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Sector-Led Improvement: Rhetoric to Reality

I am sure you will all have read the Educational Excellence Everywhere’ White Paper numerous times by now, but rather than focus on enforced academisation, which has been the hot topic of debate, I want to try and make sense of its aspirations for a sector-led model for school improvement. My understanding is as follows:

  • Schools leading improvement across the system is the government’s strategic ambition. The role of local authorities in supporting and overseeing school improvement is set to reduce as more schools become academies
  • In future many schools will draw their school improvement from multi-academy trusts (MATs)
  • Other sources of support in the system will include teaching school alliances and system leaders ‘with high standards in their own schools’
  • The eight Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) will be responsible for making sure that inadequate schools are taken on by a strong MAT and that coasting schools have a strategy and action plan for improving performance.

Whether you agree with this approach or not, at least the plan starts to have some clarity, although how the whole system will operate in practice and be regulated is still as clear as mud!

Most local authorities are working hard with their MATs, Teaching Schools, RSCs, Dioceses and other parts of the complex middle tier, to try and make sense of the confused picture. So what principles do all players share which can unify us? I would suggest, and certainly our local arrangements confirm, that:

  • We all believe that education is the pathway out of poverty
  • We have a shared moral purpose that no school should be left behind
  • Collaboration makes us stronger
  • The sector has the skills and expertise to drive improvement, we need be research ready to critically challenge each other to improve outcomes for learners.

But there are challenges to building a sector-led model which enables all schools to thrive. Some of the issues we have encountered in Lincolnshire are centred around the capacity of small schools to invest in a collaborative sector-led approach - they are anxious that it may lead to lots of non-productive time with others hoping that it’s a fad that will fade in time. Head teachers tell me that they worry that mediocrity might be reinforced or that others might become ‘empire builders’, who deter others from getting involved.

A sector-led approach is not an easy option, but can schools afford not to explore this path and can local authorities in austerity, afford not to support their schools to prepare for the new world outlined in the White Paper?

In Lincolnshire, we have started our journey from rhetoric to reality, we have spent the last 12 months working with our schools to create a sector-led school improvement model - the Lincolnshire Learning Partnership, which has the following elements:

  • An elected Board of Head Teachers, governors and other key stakeholders from the middle tier to enable a forum for a single conversation about education in Lincolnshire to take place. The Board is ambitious for driving improvement so we are research ready, rather than seeking to manage schools causing concern.
  • We have set an expectation that every school should be part of broader local school collaboration as well as being a member of a teaching school alliance, MAT, or other such improvement system.
  • The concept of place matters with the local authority providing the cohesion and glue that school systems need to stick together – membership of a MAT need not be at the expense of local collaboration. We all want to ensure that all children in an area receive the best education (and our experience is that local academies who are part of a wider MAT do want to be part of the Lincolnshire Learning Partnership).
  • We consider that peer review is a powerful process which provides an opportunity for supported development and validation of school self-evaluation. We have trained all our school leaders in peer review in order to create capacity in the sector and drive improvement.
  • Capacity building is an important factor and everyone has a role in helping to develop and create a sustainable model. Schools, local authorities and others need to trust the sector and invest in it to enable it to have the capacity to be at the forefront of sector-led improvement.

How ready are you to move from rhetoric to reality in your local area?

  • Do schools in your area support one another in developing practice?
  • Do they turn to each other during times of difficulty?
  • Are schools willing to share human resources?
  • Do schools in your area celebrate one another’s success as well as their own?

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