Partnership deal aims to end 'predatory' competition for pupils
"Co-operation rather than competition" has been an often-used slogan in the world of school improvement in recent years.
But in the era of league tables and accountability for individual schools, attempts to get institutions to work together have often proved tough to implement.
Now all the schools in a struggling Midlands town hope they can put an end to dog-eat-dog competition by forming a partnership, backed by their local authority and EdisonLearning, a US firm.
Schools in Northampton are likely to sign up to an agreement not to take any action that could damage their neighbours' attempts at school improvement.
The local authority hopes that the move will prevent "predatory" competition for middle-class pupils between schools and stop some being forced to admit more than their fair share of excluded and special educational needs pupils.
The way they hope to achieve this is through an area improvement partnership. Under the arrangement, all Northampton's schools - including its only academy - have agreed to "share responsibility for learning" - no small undertaking when the schools have been under pressure to improve their results.
They have all signed up to a set of targets that apply to them as a group. These include that, within an unspecified time limit, no Northampton school will be judged to be underperforming by Ofsted; there will be no exclusions in primary schools and only 10 a year in secondaries; and attendance levels will be above the national average.
The plan is being backed by Whitehall and has been designed to address concerns about the consequences of competition.
Paul Burnett, Northamptonshire's corporate director for children and young people, said: "If you truly believe that we are in this business of raising educational attainment for all, we should be taking a collegial approach to that objective."
Mr Burnett, who started his job a year ago, said: "I have been working in local government for 22 years and I have very frequently seen individual schools make significant improvements. But often I have seen that happen with other schools around them starting to see the reverse.
"That does not raise educational attainment for all. It raises educational attainment for some. And the pupils who suffer most from some schools achieving and others not are the ones who are most likely to underachieve."
He said that, in other areas of the country, schools had gone out of their way to recruit large numbers of middle-class children. This could make pupil intakes very uneven.
"Some schools (elsewhere) have been quite predatory in terms of attracting parents to apply to their schools - maybe the more aspirational parents, and parents of more able pupils - so that you end up with one school having a more able profile and other schools having a less able profile, and not having a comprehensive intake." he said. "I am keen to see that eradicated."
Mr Burnett said the partnership could include an agreement from heads not to implement admissions policies that would undermine their colleagues' school improvement efforts. In addition, they would agree to consider the effects on other schools of any plans they have to expand or to share out excluded and special needs pupils.
The local authority has brought in Edison, the firm behind the contentious Charter Schools, on a three-year contract, the value of which has not been revealed, to support school improvement.
School league tables will remain. And it is unclear precisely who will take responsibility should any of the joint targets fail to be hit.
But heads taking part in the launch were enthusiastic.
And it is clear that the plan chimes with warm words from the Government about the value of partnership. Addressing the launch meeting, Jon Coles, acting director-general for schools at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, presented a string of statistics suggesting that Northamptonshire's exam results were below those of similar authorities.
"It's so important in this partnership that you are prepared to be open with one another, and that you share the things that you find difficult and the things you are good at," he said.
DITCH PARANOIA AND EMBRACE PARTNERSHIP
The most important quality any modern headteacher needs is a "complete absence of paranoia", a leading civil servant has said.
Jon Coles, the second most senior official at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, told the launch of Northampton's area improvement partnership that heads required such level-headedness to work in partnerships because leading a 21st-century school was impossible without collaboration.
"For many years we have valued more than anything the autonomous school that has said `We can go our own way', and now we are starting to talk about partnerships," he said.
Initiatives such as the Government's 14-19 diploma, under which courses will be provided across a group of schools and colleges, underlined the need for partnership, he said.
And the focus on schools working with local authorities to provide extended services, coupled with a drive in primary schools to recruit more specialist maths and science teachers, meant collaboration with outside agencies was vital.
Mr Coles, acting director-general for schools, said four qualities were important in the modern head: optimism, intellectual curiosity, the ability to take risks and, most important of all, lack of paranoia.
The Tomlinson inquiry, which paved the way for the diplomas, highlighted persistent fears that league tables stood in the way of partnership.
Mark Griffin, head of Abbeyfield School in Northampton, told the meeting: "Like many people out there (in schools) I have a healthy paranoia. Despite what people from the department say, paranoia is healthy. If good leaders need to lose that paranoia, perhaps the DCSF needs to stop issuing us with challenges that seem to come with threats."