Clubbing together

19th April 2013 at 01:00

Have you ever been to one of those improvised comedy shows? The audience shouts out three words - cucumber, Cameron and castanets, say - and the comedians must improvise a sketch around them. The performers have to use their wits and ingenuity to shape something stunning from whatever chance throws their way.

It is an apt metaphor for where we are in education. The old certainties are being sucked into the Department for Education crusher and spat out in quite new shapes. In go local authorities and the National Strategies and out come academies, free schools and university technical colleges. In go exam specifications and out pop harder ones. In goes national pay bargaining, healthy eating guidelines and the prescribed colour for school toilet paper, and out pops "do what you want as long as it works".

This is chaos and anarchy for those who like to do as they are told and always have two sugars in their tea. It is exhilarating and liberating for those who are born improvisers. In his book Everything's an Offer: how to do more with less, Robert Poynton sums up the behaviour of improvisers by saying that they "let go, notice more, use everything". This outlook has worked for me twice lately in ways that have benefited students not just in our school but in others, too.

On both occasions I happened to be in London between conferences with an afternoon to spare. I got together with fellow heads to see where it led me. Sue John took me to a meeting of Challenge Partners. This began as a group of ex-London Challenge heads who had seen the benefit of working with other schools to offer mutual advice and support and created a new network to do just that. Eighteen months on, Challenge Partners has more than 200 schools operating a sophisticated system of peer review and a rapidly expanding suite of programmes to improve teaching.

On the second occasion, I trotted after Rob Haring to a meeting of Partners in Excellence (PiXL). It was like drinking your first glass of Chateau Lafite and wondering how you had ever managed in life without it. A head gave a presentation on iGCSE English that was so sharp, insightful and sensible that I wanted to throw myself at her feet and pledge undying love. PiXL has more than 400 member schools and runs workshops for key subjects, and its heads act as consultants to help other schools.

Spot the common pattern? As old structures dissolve, these organisations are sprouting in the gaps and finding new ways for schools to become better. I am constantly amazed at the altruistic, highly moral response of the heads involved. They see that helping others to improve helps us to do so as well.

I am a happy member of two new clubs and I came across both by chance. Yet as former footballer Kenny Dalglish once said: "You don't get lucky, you get into position." More and more schools are getting themselves into position with new networks. But my worry is that there are still schools who have not yet realised that the world has changed. Irrevocably. They need to start improvising.

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge Community College in Devon.

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