School collaboration: The quiet revolution

This article was originally published on Headteacher Update


The Teaching School Hubs pilots will see schools tackling the challenges they face by working together, but there are already good examples of how this collaborative approach can work in action. Nick Bannister meets the collaborators kickstarting a quiet education revolution.

A quiet revolution has been happening in the way schools work together to improve and tackle the challenges they face. The first phase of this approach emerged in 2011, when the National College for School Leadership launched the first Teaching Schools.

It was part of the government’s commitment to a school-led system – a broad policy ambition that led the then education secretary Michael Gove to speak at the time of letting “a thousand flowers bloom”.

There are now almost 800 Teaching School Alliances (TSAs) across the country, each providing school improvement, teacher training and professional development to schools within and outside their alliances.

In recent years, it has become apparent to observers and analysts that the vision has not led to an even carpet of blossoms when it comes to the distribution of Teaching Schools around the country.

Critiques highlight a fracturing and duplication of the school improvement effort (Greany & Higham, 2018). In some areas, TSAs and multi-academy trusts often overlap and compete against each other as they deliver their “big three” priorities of school improvement support, teacher training and CPD.

A move towards collaboration on a greater scale as the way to address the school improvement and professional development needs of schools, avoid competition and tackle pressing issues such as recruitment and retention is now gaining momentum.

A “wholesale review” of the role of Teaching Schools and existing system leadership designations was announced by the government as part of its Teacher recruitment and retention strategy (Department for Education, January 2019).

The strategy includes a pilot phase in which high-performing schools will be funded to develop Teaching School Hubs – regional groups consisting of an outstanding school, usually an existing Teaching School, at the head of a network of 200 to 300 schools across a region defined by the hubs themselves. If successful this hub model could go nationwide by 2021.

The pilots begin in September, but there are already good examples across the country of this hub approach working successfully in practice, according to the Outstanding Leaders Partnership (OLP).

OLP is a national partnership of 107 training providers, the majority of which are TSAs and MATs. It is managed and supported by Best Practice Network (BPN) – one of the UK’s largest providers of training development and support for education professionals.

BPN works with OLP schools in the design of CPD programmes, including the National Professional Qualifications (NPQs) for school leaders, and provides the partnership with back office functions such as programme management, quality assurance and delivery support. There are currently 4,500 participants on OLP programmes.

Yvonne Gandy, NPQ programme director at BPN, said that the OLP’s approach to collaboration is already helping TSAs and MATs to work together to improve schools, deliver professional development programmes such as NPQH and NPQSL, and support and tackle key challenges such as recruitment and retention.

The problems of duplication and competition that have been an issue for school-led improvement are avoided through this strategic approach to collaboration. She explained: “We’re well aware of the need for our partners to work collaboratively rather than competitively in the delivery of professional development. The approach avoids a duplication of effort and means that each partner can play to their strengths in the delivery of professional development programmes such as the NPQs.

“The same approach will support recruitment into teaching,” she continued. “The OLP model supports the idea of a national career pathway from initial teacher training through to executive leadership, with each stage tailored to local school practice and needs because each programme is developed and delivered by practising local leaders.

“The benefit for our delivery partners is that they provide the professional expertise and local context, with the back-up of a national organisation that provides the design, delivery and quality assurance aspects.

“It’s all about sharing expertise, balancing capacities and working together to take a strategic view of the needs of the area they serve. We are sure this strategic approach being developed by OLP will unlock greater recruitment numbers, economies of scale, and consistency.”


Case study: Collaboration in action

Sharing, balancing and working together seem to be watchwords for a collaboration in Warrington.

Three OLP partner TSAs, which cover a mix of primary and secondary schools, are co-operating closely to deliver CPD, school improvement and address teacher recruitment needs.

The partnership offers a good template for the Teaching School Hub proposals, explained Louise Smith, CEO of Warrington Primary Academy Trust (WPAT), which runs Warrington TSA.

“This level of co-operation and collaboration between Teaching Schools is already happening organically. It just makes sense to work closely together, identify where you can pool resources and expertise, and play on our individual strengths.”

The approach was borne out of a long tradition in the area of collaboration which saw WPAT’s lead school, Evelyn Street Primary, forge a strong network with other local Teaching Schools. Together they won several bids for government funding, including £1 million to support early years language and literacy in deprived areas.

That approach has now been formalised into the Warrington strategic board, consisting of WPAT, Bridgewater Teaching School and the Great Sankey TSA.

The three TSAs share responsibilities for delivering NPQ programmes on OLP’s behalf, ensuring that their facilitators deliver in their areas of expertise.

School improvement is another area where they co-operate closely. They meet as a strategic board every term to identify school improvement priorities. These meetings are attended by the heads of each Teaching School, together with National Leaders of Education from the local area, the local authority and representatives of the town’s primary and secondary headteachers.

“Secondary performance and SEND provision are critical issues in Warrington, as is the gap between Pupil Premium-funded students and their peers,” Ms Smith continued. “We discuss how we can draw on our resources to support these challenges through deploying our Specialist Leaders of Education into schools that need support. It also helps us make sure that the professional development programmes we deliver address local needs.”

Recruiting the right teachers – and enough of them – is a priority for Teaching Schools. WPAT has reached across boundaries and is working with Wade Deacon Trust, another OLP NPQ partner and a MAT of four secondaries, four primaries and an all-though school in nearby Halton local authority.

The two TSAs jointly deliver School Direct – Wade Deacon hosts secondary students and WPAT primary. They also signpost each other’s professional development services.

“Regional collaboration is a key element of school improvement, especially on recruitment because this is starting to bite in some schools,” explained Jen Murphy, Wade Deacon Trust’s head of Teaching School.

“The system-led approach to school improvement had long been successful when done well, but the challenges are in the capacity that the schools can build so that they can provide effective support.”

Together the two TSAs train more than 20 School Direct trainees each year, and once the qualify ensure that they are nurtured and supported via a programme called Accelerate, which gives teachers high-quality CPD in their first five years of teaching.

From Ms Smith’s point of view this collaboration has borne fruit. All School Direct graduates get a job after they graduate, many within the trust or the local area, and the evidence suggests that five years later they are still in the profession.

Elsewhere, WPAT will be taking a lead role in finding effective workload reduction strategies to help staff retention. It has recently won funding from the DfE to lead a project investigating workload reduction strategies in schools across the North. WPAT is planning to work with more than 40 TSAs across the region.

“We’ll be identifying schools that that have already started on their workload reduction journey, bring those schools together and work with them to identify what it is exactly that they do, evaluate it and then roll it out across other schools,” Ms Smith explained.

Co-operation in Warrington and the wider area has helped to foster a culture that encourages retention: “All of our networking and collaboration has opened up opportunities for our teaching staff to have a real impact on the lives of children in Warrington and beyond,” Ms Smith said.

“I think as long as we make sure that collaboration is relevant, that it is rooted in making a difference for children, then we can keep our teachers and leaders interested, engaged – and moving forward.”

  • Nick Bannister is a freelance education writer.

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