Giving parents more choice about schools has become very fashionable. Think tanks and politicians believe that this is the key to boosting performance and raising standards.
On its own, choice will not do the trick. Choice can help to provide a more diverse school system, raise parental aspiration and challenge complacency, but you need other strategies.
At the other end of the spectrum, schools are well aware of the limits of top-down national prescription. Evidence from this country and overseas shows that the key to securing system-wide improvement lies in empowering schools and their leaders to lead change. In particular, pairing high-performing schools and their leaders with weaker ones can be a major force for improvement.
It was this idea that, in the autumn of 2005, led Whitehall to ask the National College for School Leadership to set up two schemes: National Leaders of Education and National Support Schools.
The first 68 national leaders were identified in October 2006. They had to be very good or outstanding school leaders and show that their school had a good track record of helping other schools in difficulty.
Steve Munby, the college's chief executive, says that although the scheme has already benefited many thousands of pupils, its full potential has yet to be realised. His aim is to build a critical mass of high-calibre leaders across the country.
"There are many more great heads and schools out there who have the capability and desire to offer this kind of support," he says.
"We have just recruited our fourth tranche of NLEs, which means by January there will be 200 working across the system. By 2012, we want to have increased that number to 500."
Mr Munby is keen to stress that the two schemes do not mean the reintroduction of "superheads". One key difference between them and previous school improvement schemes is that a head is not, as it were, sent over in a lifeboat to rescue a school single-handed. Support schools are more like a supply ship moored alongside a school to provide integrated assistance.
How the programme works
Local authorities commission the national leaders to work with schools that have been put in special measures, given a notice to improve, or are causing concern to the authorities, which are responsible for the costs of any intervention.
The national college provides the leaders with a bursary to cover set-up costs and other support, including an induction programme, guidance, seminars, access to advisers and a network of peer support.
Nearly half of all local authorities have used a national leader. In May this year, the two schemes were helping some 150 schools.
The assistance provided by national leaders is flexible and tailored. It ranges from coaching or consultancy and interim leadership roles to leadership of more than one school in a federated or executive headship.
The college assures the quality of the scheme by reviewing national leaders annually and monitoring local authority and Ofsted reports on the schools receiving assistance.
Our evaluation suggests national leaders and their schools have been used well. In June this year, nearly nine out of 10 of the first two tranches were actively supporting other schools.
Ofsted has reported on a growing number of cases in which national leaders and support schools have played a valuable role in helping schools in difficulty. By July this year, the first group of leaders had helped 19 schools either to move out of special measures or to get their notice to improve withdrawn.
We also found a marked improvement in attainment - based on available 2008 key stage and GCSE results - in most schools that had a phase 1 national leader working with them for a year or more.
At high-achieving schools, one of the main concerns among governors - and some heads - is whether their success will be jeopardised by diverting time and resources to another school. Our findings show that support schools generally benefit from their role and continue to improve.
Barry Day, a national leader and head of Greenwood Dale School in Nottingham, says his school has previously supported another local one and is now supporting Elliott Durham School. The two schools, along with Jesse Boot Primary, will form the new 3-19 Nottingham Academy.
This summer, the number of pupils gaining five good GCSEs at Greenwood Dale rose from 80 to 93 per cent (from 50 to 57 per cent if English and maths are included), and the contextual value added score for KS2-4 rose from 1,068 to 1,079.
"If you are a successful school, there is absolutely no reason why improvement should not continue whilst working in other schools," says Mr Day. "What is crucial is to maintain the structures and systems that have brought success, and to build sufficient capacity to cope with the increased challenges and workloads."
Clearly, the role of national leaders is growing as they lead groups or chains of schools and play a greater part in local and regional school improvement.
But giving a boost to teaching and learning is the crucial area in which these leaders and support schools add most value.
The way ahead
Despite its successes, the initiative still faces challenges. We want local authorities to be more open to using national leaders. More needs to be done to fund the support schools up front so that they have staff appointed to enable them to support a school at short notice.
We also recommend that the School Teachers' Review Body should look at the remuneration of the leaders giving support. And the Government should clarify the role of the various school-based improvement schemes it promotes to make sure they all have a complementary function.
But our overall conclusion is very positive. National leaders and support schools are not cure-alls for dealing with underperforming schools, but the evidence shows that they are making a strong contribution to school improvement. They also have the potential to play a much larger role in the school system. School leaders, policymakers, local authorities and politicians should certainly continue using national leaders and support schools in the years to come.
- Robert Hill is a former adviser to Tony Blair. He now works as an independent policy analyst.
- Peter Matthews is a former HMI and now works as an education consultant.
Their book, 'Schools Leading Schools: The Power and Potential of National Leaders of Education', is available from the National College for School Leadership
FRAMEWORK HELPED HARROGATE CLIMB
In 2007, North Yorkshire County Council thought Harrogate High School was at risk of being judged inadequate by Ofsted. It approached Michael Wilkins, a national leader of education and executive principal of Outwood Grange College in Wakefield, about becoming executive head at Harrogate High.
A contract was agreed between Outwood Grange and the council after discussion with the governing bodies. Harrogate High would receive support to help raise standards, improve the quality of teaching and learning, review the curriculum, improve behaviour, and develop leadership and management. And if Harrogate High were to be inspected during the period of national leadership, the school should be judged "at least satisfactory and improving, with good capacity to improve".
As well as Mr Wilkins, Outwood provided an associate head, financial expertise and other key senior and middle leaders.
Harrogate High was inspected just before the end of the contract and was judged "satisfactory, focused on improvement, and with a good capacity to improve".
In a report in June this year, Ofsted concluded: "Change is proceeding rapidly under the determined leadership of the executive principal and acting headteacher. They work as an effective team to bring a clear vision for improvement to fruition."
The proportion of students achieving five or more good GCSEs rose from 44 per cent in 2007 to 80 per cent this summer.
The contract with Outwood Grange was renewed for another year.
TECHNIQUES FOR HELPING SCHOOLS
- Injecting leadership
Appointing an executive head, promoting able leaders, seconding deputy and assistant heads and curriculum leaders from outside.
- Developing leadership
Supporting senior leaders and working with middle leaders to address their weaknesses.
Hosting visits and using advanced skills teachers to enable the client school to watch good practice.
Working with subject leaders and providing feedback on the quality of classroom teaching and learning
Supporting a newly appointed or inexperienced teacher or subject leader individually.
Assisting with reviewing curriculum plans, schemes of work and policies for behaviour and inclusion.
- Monitoring performance
Checking regularly on the progress of individual teachers and subjects.
- Using data
Helping to analyse performance of pupils, year groups and departments, and setting targets for improvement.
- Evaluating progress
Assessing and reporting overall progress to pupils, staff, governors and the local authority.