The Government is shortly expected to publish the names of the first "leading-edge" schools. Ministers want 300 such schools by 2006. This scheme for models of good practice will replace the beacon schools initiative. Currently 1,100 or so infant, primary, special and secondary schools have beacon status. Leading-edge schools will all be secondaries but they will be selected in much the same way as their beacon predecessors and have a similar brief.
Ministers have given leading-edge schools responsibility for "leading the transformation of secondary education". If they are to do this, they will need to learn lessons from the four-year beacon experience.
First, our research into beacon schools shows much must be done to share expertise gained with a variety of inner-city pupils. For example, beacons in urban areas have often achieved success with ethnic-minority pupils, but few have tried to share their ideas with their neighbours. This is surprising because urban beacons, and more importantly, their leading-edge successors, are likely to be the main repositories for this expertise.
Another task is to co-ordinate the work of these model schools. The Department for Education and Skills largely left it up to beacon schools to decide on their own aims and focus. We believe the Government should be more proactive in ensuring that leading-edge schools identify national priorities, such as social inclusion, for their partnership work.
It will be a challenge to find enough staff, technology and time, and to use them in the most effective way to help struggling schools. Our research into beacons revealed that even when time was found, it was often used to disseminate good practice through one-off events or stand-alone professional development courses. But this kind of work is largely ineffective: teachers are more likely to learn new teaching techniques by putting them into practice in the classroom. They need to try them out over an extended period and receive feedback and coaching. Leading-edge schools should provide this support.
But better partnership work is only part of the solution. Ministers may have to provide extra funds for those schools in the most challenging circumstances. Our research indicates that partner schools are unlikely to take advantage of what the network has to offer unless they are already predisposed to take on new ways of doing things. Such flexible, outward-looking schools, beacon heads reported, are easier to work with than so-called "stuck" ones that frequently lack both the motivation and resources to want to be fully involved. The experience of beacon schools suggests collaboration with the latter can work, but only with much greater resources so that, for example, heads of department in partner schools can be freed from some of their day-to-day work to plan and share ideas.
At the same time, the DfES will need to keep a careful check on its spending. Leading-edge schools as successful organisations are more likely than others to receive multiple funding to share good practice. Funds may be received through membership of the leading-edge programme or the specialist schools network, participation in the advanced skills and fast-track teacher schemes and the networked learning communities run by the National College for School Leadership.
As there is no requirement that the money from each initiative should fund new and extra provision, the same activities could unwittingly be double or even triple-funded by the DfES. To get best value for money, the DfES may need to require evidence that the funding from each scheme is being used for new activities.
The Government and schools must learn from the beacon experience if the hoped-for secondary transformation is to happen. Leading-edge institutions need to do more to promote social inclusion in inner-city schools. They must offer serious and sustained help to their struggling neighbours and foster a real sense of co-operation between teachers so that they focus increasingly on the performance of the partnership as a whole rather than of their own individual schools.
David Halpin is professor of education at the Institute of Education, University of London. Dr Dan Moynihan is head of Valentines high school, a beacon secondary in Redbridge, north-east London. Information about the beacon schools research is available from email@example.com