currently occurs in the following ways, from:

  • the school improvement partner, whose role is 'support and challenge'

  • the local authority, which has statutory responsibility for the quality of education in its schools, under the terms of Guidance on Schools Causing Concern, which arose from the Education and Inspections Act 2006

  • National Strategies, which employs staff to work with schools causing concern

  • the School Improvement and Targets Unit (SITU) of the DCSF

  • City Challenge in London, Manchester and the Black Country

  • National Leaders of Education (NLE) and their National Support Schools (NSS), brokered by NCSL

  • twinning schools under the academy programme

  • HMI, when the school is in special measures

  • the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT), through the Raising Achievement Transforming Learning (RATL) project, for example

  • private providers

Schools requiring support in specific areas may also look to their own resources or those of other schools in their partnership(s).

School support has become contested territory and there is no single place in which all these arrangements are set out clearly. It is apparent from the emails I receive from members in receipt of 'support', such as the two quoted above, that it is a very top-down process, in which various things are 'done to', not with, the school.

Long-term health plan

However, a focus on the long-term health of the school, instead of a quick fix, would indicate a different approach. The principles for this are clear and are given in the ASCL book, Achieving More Together (2008) by Robert Hill.

The starting point should be the school itself and its self-evaluation process, as summarised in the SEF. This should identify the school's strengths and weaknesses and be the basis for the head's conversation with the SIP. If they agree that certain areas of the school need external help, the head and the SIP need a clear map of where to go for support.

The first place to seek support may be the school itself. If, say, the science department is under-performing, does the school have a leader - a member of the senior leadership team or the head of another department - who can work with the head of science?

More likely, the school will want to look outside for help and so benefit from an external stimulus, so the next place to turn is the local family of schools. If there is a healthy local partnership between schools, heads can broker these arrangements themselves, using resources that should be brought to the partnership by the local authority.

If adequate support cannot be found in the school itself or in other partner schools, the head and the SIP must look elsewhere. For this to happen efficiently, there needs to be a clear map of available support, which can be brokered by an effective LA acting in its role as commissioner of services to schools.

Part of the muddle occurs when local authorities seek to provide this support from their own staff instead of commissioning the best people from elsewhere. For school with more serious problems, the course of action is set out in the DCSF document Guidance on Schools Causing Concern. Yet this does not give the whole picture and is already out of date.

If a school is in special measures, the LA approaches the NCSL in order to find the most appropriate national leader of education (NLE) and national support school (NSS). The LA works with the NCSL to commission the required support. This is proving to be a particularly effective scheme, mainly for schools in special measures. It is not clear how the recently announced twinning arrangement under the academies programme, which is almost identical to the NLE/NSS scheme, is related to it.

The NCSL's London Leadership Strategy - part of the London Challenge -has worked extremely effectively by pairing successful schools with 'keys to success' schools, with achievement being raised in both schools during the course of the partnership.

Partnership raises expectations

The conclusion of Achieving More Together is that partnership working improves inputs, outputs and outcomes and ASCL is in no doubt that the centre of the school support strategy should be partnership working. Development is more effective if staff in a school have a clear link with another school, exposing them to new perspectives and more effective ways of working. Partnership raises expectations and shows how things can be done differently.

So, instead of the current jumble of school improvement initiatives, in which each agency is under pressure to justify its own existence as much as to improve the school in question, the emphasis should be on establishing well resourced partnerships.

The local authority would normally commission the arrangement and should always delegate its school improvement funding to the partnership leaders.

Using this model, which has been demonstrated to work in many places and different situations, I suggest that the National Strategies should also devolve all its resources to school partnerships in exchange for the partnership showing that it has a strategy for staff support and raising student achievement. The partnership can then use these resources to commission support from advanced skills teachers, temporary additional staff, consultants or whoever is most suited to help.

Under this pattern, the role of the local authority changes from providing support to brokering and commissioning, and promoting effective partnership working between its schools. The model may be different for primary schools, but the level of expertise in secondary school leadership in most local authorities is such that this is the only way that they can make effective use of their school improvement resources.

In relation to the SIP, the local authority should be using the SIP to monitor the progress of the school and provide challenge where necessary. Other 'link advisers' are not needed, unless that is what the partnership decides is required.

With partnership at the centre of school improvement, as Achieving More Together has shown it to be, the muddle of school support can be clarified, SITU and the National Strategies can monitor progress at a distance, holding the partnership to account for the improvement.

The SIP can do the regular monitoring, calling in Ofsted when s/ he thinks that the school has reached the next level of achievement - a far cry from the more frequent inspections proposed recently by the chief inspector.

And ASCL members at the centre of these situations will not feel that they have to contact me from their private email address.


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