One thing Linda Halbert and Jim Cockburn agree upon is that their relationship is not "cosy". Flung together by the Government's school improvement partner (SIP) initiative, they have been having a frank exchange of views for the past year. In his role as SIP, Jim Cockburn has rummaged though every piece of school data and advised the governors on Ms Halbert's pay rise. Yet they are not only still talking, but talking more than ever. "I see it as an opportunity, not a threat," says Ms Halbert, head of Norham college in North Tyneside. "If we disagree, I don't take it personally. I know Jim has the best interests of the school at heart and by challenging me, he's just trying to make sure I'm doing the best for my school."
Linda Halbert and Jim Cockburn are both heads of North Tyneside schools, but whereas Ms Halbert has been head for just four years, Mr Cockburn brings 13 years' headship experience to the SIP role. "I think it's important to have that body of experience," he says. "I knew Linda wanted to cross the 40 per cent barrier for five or more GSCEs at grades A*-C. My own school is now quite high achieving, with 72 per cent, but not long ago it was down in the 30-40 per cent area. I was able to bring to the table my experience of a school that has successfully made the move."
The SIP is a new post, modified from existing school improvement advisers.
If you've not met your SIP yet, it won't be long until you do. Secondaries in 27 local authorities have already been working with SIPs for a year, and this September a fresh wave arrived in another 30 authorities.
SIPs are serving, or recently-serving heads, who work with a partner head to help set targets and priorities, and with governors to advise on performance management. Although SIPs are appointed to a school by the LEA, each head has a say in what they are looking for. They are part of a larger Department for Education and Skills umbrella project, New Relationship with Schools, which includes the shorter Ofsted inspection system, and the alignment of three-year budgets with a school's three-year inspection plan, as well as self-evaluation and the school profile. SIPs work with the partner head to help set targets and priorities and with the governors, specifically to advise on performance management. In addition, they take on the functions currently performed by the external adviser. "It should be a process of negotiation," says Chris Tweedale, senior education adviser for the DfES.
Each SIP is responsible for a minimum of three schools: Jim Cockburn has four, all in North Tyneside. In theory, he should devote around five days a year to each, but sometimes he finds this simply is not enough. "I want to provide a good service," he explains. "Five days is a bit tight for getting to grips with all the data and making enough visits to help bring about change." Mr Cockburn's dedication has impressed Ms Halbert, and been key to making the relationship work. "He has really taken the trouble to know me, the school and the governors," she says.
But what about things back at Longbenton community college, where Mr Cockburn is principal (and has to check in with his own SIP)? "Being a SIP is a lot of work, but I can spread it out over the course of the year. I do a lot of the background reading and report writing in my own time. But I still have all the strategic leadership of my own school even though I have a good leadership team who can get on with the day-to-day running of Longbenton."
Schools that have been involved in the SIPs pilot are upbeat. Feedback to a National Foundation for Educational Research report at the end of 2005 found that most schools enjoyed working with SIPs. Heads reported that they tended to be more challenging than previous advisers and that they were an important factor in preparing for inspection. The SIPs' input into performance management was also welcome. "It's a huge improvement," says Linda Halbert. "In the past, someone parachuted in for a day and made judgments without really understanding the school. This is far more meaningful."
The main complaints have been from schools still waiting for their SIPs.
While those in secondaries were appointed by September, primaries need to wait for a four-phased introduction from January 2007 to April 2008. This piecemeal launch has caused some frustration. One of the jobs of the SIP is to help schools with self-evaluation. But some heads complain that they have been inspected under the new Ofsted framework, with the emphasis on their self-evaluation form, before they have had a SIP in place to help.
"In an ideal world everything would have happened at the same time but it's too important to rush," says Chris Tweedale.
One sticking point has been pay. Funding for the scheme has been delegated to local authorities and rates can vary from between pound;350 and pound;700 a day, to a flat fee of up to pound;2,000. But the main issue is who gets the money: should SIPs be paid personally for their work or should funds go to their schools? The DfES is adamant that all payment should be made direct to the governors of the SIP's school, and this is the model Jim Cockburn supports. "I feel it would be wrong to take any money personally.
Although I do some of the work in my own time, all my visits take place in school time and my own school needs to feel the benefit of my SIP role. It may well be necessary in the future to promote someone to take on extra responsibility when I'm out, and the money could be used towards this."
Other SIPs, however, disagree and feel they are effectively doing extra work for nothing. The Association of School and College Leaders has stepped in with one solution - to split the payments, reflecting the proportion of SIP work undertaken in or outside of normal school hours, and reward heads in the form of extra salary points - but the money debate still rumbles.
Most SIPs agree that the job is worthwhile. "I've learned a lot," says Mr Cockburn. "I can understand the data for my own school better having seen in detail the situation in other schools. And I've come away with plenty of good ideas from working with other heads and governors." Meanwhile the schools they work with seem to have nothing but praise for their new partners. "I felt positive about the whole thing from the beginning," says Ms Halbert. "Nothing since has convinced me otherwise."