Is yours a Tesco school?

14th October 2011 at 01:00

When I visited my grandmother's, I invariably persuaded her to pay a visit to Clarice's to buy a bottle of Tizer. Clarice's was an off-licence in a cul-de-sac off Grandma's road. Clarice would emerge in her floral nylon housecoat and slippers to serve us. And chat to Grandma. At length. As well as Tizer and four-a-penny chews, she sold washing soda and the odd vegetable. There was also sherry on draught.

Clarice's closed a long time ago. As did the newsagent and grocer situated between Grandma's and the main road. Now sits the shiny palace of he who conquered Clarice and all her kind - the Lord Tesco.

Many small village primaries are feeling like a Clarice. They offer a nurturing environment on the doorstep of their customers, know the children and their families well, and put a big tick in the community cohesion and sustainability boxes. Yet as the local authority girdle shrinks, many are feeling naked. They cannot exist without subsidy, and cannot generate economies of scale. Their local community often does not give them the loyalty they expect. No wonder these heads are seeking the safety of federation partners with the desperation of spinsters at a speed-dating session. They know that if they do not put their own house in order, they will be swallowed up by an academy chain before you can say "Tesco".

The educational landscape is experiencing a seismic shift. In this new world, the strong as well as the vulnerable are looking at how best to create new structures that will not just help weak schools improve, but also enable the best to become world-class. We have joined one such group: Challenge Partners.

I came across it serendipitously. Up from the sticks and at a loose end in London, I decided to forgo Madame Tussaud's and hang out at the Department for Education in the hope of getting Michael Gove's autograph. I bumped into Sue John, head of Lampton School and a dynamo behind the London Leadership Challenge, who invited me to join a meeting of the Challenge Partners. Such was their energy and commitment to fight for the best possible education for all kids, I took the king's shilling on the spot.

In less than six months, 56 schools have joined Challenge Partners. They do what it says on the tin. In a post-SIP world, they provide challenge for one another through an annual audit. Senior leaders are trained to carry out the audit in partner schools, with a qualified inspector as moderator. They then act in partnership to work on the areas for improvement identified by the audit. Outstanding departments develop and lead others, trained facilitators help teachers become outstanding, failing schools are invited to join a trust so they can be helped to a position of strength.

The model is John Lewis, not Tesco. These schools do not want to replace local authority apron-strings with academy-chain authoritarianism. They recognise that schools need to work together to improve themselves and the system in a way that respects individual autonomy.

The drive towards academies and free schools is the logical fulfilment of the process that started with local management of schools all those years ago. At the same time, schools are realising that as they leave one club they need to join another, not just to survive, but to flourish. Clarice, Tesco or John Lewis? We've made our choice: what's yours?

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

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