Teaching schools’ ‘movement’ has lost its way

17th November 2017 at 00:00
Schools were successful in building bridges of mutual support in a ‘self-improving system’, but this has been hijacked by the big beasts, says Richard Steward

In November 2010, the government’s schools White Paper proposed a new national network of teaching schools, modelled on the concept of teaching hospitals. The National College, working closely with the Training and Development Agency for Schools, was asked to lead on developing the teaching schools model, and to implement methods of designation and quality assurance. More than 100 teaching schools were designated in the first cohort with a further 100 added in April 2012. The intention was to build up to about 500, but the project proved so popular with schools that more than 800 are currently listed on the Department for Education website.

The initial vision was a powerful one. It gave outstanding schools the chance to develop and share their expertise across a wide area. It also promised to allow schools to work with each other to drive up standards, both locally and nationally. The teaching schools network was a first step towards the realisation of the now common ambition, “a school-led system”.

And it worked. Schools grouped together in local alliances and really seemed to relish the opportunity to work together – and not in competition. They were able to fill the gaps left by the withdrawal of local authority support and, in the most effective alliances, a strong culture of mutual support and encouragement took hold.

Things have since changed, and many teaching school leaders are now concerned that the movement – and it was a movement – has lost its way.

Originally, the focus was on “the big six”: initial teacher training (ITT); CPD and leadership development; succession planning and talent management; school-to-school support; specialist leaders of education (SLEs); and research and development. A glance at the latest guidance reveals that the ambitions of the big six have been trimmed to “a more focused role”, which now consists of three priorities: ITT; school-to-school support; and professional and leadership development. This means that key activities, such as succession planning, SLEs and research, have seemingly been abandoned.

Source of support

For many senior leaders, the opportunity to engage in genuine school-based research was one of the most attractive aspects of the entire programme. Some really impressive work was done in this area. Teachers at all levels worked together to explore the effectiveness of pedagogy in the classroom, and they grasped the opportunity with a real sense of excitement. For many, it resulted in a renewed interest in classroom practice.

It also helped to enhance their view of themselves as skilled professionals at a time when the teaching profession was enduring a relentlessly negative press.

Those teaching schools that concentrated on teaching and learning found that collaboration with other schools became a real source of support and inspiration. Schools that had previously operated as competitive islands found themselves planning projects together, sharing teachers and devising cost-effective means of supplying training and development opportunities, tailored precisely to their needs.

School-to-school support was possible because it was facilitated by easily accessed grants that were brokered locally. A school in need of help could approach a teaching school and discuss the kind of support necessary to help it improve. A detailed package of support could be put in place and, because much of the support was delivered by schools in the teaching school alliance, it could be done relatively cheaply. As leaders began to work more closely, trust between them grew and, as a result, quality assurance was no longer an issue. A headteacher who had developed a strong relationship with fellow heads at other local schools would feel morally obliged to ensure that the support he or she could offer was of high quality. It wasn’t a matter of professional accountability, but simply one of not wanting to let a colleague down. As simple as this sounds, it proved to be very effective.

System ‘unravelling’

One of the key aims of teaching schools was, of course, teacher training. Again, this has proved to be effective where groups of schools have collaborated to develop common schemes designed to grow their own talent. In the best alliances, schools have worked closely with universities or school-centred initial teacher training (SCITT) providers to deliver sophisticated programmes that allow trainees to develop an understanding of the demands of the profession, and acquire skills that can be tested and refined in the context of the classroom. This has undoubtedly led to a new cohort of highly skilled teachers entering the profession, but it has also meant that schools have been able to ensure that they can train and recruit the best candidates, who have a real understanding of the schools in which they will begin their careers.

This very effective system has now started to unravel. Wave after wave of changes to the way trainees are recruited has left us with a chaotic and unpredictable system in which universities, teaching schools, SCITTs and a host of other training providers fight over an ever-diminishing and increasingly confused cohort of potential teachers.

Stripped of decision-making

The real damage to the teaching school vision, however, has occurred as a result of the rise of the regional schools commissioners (RSCs), who have hijacked the “self-improving system” mantra and turned it on its head. The original self-improving system meant that schools helped each other; the decisions regarding who to help and what kind of help should be provided were all taken locally. The new system increasingly expects teaching schools to become not the decision-makers, but “improvement providers”. The expectation now is that teaching schools will provide support for schools in need, as identified by the RSC. This is not a self-improving system – it is a semi-commercial model. Instead of schools working together to provide mutual support, they are now being tasked with delivering intensive first-aid to schools with which they may never have had prior contact, and about which they know very little.

The carrot that has led so many teaching schools to unthinkingly embrace the new system has been the lure of large sums of money. The new Strategic School Improvement Fund (SSIF) is a fantastically bureaucratic invention that is driven by the RSC; it works on the assumption that teaching schools will gather in large groups to bid for enormous sums of money to rescue schools across increasingly wide areas.

A genuine bid to support one local school in need will be rejected; a bid to sort out maths in all the primary schools across the county is much more likely to succeed. Whether the bid is actually practicable or likely to be effective does not seem to be a consideration; the most important factor is the weight of support and the number of schools involved.

Regional teaching schools’ meetings, which used to discuss leadership, research, CPD opportunities and, surprising as it may seem, teaching and learning, now focus entirely on how to write SSIF bids. The primary focus seems to be on getting hold of the money (and why not since such huge sums are involved?) without much consideration of how effective this kind of support will be.

The original vision of a “bottom up” style of teaching school, in which partners work together in close alliance to offer mutual support, now seems to be on its last legs and we are left with a top-down, overly bureaucratic system primarily designed to deliver the improvement agenda of the RSC. How effective this will be remains to be seen, but the signs aren’t promising.

Perhaps it is time to revive the original aims of the teaching school programme to enable local schools to start working together again with one aim: to develop teaching and learning in the classroom.

Richard Steward is headteacher of the Woodroffe School in Dorset, the lead school for the Jurassic Coast Teaching Schools’ Alliance and a national Maths Hub

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