Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders



ASCL's latest major research project tested the hypothesis that working in partnership raises achievement and increases opportunities for students. The evidence is compelling, says John Dunford.

Throughout my time as a head, schools were encouraged to compete. More and more market-based policies were introduced during this period in the belief that a good dose of competition was what schools needed in order to make them improve. From open enrolment to grant maintained schools, measures were introduced that drove a sizeable wedge between neighbouring schools.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the accountability structure which, apart from lacking the intelligent accountability that we have long sought, created league tables that put schools in an order of merit that generally told people more about the quality of intake than the quality of outcomes. The original school league tables appeared in the Daily Telegraph in the 1980s, publishing the examination results of independent schools in four football-style divisions. One can only guess at the reaction of parents paying 15,000 per year for boarding education to find that their offspring's school was in division four!

Independent schools are very much in a market for pupils, charging for their services and openly competing. Not least through the Independent Schools Council and other associations, they work in partnership for the good of the sector, but fundamentally they are in competition.

For maintained schools and colleges, I believe that the situation should be very different. Of course, institutions all want to be the best - they want the best for their students and work hard for it. Of course, they use marketing to set out their stall and want to attract potential students.

But they do not want this to get to the point where the system as a whole suffers and it has long been my contention that the maintained school system did suffer during the years of excessive competition.

The task of schools serving disadvantaged areas was made very much harder by having to compete on a far-from-level playing field with more advantaged schools. As a result, the system became polarised, with the most challenging schools becoming even more challenging.

Since this produced a situation in which maintained schools in England have some of the greatest variation in performance in the OECD, it is difficult to see why policies were pursued that created this divide.

Since moving from headship to become general secretary in 1998, I have talked frequently about the need to move from a culture of competition between schools and colleges to a culture of collaboration. From this, a whole range of other policies flow - more intelligent accountability, inspection closely linked to self-evaluation, parity of esteem between different types of qualification, and so on.

As important as any of these is the need to develop school leadership along more collaborative lines. This means developing wider opportunities for system leadership roles, such as school improvement partners, additional inspectors, consultant heads and national leaders of education. It also means distributing leadership within and between schools.

Getting the best for all

We established in Leadership that Lasts, written by Robert Hill for ASCL and published in March 2006, that sustainable leadership would only come to the school system if it were based on the set of common principles articulated in the book. One of the principles - wanting the best for all young people in an area, not just those in a single school or college - pointed a clear direction for the next project with Robert Hill.

We decided to test the hypothesis that schools working in partnership raise achievement and increase opportunities more than schools working alone.

The book makes a really strong case for the concrete benefits of partnership working, in terms of both higher achievement and increased opportunities. I believe that it will be a big step in moving from the culture of competition under which I served my headship in the 1980s to the culture of collaboration that the government is now espousing and which ASCL has been advocating.

It sets out extremely valuable advice for school and college leaders in how to make partnerships work and offers recommendations to the government on how to create the best climate in which partnership working can flourish.

It favours no single method of partnership, but shows the principles under which education improvement partnerships, 14 to 19 consortia, National Leaders of Education, academies, trusts and federations can operate effectively.

Chapter 11, which ASCL published between Christmas and New Year as an appetiser for the book, showed that different kinds of partnerships work in different circumstances. We called for the government to publish two pieces of internal advice on partnership working, which we knew to be lurking in the corridors of Sanctuary Buildings, and which had been made available to schools engaged in certain types of federation. I am pleased to say that ministers agreed and it was published on the DCSF website in January.

Beginning of change

Whereas the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) was an isolated example of collaborative working in the 1980s, there are now enough examples of initiatives requiring institutions to work together to suggest that we have the beginning of the change in culture that ASCL has sought.

When a neighbouring school was in trouble in the 1980s and 1990s, heads were encouraged to rub their hands together in glee at the prospect of more pupils applying for their school. Now heads pick up the phone and say "How can I help?"

Increasingly, they do not say 'I', but 'we'. Heads, deputy heads, assistant heads, bursars, business managers and heads of department have all been engaged in supporting schools in difficulty.

The National Leaders of Education (NLEs) are a good example of this. NLEs were first mentioned in a government white paper as heads of the most successful schools, who should be given a 'badge' as recognition of their excellent work.

In planning the NLE scheme, the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) committee charged with the task (on which there were several ASCL members) decided to recommend to ministers that NLEs should only be recognised if their schools had the leadership capacity both to help others and to maintain standards in their own school at the same time. Thus National Support Schools (NSS) were born. Ministers accepted this, thereby giving credence to the notion that system leadership goes well beyond headteachers.

In parallel with this, there has been a considerable shift of policy on trust schools and academies. Trust schools, which were announced by Tony Blair as a way for schools to become more independent, have become a vehicle for cementing collaboration.

New academies are being created as part of the local family of schools in a way that would have been unthinkable in the early days of the academy initiative. Both of these moves in policy have responded directly to the ASCL case for a mutually supportive school system whose members work together to raise standards.

I know that this is not the case across the whole of England and that there are areas where the climate of fierce competition has continued to dominate. But the situation is changing.

What is needed now is for the government to end the strategic tug-of-war between policies that promote competition and those that encourage collaboration.

This will require reform in several areas. At the top of the list are the league tables of the performance of individual schools, which cannot be sustained in their current form if the government wants all schools and colleges to deliver the 14 to 19 curriculum in local partnerships, with many students taking their courses in different institutions.

I am confident that the necessary change in culture will be accelerated by the publication of Achieving More Together.


Seven challenges...

See Making the pieces fit for the seven major challenges that ASCL believes need to be addressed for partnership working to reach its potential.

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