Another species of critical friend
In recent years, schools have seen the relentless rise of the "critical friend". In the push for improvement, the term has been used to describe various roles, ranging from governors to mentors for newly qualified teachers and consultants who come into schools to help heads and leadership teams with workforce remodelling.
Now, heads are making some new friends. And yes, they are going to be critical. But they should also empathise and understand the issues and pressures school leaders face, with the aim that most should be fellow heads. Meet your school improvement partner, or SIP.
The role of this partner is part of the New Relationship with Schools agenda, created by the Department for Education and Skills and Ofsted and designed to help raise standards and streamline schools' dealings with their local education authorities and central government.
But while the scheme is widely supported by heads, there are concerns that it is off to a shaky start because of the way the accreditation programme for the new partners was organised.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said he has received assurances that the online assessment will be improved next year. But he added: "Because of the way the accreditation programme was organised this year, fewer heads passed than I think should probably have been the case.
"I'm encouraging lots of people to take the test again next year, when they will have a longer time window and probably a better understanding of what's expected of them."
Criticisms of the initial online assessment for would-be SIPs included that it lacked depth, was too mechanical and focused too much on an Ofsted-style checklist approach.
Many heads felt disadvantaged by the very short time they were given for the assessment, which took much longer than they had expected. Also, candidates were not given the assessment criteria for each task. While LEA officials taking the online test were given time off work to do it, heads had to complete theirs at the weekend.
Genefer Espejo, head of Nonsuch high school for girls, in the London borough of Sutton, took the SIPs online assessment in June. "It was very stretching," she said. "In some ways it was like being a sixth-former and doing an exam.
"It was very fair. There was nothing there that surprised me, but it irritated in terms of trying to fit it in within the timescale."
National advertising resulted in more than 1,000 applications to become SIPs earlier this year. Priority was given to those applicants willing to work in the first wave of LEAs, and 470 took the online assessment.
Of those, a quota of 270 went forward for the next stage of two days'
training. After further face-to-face assessment, there are now 250 SIPs, including those who were trained in the 2004 pilot scheme.
The partners scheme is being put into practice by the private firm Capita, and its training is being run in partnership with the National College for School Leadership.
Martyn Cribb, Capita's national director for regional support, admits the accreditation rate for heads was lower than that for LEA candidates.
"It's a cause for concern if anybody doesn't get through, frankly," he said. "We've got to make sure we've got the process right. There was quite a lot of pressure to get the system up and running for September 1. There are things we are doing differently this time, so we have learnt from this process."
He is confident the scheme will hit the Government's target of 75 per cent of partners to be serving or recently serving heads.
He said: "Some heads are saying, 'Look, I want to let it run for the first six months and then I'll do it. I want to find out how people get on.'"
According to official guidance, a SIP should typically devote five days to a school every year, but this will vary, depending on the circumstances of the school. The SIP will also need to set aside four additional days a year for professional development and networking.
Partners are appointed by the local education authority, though the governing body can veto a candidate if it is unhappy with the choice.
Governors have expressed concern that they could become marginalised if there is too cosy a relationship between the SIP and the head. SIPs will also report to the school's governing body, and their reports on schools will be available to Ofsted inspection teams.
Keith Ajegbo, head of Deptford Green school, south London, was in the first group of SIPs trained and accredited in the pilot scheme. Last year, he was partner to two east London schools:Brampton Manor and Forest Gate.
He believes one crucial issue for SIPs is how they get on with their partner head. "You don't want to set up the relationship so that you are almost too matey because then you could never really say anything that was tough if you had to," he said.
"On the other hand, you can't set it up as being some sort of inspector because you're not. You're dealing with a colleague on a fairly equal basis. I think what's really going to be important is to be able to establish in the first meeting the nature of the relationship.
"Because I've been talking to two good heads, I have benefited myself. You can also have the advantage of allowing the exchange of good practice."
Marcia Twelftree, head of Charter School, in Ascot, was among the first cohort of SIPs to be trained. She thinks the scheme should recruit enough experienced heads.
"They've got plenty of people," she said. "It's whether or not they've got the right people.
"There are plenty of what I call 'others'. That's not what I want. I want this job primarily filled by good heads."
Adrian Percival, the National School Improvement Partnership co-ordinator, admits that getting enough serving headteachers to become partners was a potential difficulty.
He said: "It was certainly something I was concerned about, but so far the interest has been overwhelming. The scope for system-wide improvement is tremendous because not only will it bring experienced school leaders to bear in helping other heads to improve their schools, but they will obviously gain an awful lot themselves in terms of developing their own schools."
Are you ready to take a SIP?
* The first national advertising inviting headteachers to become secondary school improvement partners appeared in March.
* By this month, the first secondaries in 27 authorities will have had their new partners assigned to them.
* The first primary school SIPs are due to be piloted in six local authorities from this term. l All secondary schools and a fifth of primaries should have improvement partners by September 2006, and the rest a year later.
* For more information about SIP accreditation, see www.ncsl.org.ukleadership_developmentldev-sips.cfm