December 2011

The know zone

  • Take note
    Governance, finance, buildings, liabilities, personnel… increased autonomy lays bare a raft of rights and responsibilities that academies can’t ignore, says Richard Bird. More
  • Coining new terms
    Sam Ellis introduces a series of articles designed to help leaders adapt to a world in which curriculum planning is determined by what you can afford, not what you need. More
  • Lead vocals
    Quotes from Horace, Napoleon Hill, Maya Angelou, Frank A Clark. More
  • Permanent state of bliss?
    Ross Morrison McGill was made voluntarily redundant from his role as assistant head of an academy in London in August. He hopes to run his own school one day and is currently blogging and fundraising for Bliss, a charity that helps families with prematurely-born children, after his son Freddie was born two months early. More
  • Green is good
    Through its Green Schools Revolution (GSR) community education programme, The Co-operative is encouraging students to work towards a more sustainable future. A range of resources, activities and trips have been devised to engage everyone from young, first-time environmentalists to committed ‘greenagers’. More
  • Adding value
    Data is critical to informing decisions on whole school improvement but many schools and academies are failing to make good use of the powerful tools available in their management information systems (MIS). More
  • LA story: The final cut?
    Do local authorities still have a role to play in education? If so, in what areas? Should they be involved in monitoring and raising standards, take on a more limited role, or have no involvement at all with education? Leaders share their views… More
  • Leaders' surgery
    Terminal exams set to stay in England & Pensions come home to roost More
  • Taking care of business
    While pensions and industrial action were at the forefront of everyone’s mind during the last Council meeting on 13-14 October, there was plenty of other business to attend to. Here is a snapshot of the committee discussions More
  • Trading places
    If the school system becomes polarised between confident high-achieving institutions and ones struggling to overcome major challenges, collaboration will become not just important but essential, says Brian Lightman. Otherwise, the dream of a world-class education system has no hope of becoming a reality. More
  • Sense & sensibility?
    Eric Hester reports a startling DfE development: some leadership teams are being encouraged to deploy discernment, logic and good old-fashioned gumption. More
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If the school system becomes polarised between confident high-achieving institutions and ones struggling to overcome major challenges, collaboration will become not just important but essential, says Brian Lightman. Otherwise, the dream of a world-class education system has no hope of becoming a reality.

Trading places

Conversations with ASCL members all over the country lead me to believe that in this new era of coalition education policy school leaders can broadly locate their institutions on a spectrum which is labelled at the extremes as ‘confident’ and ‘constrained’ schools. This is not a value judgement but rather a description of the circumstances in which they exist. Let me explain my hypothesis. At one end:

  • Schools tend to be in areas of average or relatively low deprivation.
  • The intake is relatively safe; even if not over-subscribed, rolls are at least steady and there are no obvious threats to stability, such as a new school opening where there is no basic need.
  • Examination results are above national averages and clear of floor targets.
  • Staffing is stable, industrial relations calm and the school is able to recruit and retain without major difficulty.
  • Ofsted reports on the school have been good and there is little risk of the school being placed in a category.
  • Parents are supportive.
  • Numbers of pupils taking free school meals (FSM) are relatively low.

These would be classed as confident schools.

At the other end:

  • Schools may be located in an area which is perceived as challenging. This affects recruitment.
  • Schools are under-subscribed, perhaps because of local demographics or, in some cases, because of a new school opening and adding to competitive pressure for existing places.
  • Recruitment is more difficult and industrial relations can be tense.
  • Examinations are close to the existing or planned floor targets.
  • Even if recent Ofsted reports have recognised the strengths of the school, the larger numbers of pupils who are challenging or low attaining on entry puts the school at risk of entering a category.
  • A significant proportion of parents are unsupportive or even actively hostile.
  • FSM levels are relatively high.

These are constrained schools.

Long-term vision of leadership

Confident schools operate in conditions which mean they can choose to a very considerable extent to ignore government policy. They can design their curriculum according to a long-term vision of leadership and adopt a relatively relaxed attitude to accountability measures. Teaching can be innovative and creative with a culture which encourages risk-taking and experimentation as part of the school’s quest to improve further.

Examination results are an important part of their recipe for success but the progress of all pupils is more important than a focus on the C/D borderline group. While inspection remains a pressure for all schools, confident schools can approach them in a relatively relaxed way. Constrained schools have much less capacity to enjoy these freedoms. They tend, for wholly understandable reasons, to be much more reactive to the vagaries of government policy than their confident counterparts. Consequently their curriculum is more likely to be dominated by external demands such as the English Baccalaureate which is more likely to lead to reactive curriculum changes. They can never relax about accountability measures and focus closely on the Ofsted framework.

Because their capacity to reach the floor targets could have such massive implications for the school and possibly the jobs of senior staff there is a strong emphasis on teaching to the test and specifically the C/D borderline.

As I have tested this model at ASCL’s current round of information conferences, I have expected a significant number to question the validity of what I feared might be a rather simplistic analysis. To my surprise this has not been the reaction. In a poll, 90 per cent felt that the model was valid; 48 per cent described their schools as confident, 33 per cent as constrained and 13 per cent were unsure.

I have not yet enough evidence to know whether this model applies equally to members in the college sector and would welcome feedback.

The mere perception that this kind of model exists highlights all kinds of issues and questions about our education service and current policies.

Let us take at face value ministers’ frequent claims that a healthy school within a self-improving system, driven by autonomous and highly respected professionals, is one which has control over professional decisions. The concept of a constrained school contradicts and undermines the principles of freedom and autonomy and de-professionalises those who work in it.

Curriculum questions

The constrained model raises questions about the curriculum. A curriculum model which focuses unhealthily on teaching to the test and external examinations is unlikely to be balanced. Many of the schools which feel most constrained are located in areas where addressing social mobility presents all kinds of challenges demanding innovative and creative approaches to the curriculum.

The model also raises many questions about recruitment and retention. Luckily, our profession is well endowed with incredibly committed people who have been willing to work in some of the most challenging circumstances. But how long this will last? And will leadership and teaching posts in constrained schools attract applicants of the top calibre they desperately need?

The Teach First model has done a great deal to help with this but it is not designed to retain people for more than two years, a fact which raises questions about the long-term development of these schools.

In terms of social mobility, one must question whether the conditions in a constrained school will be conducive to providing young people with the confidence and creativity they need in order to access top universities and careers.

Commitment across the system

The biggest challenge for us is to assist the constrained schools to develop the capacity to become confident ones. Some of this lies within the very evident commitment across the system to support each other.

Collaborative models of school-to-school support can bring pairs or groups together. This may be anywhere along the continuum of soft and hard federations or even within the context of an academy chain or teaching school consortium.

The most important aspect of this kind of collaboration will be mutual trust and a genuine partnership of equals. It may well be far more difficult to teach in a constrained school and I remain convinced that there is much excellent practice which is not celebrated or shared enough in a climate in which it is far easier for the confident ones to be designated outstanding.

The inspection system makes it easier for confident schools to be rated outstanding and the drivers which enable a school to become more confident relate to the intake and numbers of FSM and pupils with special educational needs.

The challenge of creating a world class education service demands approaches which are effective across the whole of our system – not just some parts.

I would welcome your feedback on this model and your suggested solutions to the challenges it presents.

  • Brian Lightman is ASCL general secretary

Trading places