The Conversation:Take on trust status

18th January 2008 at 00:00
Ray Tarleton is head of one of the first trust schools in England, South Dartmoor Community College in Devon. Geoff Barton quizzes him about this controversial initiative.

Q: Your school has had trust status for just over a term. What was the thinking behind applying for it?

A: For me, the question was "why not?" rather than "why?" It helped that the initiative was government policy, supported by the major opposition party, so there were no politics involved - and that five other local secondaries were in favour and applied for pathfinder status at the same time. Also, Devon local authority took a really supportive and positive line.

We took a year to look at the issues, with full public consultation, before deciding to go for it.

Q: What benefits did you anticipate trust status would bring?

A: I saw it as another way of raising standards by researching how changing practice can empower the profession. That's long overdue. Our partners wanted to link closely with us to innovate, experiment and give teachers a role in developing new practice. The vision for the trust was set early on, and this in itself was a great process, forcing us to state clearly and simply what we hoped to achieve.

Professor Debra Myhill, of Exeter University (one of our trust partners) and chair of the trust board, is pushing hard for us to work at the very boundaries of disadvantage and under-achievement. After all, this is the group that, in the past 50 years, has flatlined where university applications are concerned.

We have already identified the hard-to-reach cohort in one year group. With help from Capita, the education resourcing company, we aim to bring school into the home through the Learning Gateway ICT system, which lets parents access up-to-the-minute data about their children. It's the equivalent of online banking, but we still have a lot of catching up to do in education. We've also started a training programme for all parents, using their children as tutors.

Q: So describe to me how this works in practice on a day-to-day level.

A: Two key departments - science and maths - are now in formal research partnerships with Exeter University, with a teacher from each working there for part of the week. For example, in maths - a subject under the spotlight in all schools just now - they are developing children's questioning skills.

This is rigorous research that we all hope will have national implications. It's academics and teachers working together, not for a qualification but to raise standards across the system.

Q: Do you have any evidence that trust status helps to raise standards?

A: Exeter University's declared aim, as one of our partners, is to "broaden the notion of what standards are". Just hearing that from such a prestigious institution is refreshing. Put that alongside their avowed intention to "re-professionalise teachers" and "help them take control of their own practice" and you have a force for genuine improvement in standards.

The trust board challenges the senior leadership team with a rigour and honesty that comes from our shared educational values. It's all very public - plans, notes and aspirations are published on our website, accessible to parents and the wider community.

Q: What do you predict will happen in the long term?

A: My guess is that there will soon be a national body representing trust partners from a range of organisations. These stakeholders will be able to speak with the authority that comes from direct knowledge and involvement with schools. And what a powerful group that will be - a real force for raising standards.

GB: Thank you. Your enthusiasm for trust status is refreshing and the plans sound really exciting. Best of luck with the venture.

Geoff Barton is head of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds.

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