At the end of last term, a primary school head received an unexpected visit. On the day Ofsted inspectors delivered their highly critical feedback on her school, a senior local authority official arrived with her school improvement partner and told her that she should think about looking for another job. The partner had not warned her that the school was causing concern.
The case is one of half a dozen involving school improvement partners, known as Sips, that unions say is putting undue pressure on heads.
The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) is talking to local authorities about formulating a protocol on working with schools in need of improvement. They want heads to be given due warning if their school is causing concern, and the chance to work with the improvement partner and local authority to turn it around.
Such cases have revived the debate about Sips, which were first introduced to secondary schools in 2005 and to primaries from last January. Their role is to challenge and support heads, and they are meant to streamline schools' dealings with local and central government, so that heads can have "a single conversation" about raising standards. Their job is to sit down with heads to set targets and priorities, and with governors to advise on performance management.
So is it working, or have fears that the partners would turn out to be more like inspectors than "critical friends" been realised?
A survey by the National Foundation for Educational Research, published last month, found that two-thirds of primary and secondary heads felt the partners had contributed to school improvement.
Another survey, by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) last year, rated the partners' contribution to target-setting and performance management in nearly eight out of 10 secondaries as good or outstanding.
But worries are surfacing among some primary heads about the relationship between partners and the local authorities that appoint and manage them. In a system where central government imposes targets on local government, and local government does the same to the partners, who then have to agree them with school leaders, heads fear that some partners are driving the local authority agenda rather than holding a serious negotiation with them.
Ian Bruce, NAHT's national council member for Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, says: "The concern is that some partners are serving the local authority, not heads. What you want is a true partner, not someone setting your targets. In a few authorities, data collected by partners is being used to bully heads."
The association is particularly worried about those partners without recent experience of headship. Most secondary partners are serving or recent heads, but some primary partners are not.
Rod Woodhouse, head of Essendon Primary in Hertfordshire, says: "What has happened here is that the authority's school effectiveness advisers have been rebranded as Sips. The main part of the job they do is the same. They are still inspectors more than partners."
Mr Woodhouse believes nothing has been gained by the changes, and views the five days a year that the partner comes to call as a poor replacement for regular contact with the adviser.
He has just begun to work with his partner and so far have had no problems. "We agreed the school's targets without difficulty, but then we are a high-achieving school."
Mr Woodhouse is not alone in wondering what schools gain from Sips. Mr Bruce says that in Cornwall, where 100 schools have fewer than 100 pupils, heads have difficulty finding time to assemble the data and work with their partners.
Carole Whitty, NAHT's deputy general secretary, asks: "How useful is it for heads who already have a very strong school to spend time on this? Under the previous system, if you were a strong school you only saw the local authority adviser for a morning once a year."
But work done by Capita, the contractor that oversees the primary and secondary strategies and the partners programme, shows that heads of very good and outstanding schools are often the most enthusiastic about their partners.
Adrian Percival, the national Sips co-ordinator, suggests that primary heads may be finding it harder to adjust because in the past they had a much closer relationship with their local authority adviser.
"In primaries, the introduction of partners has meant a move away from support towards challenge," he says.
Primaries should not be phoning their partner or adviser regularly unless they are paying for the service, he adds. "We actively discourage authorities from providing open-ended advice."
He says that partners are not inspectors, but they do have a duty to report to local authorities, and that this should not be seen as snitching.
"Sometimes heads will feel that the local authority agenda is in conflict with theirs. We would hope that the partner would take the middle ground, challenging and supporting both the head and the local authority," he says.
For many secondary heads, he says, this is the first time they have had an adviser who talks to them in detail about school improvement, and they have welcomed it.
John Dunford, ASCL's general secretary, agrees: "The kind of conversations heads are having with their partners are much more useful and focused than those they had previously with their local authority link advisers."
Even critics believe the system has huge potential to help heads and their pupils. While at present it sometimes seems like yet another layer of accountability, Ms Whitty believes that meetings with partners could eventually replace Ofsted - and that would be a great improvement on "the present fear-laden accountability regime".
"We want it to work," she says. "The concept of getting a professional to work with a colleague is a really good one. In an ideal world, mentoring with a bit of edge is the best of all relationships."
WORK IN HARMONY WITH YOUR OTHER HALF
Adrian Percival, the national school improvement partner co-ordinator, says heads should have high expectations of their partner.
- Make the head feel that it is a shared enterprise. Have a debate
- Not behave as if their visits are all about monitoring and inspection
- Be interested in the school as a whole, not just in the data
- Work in detail on the Ofsted self-evaluation form before the meeting
- Have a clear view of the issues and priorities to debate at the meeting
- Agree with the partner what is to be done and how it will be monitored
- Discuss the support the school will need
- Decide what evidence of progress is needed
- Go to the local authority and, if necessary, the national strategies team if they feel expectations are not being met
SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME
Focus on English and maths
A coasting school in the North East had not met its targets for five A* to C grades at GCSE since 2001. In 2006, only 34 per cent of pupils scored C or above in English and maths. The school improvement partner persuaded the school to set more ambitious targets. He focused relentlessly on English and maths and asked at each visit what the school was doing to track the pupils and improve results.
Outcome: In 2007, the proportion of pupils with C or better in English and maths rose to 53 per cent.
Target weak links
A high-performing village primary had 95 per cent of its pupils at level 4 in English and 98 per cent at level 4 in maths in 2007. The school had been giving extra support to pupils who scored 2c in both reading and writing. The school improvement partner, a head from another local authority, started working with the school last September, proposing pupils who scored 2c in writing but better in reading also needed help.
Outcome: The most recent evaluation shows the group is making much better progress.