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If the expertise for school improvement lies within schools, as is widely accepted, how is that expertise best shared? Federation CEO Adrian Percival explores how truly meaningful collaboration works.
In the last decade, we have seen a shift away from the idea that external experts can provide the answers to school improvement and towards the view that real expertise lies within schools – and that it is through school-to-school collaboration that whole system improvement can be achieved.
On the face of it, the idea has great merit and it is the basis of much of the structure around school-to-school support that has grown up over recent years.
It does seem, however, that the fundamental proposition needs some examination.
Sharing best practice – does it work?
The proposition is that school x has good practice in an area where school y is weak, so all that needs to happen is school y does what school x does and the problem is solved.
However, this approach is deeply flawed. The school improvement model underpinning it is essentially ‘top tips’, where the question is often framed in very prosaic terms, such as, “How can I get my maths GCSE results up?” The answers are usually equally prosaic, perhaps involving choosing the ‘correct’ exam board, particular approaches to revision or structuring improvement around pupil interventions.
We risk ending up in a constant pursuit of the next loophole or trick that will give our school a marginal advantage in the next round of examinations, rather than a proper principled approach to improving teaching and learning.
The real success of a school depends on the quality of its teachers, leaders and managers and on their ability to put together a searching self-evaluation and school improvement plan. Our focus should be on developing practice in these colleagues, not just giving them a new list of good ideas to try out.
This best practice does not reside in the ‘what’ of school improvement, it resides in the ‘how’, and this is the difficult bit about sharing best practice: to be successful we need to recognise not that school x has some good ideas that we in school y can use, but that the people in school x are going about their business in a much more effective way. What produces impact is understanding clearly where the weaknesses lie, identifying those weaknesses that are having the biggest negative impact and then devising and successfully implementing a strategy to improve in those specific areas.
At this point, the skilled leader may well find it useful to draw upon top tips provided by other parties, but this can only work as part of a deeper strategy for improvement.
Types of collaborative
All schools will be able to give examples of collaborative arrangements that they are involved with and, other than multi-academy trusts (MATs), these are invariably loose collaborations of peers. What may happen here is that ‘best practice’ is shared rather like a buffet, where people are free to pick and choose what suits them. But the catch is that to make the right choice requires the skills that those doing the choosing may not have.
Ultimately, in a loose collaborative, schools will make their own choices about what to do because they are largely accountable to themselves. In a MAT, it is different. The schools are tied together through their governance and are accountable to a board of directors with an overview of the whole group of schools. Therefore, when it comes to sharing of practice, it is no longer entirely optional as there is a broader MAT-based imperative around improvement.
Are MATs the answer?
A MAT provides an opportunity for much better working and sharing of practice, but achieving successful outcomes still rests on how people work together within that structure. In the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Federation Trust we have created a way of working that doesn’t so much look for best practice to replicate but seeks to develop best practice by drawing on the skills of all parts of our group. (In Ofsted terms, we have the range from ‘outstanding’, to ‘good’, to ‘requires improvement’ judgements.)
Practice is developed through cross-federation strategic groups:
- Quality of teaching
- Curriculum and assessment
- Learning and progress
Primary teaching and learning
Each group is staffed by the vice-principals who hold the relevant brief in each school (primary heads for the primary group). Each group meets every half-term and is attended by the principals of our all-through clusters, chaired by the CEO.
These groups become the driving engine for strategic improvement across the federation and in each school. The vice-principals set the agenda and strategy and they are also responsible for writing the federation development plan that is monitored and steered through these groups.
As underlined above, improvement is not in the ‘what’; it is in the ‘how’. The ‘what’ is the cross-federation groups but their impact lies in the ‘how’ and our approach is based on our model of school improvement, made up of the following elements:
Everything we do is based on the evidence that we see of the impact of our work and an evaluation of that evidence. Achievement data is very important here but is not the whole story. For example, it may be that white working-class boys’ Progress 8 is a weakness in performance and it may also be that black Caribbean performance is weak, as is performance of pupils entitled to Pupil Premium.
If we leave it at that then we are led towards interventions for under-performing groups but do nothing about the underlying causes of poor performance that lie elsewhere. The task of the self-evaluation is to identify the input weaknesses (such as quality of teaching in lower attaining groups in maths) rather than just the weaknesses in output.
Priorities with maximum impact
We focus on two or three things that seem likely to make the biggest difference and these are identified as input priorities. For example, ‘We are going to improve the teaching of writing in foundation subjects in Key Stage 3.’
Most importantly, we determine how we are going to measure success. For example, by the end of Year 7, 90% of children in history will meet the required standard in writing.
These may be events or resources.
Monitoring the impact
We monitor the impact regularly against the measurable that we have set.
We must know our starting point and set a target for our finishing point. For example, we may wish to increase the challenge in lessons. We can only evaluate the impact of our actions if we know at the beginning of the process what the status is (say 60% of lessons have sufficient challenge) and where we wish to end up (target of say 90% of lessons with sufficient challenge).
The best examples of school-to-school support are those where there is a structure of governance and leadership that places an imperative and a high degree of accountability on the collaboration to deliver and where the improvement activity is focused on creating better practice in the work of running schools and in teaching and learning.
The weakest are those loose collaboratives where practice shared is ‘top tips’ and where school leaders take it or leave it.
Adrian Percival is CEO of Haberdashers’ Aske’s Federation Trust in South London www.haaf.org.uk