Proceed with caution
From this autumn, in addition to the new inspection regime, secondary schools in 27 authorities will be meeting their school improvement partner for the first time. Julie Nightingale looks at how it is likely to work.
The DfES team leading the school improvement partner trials have consistently stressed that it is a collaborative enterprise - schools should not feel the process is being 'done to' them.
Nevertheless, the arrival of a stranger in one's midst who will make judgements on the school - especially if it's someone who hasn't walked the talk in schools - will make most school leaders justifiably sceptical.
So how is it likely to work? SHA member Peter Senior, head at Steyning Grammar School in West Sussex, was among the first cohort to go forward for SIP training and worked with a school for the whole of the last school year in the trials.
He visited the school four times during the course of the year, starting with a meeting with the head in the autumn term.
The annual review was carried out on his second visit, where he also met the leadership team and members of the governing body. Recommendations were picked up again at his visit in the spring by which time self-evaluation had emerged as the chief issue for the school.
At his final visit of the year in June, he and the head studied self-evaluation processes further and made progress on other matters such as the school's application for specialist status.
Peter is also acting as external adviser for the head's annual performance review which, he suggests, helps cut down on duplication of work as the school only has to prepare relevant material once.
"Once you are in the role, it seems to me that you are in a good position to do the review. The SIP already has an understanding of the data and other aspects of the school so it's a much more meaningful experience."
Melvyn Kershaw, head of Haybridge High School and Sixth Form at Stourbridge in the West Midlands is taking up his first SIP post this year.
At his first meeting, he anticipates having an open discussion with the head about his initial observations of the school.
He says: "Any SIP will have read the data and will have a perception of the school but he or she will know that it is only a hypothesis and will want to discuss that with the head."
On paper, it is easy to see why some heads will approach the first meeting with a degree of scepticism, Melvyn agrees.
"It is important that the SIP has professional credibility. If someone is going to be my critical friend, I want someone whose judgment I trust. I would have more trust in a fellow head than in an Ofsted inspector."
The head can also choose to use the SIP for specific projects, for example asking them to look at a particular subject or school management area and to talk to the leadership team or other staff, Melvyn points out.
"The SIP won't be interviewing people in an inspectoral role and the relationship with the leadership team and other staff is at the discretion of the head."
There's also scope for some collaborative working, he suggests. "It could be that the SIP can help schools to help each other, for example, by putting those doing self-evaluation in touch with those that need support in that area.
"The SIP may have expertise of his or her own which a school could draw on but it's important to keep the role clear. The SIP shouldn't be a fixer who tells the school how to do something."
Inevitably, the success of the relationship between SIP and school will vary, being dependent on personalities, understanding of the context of the school and, of course, the quality of the training.
SHA members who applied in the first round of training have raised a number of concerns, from problems with the online application to the heavy emphsasis on data over interpersonal skills.
Some members said the application deadline of less than two weeks was too short for heads who were trying to complete it at weekends. They felt it put heads at a disadvantage compared with candidates from LEAs, although the DfES says this has not materialised in the numbers that have gone through the first round of applications.
Another emerging problem is lack of time. The SIP is timetabled to spend up to five days per academic year in his or her school and - putting aside the question of whether this is adequate - there's vagueness over whether it should take into account travelling time.
There's also the question of the impact on the SIP's own school. In theory, it creates more leadership opportunities for the senior team and others to show their mettle.
In practice, Melvyn Kershaw points out, even with a sound system of distributed leadership in place, his workload still increases when he is away from school.
Geography is another issue. The initial proposal was the SIPs would not work with schools in their own LEA. However, exactly the opposite seems to be happening in the initial roll out.
That concerns SHA member Marcia Twelftree, head at Charters School in Berkshire. She has been through the SIP training and is also a member of the Implementation Review Unit (IRU) which looked at SIPs in its annual report published in July.
"I don't think SIPs should come from the same authority because there is the greater risk of 'cosiness' developing so the challenging element of the relationship is diminished.
"There's also the matter of competition between neighbouring schools, and it's difficult to get that balance right."
On the other hand, placing SIPs in schools in entirely unfamiliar contexts would be counter-productive, she thinks.
"I would not want to be a SIP in a school in highly challenging circumstances as that's not my experience. I would need to work in similar local authorities to mine but not in my own. But as they are LEA appointments, it's the LEA that can choose."
Both school leaders and LEA applicants are eligible to become SIPs, a fact which is making some uneasy. Melvyn Kershaw for one is adamant that only those with direct experience of headship should be put forward.
"If you are going to have them as a critical friend then they should be heads, as they are the only ones who truly understand the job. Link inspectors in LEAs can be of variable quality and their weakness often stems from the fact that they have been employed to do a different job in the first place."
Marcia agrees. "The whole single conversation is predicated on the SIP and their role holds it together. I'm really keen that the majority should be experienced school leaders. It's about making judgments on ways forward and that's very much connected to the role in school."
The IRU report was generally pleased with the way the SIP programme has been developed thus far and Marcia thinks that, once the issues are addressed, it is something that will benefit the profession as a whole.
She says: "I think people will be guarded until they see it working successfully but I have spoken to heads who have been 'sipped' during the pilot and their views are very positive.
"They found it a useful mix of challenge and support from a well-respected practitioner. I think they find it's better than what we've had before."
SHA has been supportive of school improvement partners from the start. If implemented as proposed, it will reduce bureaucracy for members and increase schools' accountability and autonomy.
However, issues with the initial training have raised some questions as to how the SIPs will work in practice. SHA members are involved in the DfES groups that are monitoring the process and we will continue to make your concerns heard.
© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders