The great privilege of this job as Chief Executive of the National College is the opportunity I have to visit schools and hear from remarkable headteachers around the country.
One of these is Lynn Slinger, the inspirational headteacher of Forest Way Special School near Coalville in Leicestershire. It has been rated as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted in its last 2 inspections and was described as being “conspicuously successful in all that it does”.
But Forest Way is much more than an outstanding school. It is, I believe, a template for education in England in the future. It was one of the first teaching schools designated in 2011 and since then it is quite remarkable what has been achieved.
A few years ago it would have been unthinkable that a school, particularly a special school, would be doing the things Forest Way is now doing. It is leading an alliance in taking on roles that might have traditionally been seen as the sole preserve of the local authority or the government including:
- initial teacher training
- school improvement
- research programmes and providing a range of professional development
- training for teachers
This includes creating maths, English and IT networks for primary teachers and running courses on primary computing, the early years foundation stage, a master’s degree in special needs and training for newly qualified teachers.
The alliance also works with George Spencer Academy, a licensed provider of National College leadership programmes. Together they identify and develop teachers with the potential to become school leaders of the future.
And on top of that they have 30 School Direct places with the universities of Leicester and Derby across both primary and secondary phases.
But I think most impressive of all, is the work Forest Way now does on school improvement.
Every school in the alliance receives an annual ‘health check’ to determine its strengths and needs. Forest Way then commissions national, local and specialist leaders of education to support schools within the alliance. There is real rigour and challenge in this work that has led to changes in the leadership in some alliance schools. At Forest Way there is an absolute determination that outcomes for pupils and Ofsted judgements will improve in all schools.
What are the factors that have allowed Forest Way Teaching School Alliance to develop in the way it has?
Firstly, an exceptional headteacher with the ambition, drive and vision to think way beyond her own school.
Secondly, a group of headteachers within the alliance who know that by working together they can improve the standards of teaching and the performance of their pupils far more than if they work on their own.
But thirdly and perhaps most importantly Forest Way has achieved its success because of the trust placed in it by Leicestershire County Council to improve the schools in its alliance.
But things are not always so healthy.
On the day I visited Forest Way I also met a group of headteachers from teaching schools across the East Midlands. They gave a very varied picture of their relationship with their local authority from excellent to, in one case, downright difficult.
There also seems to be a real nervousness amongst some local authorities about trusting the best schools to take on this work.
This nervousness shouldn’t last long where there are heads like Lynn Slinger.
Successful school-to-school support doesn’t just need to come from such larger alliances. Groups of heads across the country are realising what can be achieved when like-minded people start working together collectively to improve their schools. There is no government formula for this, but there are undoubtedly some essential components of effective school-to-school support.
The first of these is relationships and trust - that doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be best friends, indeed one of the dangers of school partnerships is they become too cosy. But trust is important because heads must be prepared to share information and to expose their schools to their colleagues, warts and all.
I know only too well how powerful this can be - but when I first became a head, I got great mentoring support from Chris Weaving and colleagues from a network of special school headteachers. They were tackling the same sort of problems as me; and often, they’d come up with a solution which I would never have thought of on my own.
This trust is also supported by developing a clear agreement for how the partnership will work - who will do what, how it will be funded and what are the expectations of the members.
Next is a willingness to share information. In my opinion no partnership can function if people are not prepared to put their data on the table for review and discussion. This requirement was one of the fundamental components of the success of the London challenge.
And that word challenge is essential. Heads have got to be prepared to say: “I have got virtually the same pupil profile as you and yet my results for writing are 20% lower. How can you help me to be as good as you are?”
This is not easy, there is professional pride at stake here, but without this openness, things will not change.
And I understand that some heads may not want to work with nearby schools, but there are alternatives. In the last few years there has been a big expansion of networks that are outside local authority areas or regions: groups like Challenge Partners, Leading Edge, By Schools for Schools, the Independent Academies Association and FASNA - the National Association for Freedom and Autonomy for Schools.
These organisations run a wide range of training, CPD and school improvement services, often nationally, along with comprehensive websites where information is shared and heads can stay in touch.
And finally there are the academy chains that have taken over and improved the performance of schools that have been failing for years. Greenwood Dale under the inspirational Barry Day, has sponsored schools in some of the most deprived parts of the country from here in Nottingham to the coast of Lincolnshire. Part of the DNA of chains like Greenwood Dale is that the strongest schools will support the weakest to improve.
School-to-school support - what’s in it for schools?
In a self-improving school-led system, there has to be an expectation that schools will be prepared to help each other - a network of school-to-school support in which the best schools work with schools in difficulties. But the question that heads, governing bodies and parents from the best schools might ask is why?
Why should we in a successful school, expend our time, resource and energy on someone else’s school?
It is a perfectly reasonable question and there is no doubt that any headteacher’s first responsibility is to the pupils in his or her school. But there are, I think, some compelling reasons for getting involved in school-to-school support that go beyond moral purpose and a sense of responsibility to a local community.
The first is the opportunity to develop staff. Teaching is a hard, and at times a draining job. There is no doubt that some of the best teachers become tired and jaded after a few years of teaching. I have often seen good teachers leaving the profession after 3 or 4 years for other careers.
Becoming involved in school-to-school support is a great way for teachers and heads to add some variety to their job - modelling teaching, coaching or delivering training. Teachers gain great satisfaction from helping colleagues in difficulties, and a track record of cross-school support will be enormously valuable for teachers looking to progress their careers.
Moreover, helping other schools means that the supporting school and its leaders must reflect on their own practice: What did we do when we had a similar problem? How did we solve it? What was the impact? And should we be doing things differently?
School-to-school support also means schools begin to build up professional networks between heads and between other teachers across subjects or primary phase.
And finally at some level, I think all schools can learn from each no matter how well they’re already doing. There is great benefit for teachers and heads in visiting a wide range of schools.
Let us look at another example of school-to-school support. Nick Weller, headteacher of Dixons Academy in Bradford decided that schools in the city could, and should, do better.
Bradford is an area of high deprivation (free school meals, child poverty, EAL). Many people assumed that with such a stack of seemingly insurmountable challenges, things could never get better. But these arguments didn’t wash for Nick. It was time to move away from solutions imposed from local and central government and for schools to take control. He, and a group of equally determined heads, set up the Bradford Partnership with one simple starting objective: to make every secondary school in the city rated at least ‘good’ by Ofsted. Nick describes what has happened in Bradford as: “The academisation of school improvement.”
Because there had been such turbulence, every secondary school chose to join the Bradford Partnership. But this wasn’t to be a cosy club of heads who would sit around the table drinking coffee and complaining about funding or the local authority.
The Bradford Partnership was fired up with a moral imperative to make things better and heads knew this couldn’t be done without honesty and challenge.
The next step was to get the data. Schools had to agree to share information with the partnership about their pupils’ attainment and progress. Every autumn term each school now has a one day visit from a serving Ofsted inspector.
As a result, and for the first time, there is solid, clear, unequivocal evidence of how each school is doing in comparison with other schools in the city and nationally. Every school then develops a plan for improvement with the partnership and progress is monitored and reviewed throughout the year.
So what has been the result of the school-led system in Bradford? 5 A* to Cs (including English and maths) increased by 4.9% compared to a 0.4% improvement nationally. Forty-six per cent of students now attend a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ school compared to 28% 2 years ago.
The transformation has begun in Bradford and Nick Weller acknowledges that there is a long way to go. But there is an absolute determination to make progress and I am in no doubt that they will succeed.
What do I mean when I talk about a school-led system?
For the last year I have talked about my vision for a self-improving school-led system in which teaching schools and other outstanding schools begin to take more and more responsibility in 4 particular areas:
- initial teacher training
- school improvement through school-to-school support
- continuous professional development
- the selection and training of the next generation of school leaders
And it is in initial teacher training that we have seen the biggest shift.
The appetite for schools to become involved in initial teacher training through School Direct has been quite staggering. In the first year we had bids for 1,000 places, last year it was over 9,000 and this year schools asked us for 17,700 places including an increase in primary bids from 3,400 to 6,900.
This posed us a challenge because we needed to honour the guarantee made to teacher training providers rated outstanding by Ofsted that they would continue to receive the same number of training places as they had in 2012. This meant that we could not give out all the places that schools had asked for, particularly in English, history and chemistry.
I know some schools were disappointed not to get their full allocations but overall we were able to give outstanding schools 90% of places they wanted. There is of course a budget for paying bursaries for teacher training and this means we will continue to limit the number of teachers that are trained every year.
We are currently working on our methodology for allocating places for next year and we aim to publish this sooner and to begin the bidding process much earlier - in the second half of the summer term. But I am delighted to say that there are now over 6,000 teachers being trained through School Direct across the country - a remarkable transformation in teacher training in just 2 years.
Michael Gove has repeatedly said that this country has the best teaching workforce it has ever had; and he is right. I am bowled over by the excitement, innovation and enthusiasm that I see in trainees and newly qualified teachers up and down the country.
There are of course some subjects such as maths and physics that continue to be difficult to recruit to. To fill our annual quota we need to attract one third of all graduates in these subjects, every year, into ITT. The government has increased bursaries to £20,000 for trainees with a 2:1 or better. In 2014 to 2015 we have increased the value of ITT scholarships to £25,000 for maths, physics, chemistry, and computing.
School Direct presents a fantastic opportunity to attract the best graduates into teaching. And groups of schools and academy chains are now offering real career development to compete with the best graduate employers.
“Come and work for us,” they are saying “and we will offer you great initial teacher training, support as a newly qualified teacher, continuous professional development including opportunities to undertake a masters or a PhD and if you’re the right person, training to become one of our school leaders in the future.”
I would encourage all School Direct schools to think about what more they can offer to tempt the best trainees to their schools.
After a year of School Direct some schools and academy chains are choosing to go further and become accredited providers of teacher training themselves and open their own school centred initial teacher training or SCITT.
Schools like Dove House Special School in Hampshire, Pimlico Academy in Westminster or the Ark and Harris academy chains are all in the process of opening SCITTs for September 2014.
I would also like to pay tribute to the universities who have supported the development of School Direct. Here at Nottingham Trent, Dr Gill Scott and her team have worked tirelessly with their local schools such as the Greenwood Dale, Redhill Academy, Minster School and Cotgrave Candleby Lane to create bespoke, cutting-edge programmes. Nottingham Trent has always seen strong relationships with schools as essential for successful teacher training and School Direct is making these even stronger.
And other universities are investing in closer school partnerships – the new Deanery at Oxford or the Institute of Education at Sheffield Hallam were conceived with the idea of strengthening and deepening the work they do with local schools. Whilst Birmingham is opening a university training school which will become a beacon of good practice in teacher training.
There is no doubt that the hardest - and most rewarding - part of developing a school-led system is successful, on-going school-to-school support and school-led school improvement.
There are a range of challenges for schools who wish to see school improvement being run and delivered by the best headteachers and their staff. And each area of the country is working differently. Some local authorities such as Torbay and Rotherham have shown great trust in their schools and are commissioning them to deliver school improvement. And in Surrey the local authority works in a 3-way partnership with Babcock Education and the best schools in the county.
In other areas LAs are reluctant to ask schools to take on this sort of work, they may be concerned about the capacity of schools, they may have central teams that they want to protect from competition or they may not yet have made, what is a big cultural shift, to an expectation and a belief that schools, if they are trusted, can take the lead in school improvement.
There is sometimes an ideological argument to be won where local authorities are not in favour of any school autonomy including academy freedoms.
I want now to talk about particular local challenges and what NCTL will do to support school-led solutions in these areas.
In some parts of the country there are simply not enough outstanding schools, teaching schools or national leaders of education to build up strong networks that can support each other. The government has announced the new Talented Leaders Programme to bring in excellent school leaders into underperforming areas of the country.
It is essential that we breathe life and innovation into these areas, particularly those where sometimes, there is a collective acceptance of the status quo even though standards are simply not high enough. Schools can begin to coast or fail because heads and governors have not realised how far behind they have got, both in expectations of their pupils, and in new, innovative, evidence based teaching methods that are developing in higher-performing areas.
The programme will provide a new route for schools in challenging circumstances to benefit from excellent proven leadership. It will also offer a new opportunity for exceptional school leaders to develop their skills and gain experience from the challenge of turning around an underperforming school.
Yesterday David Laws announced that the tender has gone out for this innovative new programme and we will soon be looking to recruit headteachers with strong moral purpose who are prepared to move to these areas of the country - and make a difference where help is needed most of all.
And at last we will begin to answer one of the hardest questions in education - how do we get the best heads into the most challenging schools?
The National College is also reviewing the work of national leaders of education - NLEs - to ensure that they have maximum impact. Many NLEs are making an enormous difference - taking over failing schools, becoming Ofsted inspectors and supporting schools in difficulties before things become too serious and expensive. But we must make sure that NLEs are deployed and used in a way that has the most effect and makes the best use of the time of these busy people. In the future I would like to see teaching schools taking the lead in brokering NLE support with schools and local authorities.
But it is not just in Bradford, Leicester or Torbay where the relationships are changing. Across the country local authorities realise that they simply don’t have the resource to run big central school improvement teams.
And they are having the courage to trust the best heads to take on the role of school improvement, and giving them the support and the money that they need. As a result, we are seeing just what can be achieved by high-quality, well-planned school-to-school support.
In Rotherham in South Yorkshire, Wickersley School, under David Hudson, leads a teaching school alliance that is rooted in the culture of partnership developed in the town over the past decade.
This change has helped to drive GCSE standards, in this former mining and steel town, to above national averages. This improvement has been based on systematic school-to-school support, targeted leadership development and innovative strategies, such as basing school improvement in outstanding subject departments not in LA central teams.
It is also one of the largest, best co-ordinated and most aspirational school-led organisations in the country - another example of what can be achieved when local authorities encourage and fund school-led, school improvement.
So what next?
When I took over as Chief Executive of the National College for Teaching and Leadership and I talked to people about the self-improving school-led system there was almost complete support for the idea. But what worried me was that we were in danger of progressing too slowly.
I don’t want the school-led system to sit just over the horizon, never seeming to get any closer however hard people strive. So I have set September 2016 as our target date for there to be an irrevocable shift from the centre to schools. My expectation is that by 2016 teaching schools and the best schools and academy chains will be leading:
- teacher training
- school improvement
- the training and selection of new leaders
- continuous professional development.
And the delivery of a self-improving, school-led system will not be driven from town halls or from Whitehall, but by outstanding headteachers across the country.
These are exciting times to be working in education.
Challenging? Yes. Difficult? Yes. Daunting? Of course.
But I am confident that for the first time an accountable, effective, strong, school-led system is in our grasp.
I am in no doubt about the size of this challenge and the sheer hard work that will need to be done to get there, but I am also in no doubt about the determination and the ability of our headteachers to succeed.