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Evidence for excellence in education

How getting their heads together could help schools raise standards

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“Competition is not the way to raise standards – collaboration is.”

Vic Goddard, Principal of Passmores Academy in Essex, spoke for many with these words aired during last night’s discussion on Newsnight of Ofsted’s Unseen Children report – if the extent to which the sector has embraced new models of working is anything to go by. Indeed, Sir Michael Wilshaw himself has highlighted that he intends to use Ofsted’s new regional structure to ‘work with local areas to support them and help them link up with best practice’, implying a greater emphasis on collaboration.

Against a background of an increasingly autonomous school system, this kind of school-to-school support has a crucial role to play, so what evidence do we have so far about what works in these emerging collaborations to effect positive change?

This week my colleague David Sims gave oral evidence to the House of Commons Education Committee for its inquiry into School Partnerships and Cooperation. His written submission highlighted several key studies we have conducted on school partnerships and cooperation. These consider specific-focus partnerships, and include the Evaluation of Diplomas, the evaluation of the CfBT Languages Support Programme and the evaluation of the school linking model developed by the Schools Linking Network. We found that specific-focus partnerships stimulate improvement by drawing together ideas and good practice focusing on a single issue, but the gains made through this type of partnering may not be matched by improvements in other areas of schools’ planning, support and performance.

NFER’s rapid review of school-driven leadership found that the middle tier in the best performing education systems succeeds in harnessing the capacity and professional expertise on the ground for the benefit of the education system as a whole. This requires a school-led model of school-to-school support which is characterised by a number of key features including:

  • a clear and shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities confronting schools, based on thorough monitoring and a rich evidence base
  • strong leadership from school leaders and the middle tier that respects practitioners’ professionalism and motivates their enthusiasm
  • schools taking responsibility for the education system as a whole, rather than confining their attention to their own specific institution
  • all staff contributing to the process of school improvement through distributed leadership.

In looking at how highly-performing schools could be encouraged to cooperate more with others, our work published earlier this year found that schools were opting in to a range of middle-tier bodies. Between them, these provide strategic and operational functions, and a local and national perspective. The research found that local authorities were repositioning themselves to put schools in the lead, while securing delivery of their statutory duties through education partnerships. They were adopting a more adaptive style of leadership, and were prepared to move radically to enable school-to-school support. Many schools wanted local authorities to remain players in school improvement.

Thinking about whether school partnerships drive effective school improvement, our evaluation of The Gaining Ground Strategy (2009-11), comprising school-to-school partnership working; additional support from School Improvement Partners (SIPs); additional training in Assessment for Learning (AfL); and study support, found that Gaining Ground consistently had a positive effect on pupil attainment and attendance.

Our work on the role of the middle tier culminated in a dissemination event held at the Local Government Association (LGA) offices in London earlier this month, with attendees representing the DfE, LGA, ADCS, ASCL and the local authorities(LAs) involved in the qualitative study (Brighton and Hove, Wigan, Hertfordshire and York).

The event provided the opportunity for the research team and LAs to discuss how the research had helped them in developing their local offer. It also drew out a number of themes and questions that now need further consideration by those managing and delivering support locally, the local and national policy makers and the wider education community. These included:

  • How should the role of the headteacher as a system leader be managed, given the difference between this role and that of running an individual school?
  • How can schools and middle-tier bodies step up to and adapt their leadership, whilst understanding the need for flexibility within the system and addressing concerns around risking their own school’s performance by sending their best people out to help others?
  • Should arrangements focus on specific phases? What leads to successful cross-phase working?
  • How you know your practice is best practice?

Given the growing body of evidence in this area, perhaps we are now at the stage where we can also begin to answer the ‘big question’: what impact are the changing models and structures having on school improvement and the attainment of all children and young people, especially the ‘unseen’ highlighted by Sir Michael’s report?

Author: Fiona Walker

Head of Centre for Evaluation and Consultancy at the National Foundation for Educational Research

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