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Leaders excel at the heavy lifting

Support system is proving its worth in improving schools

Support system is proving its worth in improving schools

The creation of a system of National Support Schools and National Leaders of Education in England has been credited with improving schools up to four times faster than other programmes.

Despite the ever-growing diversification of school models south of the border - 1,400 academies outwith local authority control, 23 free schools this year, with 60 due next year - the Government is encouraging roll-out of this support system, which was set up four years ago under Labour and based firmly on principles of collaboration.

Steve Munby, chief executive of the National College for School Leadership - one of the few education quangos to survive the coalition Government's cull last year - outlined the programme's success when he addressed the annual conference of education directors (ADES) last week in Cumbernauld.

Nearly six years ago, when he took over the running of the National College for School Leadership, three approaches tended to be employed with seriously struggling schools:

- close it and reopen it;

- send in a team of advisers;

- find a "hero head".

But there were not enough hero heads - and too often when they went into a struggling school with their own team of staff the school they left behind stopped improving.

Mr Munby therefore invited headteachers deemed "outstanding" by Ofsted, who crucially had a track record of sharing expertise, to volunteer as "national leaders of education".

Each NLE provides extra leadership to struggling schools, ranging from provision of an executive or interim headteacher, who leads strategies, through to advice, guidance and targeted interventions.

One key difference between this and previous improvement schemes is that a head is not, as it were, sent over in a lifeboat to rescue a school single-handed. Support schools are more like a supply ship moored alongside a school, says Mr Munby.

From an initial 68 National Support Schools four years ago, there are now 500 across primary, secondary and special schools.

"The schools that get the help improve rapidly - three to four times the rate of improvement elsewhere - and the school providing help also carries on improving, even though the head might be out part of the time or full- time, or staff might be out," Mr Munby said.

The latest development was to create chains of three or four National Support Schools under an executive head - they were improving almost twice as fast as support schools working individually.

"Where you get great school leadership taking responsibility for more than one school, you get better governance and opportunities for professional development," he added.

It was the role of the local authority in England to build collaboration across groups of schools, because it had the moral purpose by right of democratic accountability, said Mr Munby.

Russell `did not mean to offend'

Education Secretary Michael Russell has defended his decision to set up an independent working group of headteachers to report directly to him on ways to raise attainment.

"I set up the attainment group because I wanted them to advise me. I'm not an expert on this - I set it up and I chose the members because I wanted that to happen," he said, under questioning at ADES, the annual conference of education directors.

The group's report - due before Christmas - would not be a "holy writ", he insisted.

But he wanted to use it for discussion with ADES and others involved in education.

"I am not trying to create a system in which I make all the decisions," he said.

Mr Russell added that there was "a legitimate debate" to be had around his establishment of the Rural Schools Commission and moratorium on school closures.

He had set up that commission because he felt it was important it was done quickly - "more quickly than the system would allow".

But he had not meant it to be done in a way that was "deliberately offensive"; if people had been offended, he was sorry.

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