Professor David Woods CBE
With the demise of local authority education services, there is now a considerable emphasis on a school led system of improvement principally led by Multi-Academy Trusts, Teaching schools and alliances, and National Support schools.
We may define a school led system of improvement as follows: -
In a mature model of a school led system this can be described further as:-
However, there is still quite a space in geographical areas, however defined, to take the benefits of a school-led system to a larger scale. Otherwise the gap between a school-led system on the ground and regional / national governance will arguably be too great to achieve system coherence.
A sense of PLACE is often a stimulus to high levels of engagement whether it be the rural area, town, city or sub-region. Around the country this space is beginning to be occupied by area based education improvement partnerships varying in size and scale. Some are still defined by local authority boundaries, others as geographical entities or districts. The first opportunity areas designated by the DfE are good examples. Two are towns but also local authorities; one is a town and district within a large county, two others are cities and one is a rural sub-region.
All of these area partnerships vary greatly in their effectiveness and the purpose of this paper is to describe the characteristics of success taken from experience and evaluations of very successful partnerships.
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Characteristics of Success
Ambition, aspiration and high expectations should be the watchwords to drive education improvement.
The area needs to build a collective, mission driven culture and develop an energised workforce. There should be a spirit of collegiality with transparency, trust and honesty allowing for effective peer support and challenge.
Communicating compellingly the area vision and driving strategic leadership through a strong Partnership Board or an equivalent form of governance.
The Area Champion should hold and articulate clear values and moral purpose, leading by example with integrity, clarity and creativity and establishing positive relationships and attitudes. This should inspire and influence school leaders and other leaders of organisations to form a powerful partnership.
Above all when priorities have been established there should be swift, timely and decisive action to build a momentum for change.
Area improvement systems often fail because they attempt to do far too many things and ‘be all things to all people’. The primary purpose must be school improvement with a sharp focus on outcomes.
An audit of need is essential which will determine priorities. They are likely to be actions which will support extending opportunities for pupils, raising standards of achievement and attainment, closing gaps between schools and groups of pupils and developing more good and outstanding schools. There may be a range of collective programmes underpinning these priorities including attendance, behaviour initiatives, and specialist support for pupils at different phases including early years and vocational education.
A good rule is that activity is only valid if its impact can be demonstrated in the learning opportunities and well-being of children and young people. Once clear and specific goals have been agreed then monitoring and accountability systems should be established.
The fuel for the engine of improvement is reliable evidence and performance data. It is sometimes necessary ‘to confront the brutal facts’ and deal with denial before progress can be made.
The existence of performance data makes it possible to examine trends and anomalies over time as well as benchmark performance against similar areas. This then should lead to targeting the right interventions to challenge and support.
Effective use of data and evidence can be used to challenge assumptions and expectations and problem solve strategies for improvement. It also allows for the adjustment of action plans going forward and the requirement to find out more about overcoming barriers to achievement.
Clearly the collection and analysis evidence and data is a vital part of monitoring, evaluation and accountability.
This is an essential element of any school and area led system of improvement and needs to be harnessed effectively to maximise its impact. Given the right infrastructure system leadership can:-
When system leadership is working really well it will get beyond senior leaders going deeper and wider to involve other school leaders and teachers who share a strong, professional motivation to collaborative across the area.
In providing support and challenge they seek reciprocal benefits that leads to self-improvement through observation, evaluation, reflection, joint practice development and the dissemination of best practice.
However, one of the greatest challenges to area based reform is the uneven distribution of system leaders. Some areas are rich in this provision with well developed MATs, Teaching School Alliances and National Support School networks along with Specialist Leaders of Education and Teaching Leaders, but other areas lack capacity to drive improvement.
To partly overcome this all school leaders, whether formally designated as system leaders or not, need to be in the business of creating outward-facing schools in a climate of mutual support and challenge championing best practice and securing improved outcomes. They should model innovative approaches to school improvement, leadership and governance based on excellent practice and well evidenced research, seeking to inspire and influence others.
All areas have at least a nucleus of good system leaders and one priority may be to build further capacity perhaps by helping to develop other leaders and work in partnership with neighbouring areas and national agencies.
At the heart of successful area school improvement will be a dynamic, extended learning community inside and outside schools with the energetic application of proven best practice and the stimulation to thinking and creativity to try other innovative approaches.
However, there is a real challenge in managing and connecting knowledge. Does the area know what the area knows? Where is the best practice in teaching and learning and where are the expert practitioners? The area needs to cultivate a model of inter-school and learning centre visits with learning walks and knowledge exchanges. Further there needs to be a way of capturing this knowledge.
Some schools and colleges already have teaching and learning blogs and websites and these could be shared more effectively. Publications of best practice case studies on-line and in print can stimulate collective debate as well as collective pride in celebrating the best the areas has to offer. Joint practice development needs to be encouraged with groups of teachers working together on the established priorities and programmes. One would hope that existing Teaching Schools and alliances do this effectively together with other groups of schools but is this area wide? There is a danger of professional isolation of individual schools but also of small groups of schools.
The area wide partnership can provide the glue to bring all parties together.
We return here to the importance of collective moral purpose and shared values in linking educational improvement to community development. The area should be able to engage parents as learners, to inspire parents about learning and to create a family and home environment where learning is valued and the efforts of individual schools supported.
Further effective linkages to various local agencies whose work impinges on the well-being of children, such as health, housing and social care, can make a powerful difference to the education of the whole child. School governors in particular are vital partners in this enterprise not just working for individual schools but across the piece helping to create and deliver a real community offer to provide more opportunities for success.
If the local and education partnership is to work and achieve significant goals it has to build a condition for change, appealing to a range of stake-holders. There needs to be a strong sense of ‘place’ to lever high levels of engagement.
Education should be ‘everyone’s business’ where everyone contributes and everyone benefits from working together. Those areas that are successful pay attention to the development of social and cultural capital and the potential of ‘place making’ to cultivate this. For example good local arts provision and sports provision will considerably extend opportunities beyond schools and colleges as will effective school business links. The area may be fortunate in being able to draw upon higher education provision.
Area partnerships need to capitalise fully on these opportunities as well as the collective endeavour of education leaders to get maximum ‘buy-in’ building a momentum for change. Consideration also ought to be given to external partnerships especially where capacity is limited, including regionally-based and national organisations for improving education provision and performance.
Clearly there are a number of challenges to successful area education improvement strategies but also a number of opportunities.
Amongst the challenges are finding the right leadership to manage these partnerships encouraging appropriate behaviours, and developing an infrastructure that will enable the very best ideas and practice to be shared effectively.
Amongst the opportunities are the benefits of place and scale with greater engagement in education across local communities.
Professor David Woods CBE is Chair of The London Leadership Stategy. He also works as an education consultant, working with schools, local authorities and academy chains, and as Visiting Professor at Warwick University and the Institute of Education. Previously he was the Lead Advisor and then the Chief Advisor for the London Challenge.