Outstanding is only the start for elite 'teaching schools'

4th February 2011 at 00:00
Analysis: Those who join the education secretary's new flag-carriers will enjoy high status - and cash. But do the exacting selection criteria favour the fortunate few? Kerra Maddern reports

In a time of budget cuts and redundancies, the offer of millions of pounds along with a new, elite status is likely to prove popular with many schools.

With a total of #163;72 million up for grabs for successful applicants, competition to run one of the Government's new "teaching schools" could be fierce. But getting the new brand - and cash - may be harder than even the highest-performing of headteachers had first imagined.

The successful few will not only have to hold an outstanding Ofsted rating, "high level" pupil performance and an outstanding leader who is already responsible for several schools, but also have close links with universities.

This might seem like a tough ask, but government officials say there is a reason. Those who run teaching schools will have a demanding role running training for staff at up to 60 schools, working on wider school improvement and spotting and developing future heads. And the Government wants to establish 500 of them by 2015, but with the first opening this September.

According to ministers, who have been inspired by Finland's teaching schools and England's NHS teaching hospitals, designation should not be seen as "just a badge for schools to collect".

All types of English schools - primary, secondary, special, independent and academy - will be eligible to apply. Secondary teaching schools will work with 15 to 20 other schools, and those in primaries will have 50 to 60 partners.

The #163;72 million funding will pay for extra teachers, needed when school staff are away from their class running training schemes, although schools will also be expected to generate their own income.

The idea, of course, of teachers running training is nothing new. There are already 28 teaching schools in the City Challenge areas of London, Greater Manchester and the Black Country and 33 more on the way (see box). These operate in a similar way to the proposed new national scheme, providing training to teachers at all levels of their careers.

There are also 240 schools in England which run only initial teacher training courses.

The Government admits that not all the schools currently involved with training will meet the stringent criteria for the new wave of teaching schools, but has said they will still have "an important part to play".

The strict requirements are already proving problematic for staff at Glenthorne High in Sutton, which has been running initial teacher training for seven years.

Assistant head Andy Platt wants Glenthorne to get teaching school status. But for that to happen he and head Stephen Hume have to persuade Ofsted to to do an inspection. Four years ago, Glenthorne was graded good, but to qualify as a teaching school it needs to be outstanding.

"We are in the unusual situation of gagging for Ofsted to visit us," said Mr Platt. "We were due one a year ago, but now inspectors visit high-performing schools less often and they haven't come to us yet. Now we want, and need, to prove we are outstanding.

"Our school ticks all the other boxes. It is a worry that schools which are outstanding, but don't have the kind of experience in running training that we do, can get teaching school status ahead of us."

Mr Platt and his colleagues might be in luck. Department for Education officials say schools might be "supported" to complete the improvements necessary so they can be teaching schools.

The use of Ofsted judgments in awarding teaching school status has also angered Philip Ingram, head of Southmoor Community School, Sunderland. He believes the Government has made a "fundamental flaw" in only allowing those with outstanding ratings to take part.

"We all know that it is far more difficult to get the badge if you are in an area of deprivation. We are in real danger of confusing social class of intake with quality of provision," he said.

"If this is the basis for teaching schools, then we are doomed to failure. If I were head of a struggling school the person I would want to work with and would learn most from would be the one who succeeded against the odds, not the one who achieved well in good circumstances."

Alan Johnston, a local authority adviser in Northumberland, says only 20 out of the county's 183 primary and secondaries meet the teaching school criteria. But 12 of those have fewer than 150 pupils and only one is a secondary.

"Also, we do not have a 'training school' in Northumberland and so for some time now have been developing work with a number of schools to develop professional development - and none of these schools meets this particular (outstanding judgment) criterion," he said.

Mike Griffiths, head of Northampton School for Boys, predicts "very few" schools would qualify. He hopes judgments on applications will be made "professionally" rather than "crudely based on ticking all the boxes".

Mr Griffiths' school meets many of the criteria. It is outstanding and staff already run initial teacher training. But he worries that the strict guidelines will deter many schools from applying, and has also warned that the introduction is too rushed. Even if he knew by Easter if his bid was successful, there would be no time to recruit extra staff by September. If teachers are distracted by new training duties, the school's performance could suffer.

"I want to be involved at the embryonic stage of this, because we can influence decisions on the ground floor and shape what the overall end product looks like," Mr Griffiths said.

"Our experience in initial teacher training has been that paperwork and the number of boxes to tick have been huge and running courses involves being under a huge amount of scrutiny which is not necessary.

"All you need is to measure outcomes, such as dropout rates and employability. Everyone who signs up to a school-based training course is always astounded by the amount of over-the-top paperwork involved - it's stultifying. Instead we must concentrate on what's important."

Teaching school status will last for four years, unless standards at the school drop. But until the final details of the Government's teacher training plans are announced, the first year will only be a pilot project. Ministers will use that time to have "further dialogue with the profession".

Officials from the National College will be responsible for choosing the successful applicants who want to be teaching schools. Chief executive Steve Munby said teaching school status would bring heads "greater autonomy".

"It is a terrific reflection on the standard of school leadership in this country and the trust we have in the profession," he said. "Teaching schools are an excellent example not only of how collaboration can be sustained, but enhanced, in order to benefit even more children and young people in many more schools."

The country's first teaching schools, set up in London, Greater Manchester and the Black Country as part of the City Challenge projects, have proved successful.

At Elmridge Primary in Hale Barns, Trafford, head Jo Appleyard has already applied to become a teaching school.

"I think this is a fantastic idea. It helps schools be creative and it will help them interact," Mrs Appleyard said.

"If there is extra funding, I can employ more staff. But schools need to know it's all or nothing. We took this on together - either all of your teachers or none have to be involved.

"We've trained 120, we are all trained to deliver courses and we feel it's helped improve our practice as well. It certainly should not be just to set up courses for outstanding teachers.

"We have been able to make a real difference to challenging schools but that's been through a collaborative approach. Our first commitment always has to be to the pupils."

Mr Munby has promised that teaching schools will not be "overloaded" and that they will be given time to "build capacity".

Teaching schools could change the way schools operate forever, but only if heads are willing to take on a very different approach to staff training. Their concerns are already being made clear - whether the Government is taking them on board remains to be seen.

DO YOU QUALIFY? - Big steps up

1. A clear track-record of long-standing collaborative relationships with a significant number of partner schools.

2. Rated outstanding by Ofsted.

3. Consistently high levels of pupil performance or continued improvement over the past three years; results must exceed floor standards.

4. Outstanding senior and middle leaders.

5. Evidence of improvement supported by self-evaluation, coaching, mentoring, quality assurance and engagement in practitioner-led research, with strong links to higher education.

6. Applications will be welcomed from clusters of smaller schools.

7. Headteachers must be judged outstanding and have led a school for at least three years, and expect to remain in their job for the next two years.

8. Heads must also already be accountable for one or more schools or academies which meet the teaching school criteria.

MANCHESTER - 'Phenomenal potential' - for some

Teaching schools set up under the Greater Manchester City Challenge are chosen because of their expertise in particular subjects, with staff supporting colleagues in different schools.

Mel Ainscow, chief adviser to the Challenge, said their introduction had been positive, but they had to be part of other school improvement schemes and fears Michael Gove has "cherrypicked" the policy.

There are 13 teaching schools in Greater Manchester, which have run courses for more than 1,000 teachers.

Professor Ainscow says their success has also been due to the proximity of the city's two universities and schools. The system started in the city in 2003, but he thinks teaching schools "still have a way to go".

"The teaching school model also must be adapted to fit a local context," he said. "The other issue with the national expansion is who is going to co-ordinate it? You need to give the schools extra resources.

"But the potential for this is phenomenal. It will create an interesting new relationship between schools, mobilise energy and hopefully become world class."

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