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Susan Young - Education Otherwise

Susan Young gives her weekly round-up of the issues and events in the world of school leadership and management. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of NAHT.

Teaching school alliances: irrevocable or likely to go the way of most Government initiatives?

On the eve of the announcement of the next cohort of teaching schools, I've spent a fascinating day at a conference aiming to bring together practitioners and researchers on the subject.

As such, there were a few culture clashes at times - but overall, it was interesting in what it revealed about how one of the Government's flagship policies is faring on the ground.

With seven presentations from schools taking part in the scheme as well as presentations from academics and the National College's John Stephens,it was a packed day and what follows will be simply my main impressions. A more detailed account will appear at a later date on the website of Belmas, its organiser (but it's going to take me longer to write that one).

So here are some of the themes which emerged:

It's about working together. John Stephens of the National College for Teaching and Leadership said: "I try never to talk about Teaching Schools but talk about Teaching School Alliances. The complexity and depth required to be successful cannot be achieved by even the largest organisation in isolation. It has to be collaborative." It was like a family wedding, he said: you might sit people at different tables but you still wanted them all there. It was important that autonomy didn't become isolation.

... as equals. Peter Kent, head of the Lawrence Sherriff Teaching School in Rugby, said: "There's a danger of power relationship -- we're really good and you can work with us. That's not really helpful."

Paul Goodman of Candleby Lane TSA in Nottinghamshire, said: "We have a true partnership at the core: it's taken a huge amount of work. At the start you are the lead school. Now it's collaboratively owned: we're finding answers together rather than them waiting for us to supply them."

It stops successful schools from pulling up the drawbridge. Peter Kent said: "I do think there's a danger sometimes when schools have had a period of being successful to draw into themselves sometimes...This has made us turn out. It's been a tremendous benefit for me and my colleagues. It's made us nimble." He had also learned a huge amount by working more widely with higher education institutions.

People involved think it's here to stay.

John Stephens thought it was a "significant... irrevocable shift, not something at the whim of changes of policy." By 2016 he thought the shift from the centre to schools would be complete. Sean Cavan, of Sheffield University, working with local partnerships, also thought it was "election proof" because "it's such an embedded thing." But this partly in a negative way, that financial changes for local authorities meant their support had shrunk and so teaching school alliances had moved into the vacuum.

...but it's still a work in progress. John Stephens said his colleague Charlie Taylor "says when you visit great teaching school alliances and  you witness a new system you could be forgiven for thinking we're there, we've done it but we know it's not universal even in TSAs themselves." He and other speakers through the day discussed the patchiness of provision around the country.

And even those doing it have all sorts of reservations. "We have to nurture the slow burn, not risking the stability of home school. Not too big, not too fast.

"There is the irony of a system of partnership resting on shoulders of one person. If I am ill or the Ofsted grading drops there is the potential for the carpet to be pulled and that's very odd," mused Laurence Pitt. "There is the need for proper strategic thinking from centre. I will continue to say yes more than I say no... but it's certainly not without worry."

What's it for? Chris Husbands, Director of the Institute of Education, was asking the big questions about purpose about the conference (though some of the schools involved were asking smaller ones about specific concerns -- see below). Teaching Schools, he said, had been "charged with a series of function without a clear idea of what they are for... some of them look like delivery of policy priorities rather than a thought-through role. They're hanging more decorations on the Christmas tree than it might bear."

He suggested that the idea might be based on ideology, that schools alone were the core of the education system, and that the role of the TSAs was to undertake work previously done by others. Collaboration was the focus "but you can't simply collaborate, you need to collaborate with someone and over something," he said.

Schools say children's progress is the underlying motive. Peter Kent said: "Educational excellence and and the development of the child are at the heart of the work of the alliance."  Simon McNeill, of the Catalyst TSA in Hertfordshire, said: "We started thinking that if it can't show its point in pupil progress,  what's the point?"

Training staff is also hugely important.

Almost all the schools which spoke described a different model, varying from one TSA which trains large numbers of teachers each year, with mentors drawn from its best staff who themselves are comparatively new to the profession. Another consortium in Nottinghamshire does a great deal of leadership training. A third organises twilight sessions for staff. "We aim to develop a networked learnined community, developing the quality of teaching and learning through bespoke training and mutual support," explained Peter Kent. For Simon Roberts, director of the Arthur Terry teaching school in Birmingham, "The key question is why, why invest so heavily in Initial Teacher Education, what's the rationale? We sat down, 12 heads, and started to define it. We wanted all NQT appointments through that pathway. It was important because there's still an element of lottery even with the most sophisticated interview strategy you night not appoint the right person. We wanted it all on our pathway so the right people end up in the right schools.

...and so is succession planning. Ava Sturridge Packer head of St Mary's C of E Primary in Birmingham, supporting schools, described this as "key." Paul Candleby commented: "We want to spot those leaders in ITT. We provide stepping stones through CPD then leadership to max potential. We are puttins succession planning at the heart of everything do. We're looking for the next wave out outsanding leaders, middle leaders, with a strategy to see and plan for gaps."

...and the school development plan.

Simon McNeill of Catalyst has 13 funded action research projects going on, with 3 teachers in each. It's designed around the school's needs. We're looking at subjects like boys' writing, independent learning, AFL, talk in classrooms. There are projects from primaries and special schools, and we disseminate it to all our schools. It's important to look at the school development plan.".

.... and moral purpose (this phrase popped up several times).

Ava Sturridge Packer, leading a C of E school, said: "Giving school-to-school support to me is all about moral purpose, not about making profit or money. For me that is quite a challenge to see myself charging colleagues for services." Researchers monitoring the programme found this was a common motive.

Schools say they aren't doing it for the money (but are worried about the implications of doing it without the money) .Laurence Pitt, Executive Head of the Ashley Down Schools Federation in Bristol, talked about the financial and time cost and stress of the project. "There are only so many hours in the day, and I have to be very mindful managing my staff's time. I genuinely don't see whether financial sustainabilty is there beyond the first cycle. If we get to the point where money isn't forthcoming we may say thank you very much but we can't risk what is back at home really." Question and answer sessions were also concerned about this.

There are many different models of TSA. "One chain might have 60 staff in the head office. That's one end of the spectrum. Another TSA is run from the corner of head's desk. There's not one homogenous concept. There are lots of different speeds," said Sheffield Hallam University's Paul Cavan.

Schools have been making it up as they go along.

"We applied with no clear idea what we were applying to," said Paul Goodman of Candleby Lane in Nottinghamshire. "On induction day, it was basically 'over to you'. We've been making it up as we went along, at an  incredibly fast pace, with huge change."

Laurence Pitt said: "It was like walking in the dark with our eyes closed for the first year. We've been travelling at 100mph to keep up. We're trying to make sense, make wise decisions based on what we feel we could deliver from. We haven't had much support from our National College regional advisor, though I think others have."

Ofsted: a real and continuing problem for schools (but not the National College). "I'm looking at the time and thinking, 2 o'clock... and Ofsted hasn't come. That's the reality of where we sit as a TSA. We're building up a significant operation with a significant number of people but it sits on fragile footings and that's a scary place to be," said Paul Goodman.

Birmingham head Ava Sturridge Packer said: "You're part of a TSA but you keep on looking over your shoulder: you are only as good as your last data, Ofsted or parental complaint."

John Stephens, though, saw accountability as an "inevitable counterpoint to autonomy.  It doesn't become something that stifles great creativity I see as I go around visiting schools." Again, this was a concern noted more widely by researchers who spoke at the conference.

What happens next?

Sean Cavan thought the predicted there would be more formal mergers, giving a stronger resource base. "There is a tremendous administrative overhead," he said.

Peter Kent said he wouldn't change being aTS for anything. "I'm fulfilled, it's exciting, and we're broadening partnerships. TSAs remind us what is the crucial thing: what we're involved in is teaching and learning and that really matters to expand the life chances of children."

Chris Husbands, whose role was to provide most of the critical input into the conference, thought it was important to establish the question of what teaching schools were for, and hoped that the developments in practice and knowledge created "which can be very sticky, could be unstuck and moved around the system."

Pointing to previous Government initiatives which had eventually collapsed under extra official expectations with which they were burdened, he concluded: "I am optimistic teaching schools could make an enormous difference but I am pessimistic about the leadership and political dimension and the underpinning economics... and that the politicians will overload with too many expectations before moving on to a policy that's shiner. It's easy to produce a grotesque monstrosity when you could have produced something of beauty."


Susan Young is an education journalist


Page published: 13/03/2014