Partnership for life
ASCL has been keeping a close eye on the school improvement partner (SIP) programme since it rolled out to all secondary schools in September. The association has backed the initiative as a means of providing a single point of contact and a support mechanism for heads, ideally from an experienced colleague.
Whether this is actually happening on the ground remains to be seen.
In December, ASCL sent a survey to members to find out how the roll out has gone so far. We received responses from 303 heads and 23 other school leaders involved in the SIP process. As well, 46 members who are serving SIPs responded from their perspective.
Observations from heads
About two-thirds of heads said that their SIP had headship experience, which mirrors the national figures, although the vast majority said they would prefer someone with headship experience.
About half of heads said that they still had a local authority (LA) link adviser, in addition to the SIP, a response which seemed consistent across almost all local authorities. Many who still have a link adviser feel that the relationship has been positive as that person knows the school well.
Respondents were asked to answer four questions on a one-to-four scale, with one being very poor and four being excellent. On the whole, heads whose SIP is a serving or former head were happier with the process - their answers were consistently 10 per cent higher than those with LA SIPs.
On the LA consultation on the allocation of SIPs, the overall response was a very average 2.6. About 15 per cent gave the process a top mark of four but another 15 per cent gave it a one.
Some heads were completely involved in the consultation process for a SIP from the interview stage. Some could indicate a preference, although this wasn't always met, and some were given the opportunity to veto any SIP whom they felt wasn't appropriate. One person said: "I requested a SIP with recent experience of leading in a voluntary-aided school and this was arranged with a minimum of fuss."
Others were notified by letter or email of their SIP allocation with little or no consultation. One head wrote: "This was a process done to us, not with us. Governors had no say in the selection process or whether the person allocated was suitable for our school."
Once they got down to business, it appears that, where the SIP has a good relationship with the head and the governors, both the performance management process and target setting seem to work well. The overall rating for both areas was 2.8, with performance management scoring slightly higher on the top end.
Several heads commented on how well prepared the SIP seemed and how professional the process was. "The process was more detailed and thorough and involved the governors in a much more positive way than before," one said.
However, those who were not happy with the process felt as if they were being inspected, had to wait a long time for any feedback and, in general, didn't seem to have developed a good relationship with their SIP.
For instance, one person wrote that the SIP "showed little or no understanding of the college or my personal needs and seemed to be advancing the LA agenda." Others felt that the process was too bureaucratic.
The vast majority of heads commented that it is too early to judge the impact of the SIP on the school, although the overall rating was 2.3.
However, where a good relationship has developed, initial comments were very positive. Some found the SIP to be very helpful in preparing the SEF and for Ofsted inspection.
Where deputies and assistant heads responded to the survey, it was because they have an important role in the SIP process. They had attended meetings with the head and the SIP, they contributed to data analysis and assisted with preparing the SEF.
Observations from SIPs
SIPs were also asked four questions on a one-to-four scale. Overall, SIPs enjoyed knowing that they are making a difference, creating a positive relationship with the head and the school and helping to set targets which will take the school forward.
Quality of training is a concern, with an overall score of 2.3. The quality of local authority training seems to vary substantially while training put on by the National Strategy Team was criticised for not being personalised enough. "It was all rather artificial and forced me to work in a fashion which I would just not use when doing the job."
SIPs who are serving heads said that workload has been a challenge, particularly in the autumn term. The allocated five days per school does not seem to be adequate to complete all the paperwork.
Comments included: "Everything takes much longer than the time allowed - there are unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved in the time allotted."
Difficulties in the SIP role include managing paperwork, getting hold of and analysing data, ensuring that the requirements of the LA and of the school are met and managing the head's performance management review.
Both heads and SIPs expressed concern that local authorities were in danger of hijacking the SIP process to satisfy their own agenda.
The comment of one SIP, that "the expectation of SIPs appears to be ever increasing," was echoed by a head: "There's more evidence in year two that the LA is putting the SIP under greater pressure to put me under more pressure!"
ASCL is absolutely clear that this should not be the case. The SIP process is meant to be a single conversation that replaces local authority channels and a support mechanism for heads, not a source of additional pressure.
The head's performance management should remain confidential between the SIP, head and governors - it should not be reported back to the LA.
ASCL has shared its concerns, along with the results of the survey, with the DfES and Capita, which manages the programme. The response has been encouraging, with Capita conducting further analysis of the ASCL data by local authority and comparing this with its own evaluations.
These are early days for the SIP process and ASCL believes that there is every chance of getting it right, provided that the intention of the original proposals - to reduce bureaucracy and provide a single conversation for schools - remains the priority.
Views of the SIP process
Most heads would prefer a serving head to be the SIP.
Heads who feel that the SIP is a genuine partner are happy with the experience.
Those who aren't see the SIP as an extra layer of bureaucracy.
Many heads and SIPs are concerned that LAs are trying to drive the agenda.
Some heads were disappointed by the SIP's lack of expertise and question the accreditation process.
Heads, as well as SIPs, are concerned about the limited amount of time that the SIP has to devote to the partner school.
© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders