My friend from the town hall
In the good old days, before the advent of targets, Ofsted and league tables, a school's area adviser was the link to the local authority.
Advisers would help out with appointments, courses and curriculum development. Their advice was free.
The relationship was often far too cosy. Sometimes, the advisory service was seen as a sinecure, occasionally it was a dumping ground for teachers who'd had difficulties in the classroom.
Not any more. Advisory services have to pay their way - delegated budgets saw to that - and where link or area advisers do exist, their role is largely confined to Ofsted-style monitoring (local authorities have a duty to meet each school at least once a year to go through a statutory checklist).
But eight primary schools in the Nechells area of Birmingham decided they needed something more. The schools, which together comprise the Nechells Association of Community Education (Nace), wanted some "old style" advice.
So when one of their number, St Vincent's RC junior school, was awarded beacon status, the group agreed to use some of the extra funding to buy in help from the local authority.
"You need someone, because otherwise you can end up being too isolated," says Beverley Thomas, headteacher at St Matthew's primary school. "You can get into the way of thinking that the situation can't change, and you need someone to say yes it can."
That someone is Brian Barkway, an ex-head who is a link adviser with Birmingham LEA. As well as the "statutory" half a day he spends in each school every term, Mr Barkway now spends an extra half a day a term in each Nace school, working to the heads' agenda rather than the LEA's. He's not cheap - Nace pays Birmingham just under pound;2,000 a term for the four days it gets from Mr Barkway - but the schools are adamant that he's worth it.
In many ways the Nace scheme has recreated the role of the area adviser, who would work on issues identified by the schools themselves. "We don't have the primary version of 'schools in challenging circumstances'," he says. "Which is a pity, because this area is a challenging circumstance."
Nechells, an inner-city area in decline, is one of the most difficult districts in Birmingham. Several of the schools face funding shortfalls because of falling rolls. And, at St Matthew's, Mrs Thomas is finding it hard to attract teachers to her school. "Last term, I was a teacher short, so I did the teaching myself," she recalls. "I'd come in at 6.30 in the morning, spend an hour on paperwork, do some planning, then go into the classroom - it was not a good situation."
Mr Barkway also didn't approve. He kept raising the issue, encouraging Mrs Thomas to see the problem in strategic terms. While she was holding the fort in one classroom, the rest of the school was missing her leadership.
"There was no helicopter view," says Mrs Thomas. "By half-term, I realised that it wasn't working. Brian was forcing me to recognise my role as a leader, which I couldn't do if I was in the classroom."
"Heads know that I am on their side," says Mr Barkway. "As a city, we work with our heads. We don't talk about failing schools, we talk about schools that are vulnerable; it has to be blunt at times."
One hard discussion revolved around the school's development plan and achievement targets. Would Mr Barkway approve them? "Beverley has been exceptionally professional," he says. "But when you set targets, you need to think long-term. I wouldn't sign the sheet at first. It was one of the areas where I put a lot of challenge into the school."
Part of Mrs Thomas's management style is to involve her staff at every opportunity. "Our discussions involve her senior management team," says Mr Barkway. "Initially, I found that uncomfortable, especially when there were difficult messages to deliver, but Beverley says 'You get right in there'."
The eight Nechells schools are using their advisory support in different ways. And, for some issues, such as the implementation of literacy hour, they will be buying in other advisory support from the local authority. But the scheme demonstrates the value of buying in more than targeted support. Ships' captains take on a pilot to navigate difficult waters, so why shouldn't schools?
Two years into her headship, Mrs Thomas is feeling more in control. She has an advanced skills teacher working with one class, an excellent deputy, and standards are beginning to improve. Is she ready to "drop the pilot" and manage without her advisory support. "No," she says. "It's got to be handled carefully, but you need someone who can say, 'The school can do better than this, this is how you do it'."
"For different waters you need a different pilot," says Mr Barkway. But he argues that even the most successful schools need leaders who are prepared to listen to advice, and occasionally tolerate another hand on the tiller.
"My view would be that it's a very dangerous thing once a school feels it will never again need that advice."