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Self-improving school system: will it be survival of the fittest or team effort?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital20 March 2014

Toby Greany
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog that trailed some of the ideas from my inaugural lecture on 18 March. In it, I identified four criteria for a self-improving school system and I set out four distinct policy approaches that the Government is following simultaneously and some of the tensions and issues that that causes.
The big risk here is that a two-tier system will emerge, in which the confident schools and leaders thrive, but the remainder struggle because they do not have the capacity to self-improve.
Now I want to suggest some possible ways forward. My thinking here starts with an acceptance of David Hargreaves’ core argument that if England’s 21,000 schools are to be autonomous, with minimal external support, then most of them will need to work in deep partnerships that provide challenge and support and that meet the needs of every child.
We know that achieving such deep partnerships is intensely difficult: according to the OECD, partnership is a vulnerable strategy – all it takes is for one school to break ranks and act competitively and its partner schools will feel intense pressure to do the same.
When I work across local areas I do see some genuinely exciting partnership arrangements emerging, whether as part of academy trusts, teaching school alliances or other local responses to change.
But the wider picture I see is much more mixed. Often, a group of visionary head teachers in an area is working hard to develop school-led approaches, but they complain that other schools aren’t really engaging and contributing.  When you talk to those other schools they often feel oppressed by accountability, which prevents them from looking out beyond their school, and/or they feel suspicious about the motives of the visionary heads.
So what might be done? The Government’s current approach is all about reducing central and local support in the hope that a self-improving system will spontaneously emerge.
Instead, I think we need to recognise that the system needs more time and support to develop deep partnerships that meet the needs of every school and every child.  Some areas are more mature than others in terms of how schools are working together, so we need a differentiated ‘local solutions’ mindset. In less mature areas schools need help to build their capacity to take on more. Such help might include the facilitation of workshops for Governing Bodies and heads to shape a shared vision, support for emerging system leaders and rigorous evaluation and feedback loops.
So here are some recommendations:

  • develop a revised, coherent vision for reform that is focussed on supporting the development of a self-improving system for all schools, including by stopping or reshaping policies (such as market-based reforms) that detract from that vision
  • create a budget for building capacity. I would do this by topslicing 0.5% of the existing schools budget, the Schools Block Allocation.  This would provide around £150m per year, of which 100% should be made available to schools
  • adopt Ofsted’s proposal in the Unseen Children report for local area challenges in the lowest performing areas
  • make Teaching Schools more sustainable and more focused on impact
  • offer funding that higher performing areas and partnerships could bid for if they had a credible proposal for how they would pass greater responsibility for school improvement to schools over time
  • develop evidence-informed teaching, including by pausing any further expansion of School Direct until an evaluation has been concluded to understand what works.

I can see two possible scenarios for the journey we are on towards a self-improving system.
The first is drawn from Mortal Engines, the amazing series of books by Philip Reeve.  In a post-apocalyptic world, London is the first city to move itself onto wheels, so that it can then devour and asset strip the other cities and towns in its path, forcing their citizens to work as slaves.  Of course, the other towns and cities follow suit by moving themselves onto wheels, and the world quickly descends into a brutal fight for the survival of the fittest.  As this happens, an entire belief system – known as municipal Darwinism – emerges to describe and justify the culture that has developed: the epitome of a two-tier system.
The second is the Tour de France: cyclists competing in a tough professional sport with clear and consistent rules, supported by expert coaches and the best equipment money can buy. The critical point here though is that even though cycling appears an individual sport, it’s very much a team effort: the national teams work together, for example by taking turns in the lead in order to break wind resistance.  If the lead cyclist gets a puncture then the whole team will wait for him to get back on the road.  If they are successful they share the prize money.
I think we’re seeing both scenarios playing out on the ground.  Collaboration will always remain vulnerable to the stronger competitive pressure, so policy must do more to help make sure it is not crushed.

The self-improving school system: competing policies undermine the coalition's admirable aims

Blog Editor, IOE Digital6 March 2014

Toby Greany
On 18 March I will be giving my inaugural lecture on the ‘self-improving’ school system (there are still some places left, book here!) In this blog I want to set out some of the ideas I will explore in the lecture, focussing on the state of current policy. In a later blog I will identify some of things I think could be done to move us forwards.
In his speech at the North of England conference this January Charlie Taylor, CEO of the National College for Teaching and Leadership, talked about his aim of an ‘irrevocable shift’ towards a school-led, self-improving system by September 2016.
So what does the Government mean by a self-improving system? When you read The Importance of Teaching white paper, I think you can boil it down to four criteria:

  • teachers and schools are responsible for their own improvement;
  • teachers and schools learn from each other and from research so that effective practice spreads;
  • the best schools and leaders extend their reach across other schools so that all schools improve; and (by implication)
  • government intervention and support is minimised.

I am not convinced that either the system capacity or the policy conditions are yet right for an ‘irrevocable shift’ to be achieved, even by 2016.  My worry is that if the self-improving system becomes no more than a narrative device to justify the removal of central and local government support as quickly as possible, then a two-tier system could rapidly emerge in which strong schools thrive but large swathes are left behind.
In saying this I am by no means entirely negative, nor am I harking back to a centralised model of top down improvement.  There are a number of policies in train that do appear to be giving schools greater ownership of their own improvement, and many schools and teachers are responding energetically. These policies include the sponsorship of struggling schools by school-led multi-academy trusts, the concept of School Direct (although in practice its development has been problematic) and the work of many teaching schools.
So what am I worrying about? One key challenge for me is that the coalition government does not have a clear or coherent strategy for supporting a self-improving system to emerge. Instead ministers are following at least four different reform approaches at the same time (see table below). These compete with each other in the minds of school leaders, creating confusion at best and unresolvable tensions at worst.
Four narratives for the coalition’s approach for system improvement

The world class (no excuses) approach:We are raising the bar in every area and benchmarking ourselves against the best in the world – a new curriculum, more rigorous exams, less teacher assessment.  Ofsted’s new inspection framework and area based inspections are shining a spotlight on schools and authorities that require improvement, while its new regional structure means it can follow up to check that schools take action in response. Where a school is found to be failing we will broker a new academy sponsor.
Key quote:  “High-performing jurisdictions set materially higher expectations in terms of what they believe children can and should master at different ages…If our schools, and young people, are to become internationally competitive again we must learn from the best in the world”.
Michael Gove MP, December 2011
Key message for school leaders: Raise your game or accept the consequences.
The freedom to teach approach:Teachers should be free to get on and teach. We have given schools autonomy and freedom and we have focussed accountability on what matters: the quality of teaching. We have given schools greater powers on classroom discipline.  We have stripped away bureaucratic guidance and removed the requirement for teachers in academies to have Qualified Teacher Status. We have made it easier to sack poor teachers and pay good teachers more. We have raised the bar for new entrants to teaching and given schools a greater role in training new recruits.
Key quote: academies “will be free of any government interference, free to hire whoever they want, pay them whatever they want, teach whatever they want, and as a result we can demand higher standards”.
Michael Gove MP, November 2011
Key message for school leaders: We trust you – it’s all down to you.
The market based approach:It’s not the job of civil servants to tell teachers how to teach, so we have closed the quangos and are cutting one in four DfE jobs. We are reforming the funding model so it is fair and transparent and we have introduced the Pupil Premium to ensure equity. Our academies policy has freed schools from the grip of local bureaucracies. We are supporting new free schools, University Technical Colleges and Studio Schools so that weak schools are challenged to improve and parents and employers have real choice.
Key quote: “Hopefully, recent reforms will push the English system towards one in which the state provides a generous amount of funding per pupil which parents can spend in any school they wish…while the DfE does little more than some regulatory, accountancy, and due diligence functions.”
Dominic Cummings, Special Advisor to Michael Gove, 2013
Key message for school leaders: Choice and competition rule.
The system leadership approach:We want the best schools and heads to drive improvement. We have over 400 school-led academy sponsors taking on the most challenging schools. We are designating 500 teaching schools and giving them a key role in professional development and school to school support. We are designating 1000 National Leaders of Education and introducing payment by results so they focus on supporting struggling schools. We want to develop a champions league of outstanding leaders who can travel to the most challenging schools and regions to secure improvement.
Key quote: “At the heart of this Government’s vision is a determination to give school leaders more power and control. Not just to drive improvement in their own schools – but to drive improvement across our whole system.”
Michael Gove MP, June 2010
Key message for school leaders: The strong will inherit the earth (and make it better)

The first three approaches might enable an improving system, but not a self-improving system. Applying the government’s four criteria, they might make schools responsible for their own improvement, but they will not foster the sharing of expertise, capacity and learning or the better use of evidence. Partly in response to these flaws, the role of accountability in these models becomes over-dominant and punitive, setting up unrealistic expectations for what Ofsted can achieve and an unhealthy us-and-them dynamic between school leaders and the centre.
The fourth approach – system leadership – reflects the beginnings of a sea change in attitudes and practice in England over the past ten years.  Many of the best schools do now provide hard edged support to their peers, whether as an academy sponsor, teaching school or National or Local Leader of Education. These approaches do meet the criteria for a self-improving system and there is evidence that they can be effective.
But their potential is being undermined by policies enacted to foster the first three approaches.  Furthermore, in the rush for an ‘irrevocable shift’, the pace of devolution to system leaders is arguably too rapid, with too little attention being paid to building capacity.
One illustration of all this can be seen in the tensions at the heart of the Teaching Schools model:

  • how to marry individual school accountability with system leadership? The fear of losing their Teaching School status if Ofsted downgrades them from ‘Outstanding’ is preventing many school leaders from investing real energy in this model.
  • Are Teaching Schools a publicly funded good, or a solution for a broken school improvement marketplace? Teaching Schools are told to earn their income by meeting the needs of other schools, but are also heavily incentivised to deliver on policy priorities such as School Direct.
  • how to manage supply and demand for system leadership on a geographical and phase basis? As Ofsted noted in its 2013 annual report, there are large parts of thecountry with too few system leaders and no established culture of school to school support.

These tensions are all symptoms of the wider fault lines caused by incoherent policy on school system reform. In my next blog I will outline some of ways in which they could be resolved. Do come to my inaugural lecture if you would like to hear and discuss these issues in more depth!

The transformation of Tower Hamlets: how they did it

Blog Editor, IOE Digital15 January 2014

Chris Husbands
In 1998, schools in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets were performing poorly. Despite spending more on education than any other local authority in England, results were well below the national average. OFSTED ranked Tower Hamlets as the worst performing of 149 boroughs nationwide.
By 2013 the position had been transformed: Tower Hamlets, still one of the poorest boroughs in England, returned GCSE results above the national average. Every maintained secondary school had been judged either ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, and the gap between the performance of children on free schools meals and their peers was only 7 percentage points compared to a national gap of 23 points.
This is an outstanding success story. In Transforming Education for All, Chris Brown, David Woods and I try to explain the Tower Hamlets turnaround. We drew on a range of data, including pupil attainment data, council minutes, OFSTED reports, questionnaires and interviews with key participants to trace the story. It is a fascinating tale: an initial turnaround under Christine Gilbert, appointed as Director of Education in 1998; a consolidation and extension of improvement from secondary to primary schools under her successor, Kevan Collins; and then acceleration and sustained success from 2008.
We identified seven key success factors which drove the borough wide transformation.
Ambitious leadership at all levels
In the 1990sTower Hamlets was an ineffective education authority. The appointment of Christine Gilbert (who later became Chief Inspector of Schools in England) was critical in the improvement journey. Her successor was clear that it is “impossible to overstate” her achievement. But this appointment catalysed other forces already ambitious for children’s achievement, the politicians in particular. One official comment that “Christine led from the front; there were no excuses, only challenges to be overcome.” The task was to mobilise ambition at all levels through stretching targets for schools and teachers. One head put it to us simply: “things have to be implemented in a consistent way, they cannot be demoted or watered down – consistency is part of the concerted effort and ensures things are done right and well”.
Very effective school improvement
Very quickly after 1998, the school improvement service was re-shaped. Schools causing concern were identified and targets set. Robust action was taken: financial delegation to some schools was withdrawn, and in 48 schools causing concern between 1998 and 2012, 42 head teachers were replaced. Tower Hamlets’ schools have also been well served by their Research and Statistics Department which has provided a sophisticated range of contextual and benchmarked data to complement DfE and Ofsted data.
High quality teaching and learning
Tower Hamlets faced a severe teacher shortage in the 1990s. The LA strategy to address this was multi-layered, including recruiting and retaining high quality staff; encouraging and supporting local people into education and maximising work based routes to qualified teacher status; improving the recruitment of newly qualified teachers; improving access to housing for teachers; and professional development. The Authority ran a Masters programme in close partnership with a university, and retained a Professional Development Centre while other councils were closing theirs. The impact was considerable: OFSTED reports in the past five years are clear that teaching quality in Tower Hamlets is very high. But it was not achieved through a single strategy – and it was strongly steered by the authority.
Effective spending
No account of the transformation in Tower Hamlets can overlook resource: its schools received almost 60% more resource per pupil than the national average and higher levels of resourcing than almost all other London boroughs. It is easy to attribute success to high funding levels but money needs to be spent wisely.
External, integrated services
Through much of the period of sustained improvement, national policy encouraged local authorities to integrate services around the needs of the child. Tower Hamlets did this in a particularly effective way. In a relatively small authority, it was somewhat easier than in larger authorities to bring key agencies together, but huge progress was made in its key priority areas: reducing truancy, reducing NEETs (young people not in education, employment or training) and in improving the performance of looked after children. All these were important in themselves, but they had knock-on impacts on wider attainment. In each case, the Authority led schools, and was able to bring them alongside, by virtue of the strength of its vision and the effectiveness of its delivery.
Community development and partnerships
Although Tower Hamlets has always had a strong community identity, in the years after 1998, community resources were mobilised effectively around education. Formal agreements were forged with the Imams from this largely Muslim community to counter the effects of children taking several days off for religious festivities or extended holidays in Bangladesh in term time.
Adults were welcomed into the school workforce: as many as half the adults in many schools in Tower Hamlets came from the community itself, developing strong relationships with teachers and school leaders. Some schools were developed into community centres, establishing extended service and providing resources and recreation for children and young people. The Education Business Partnership was particularly effective in building links with companies in the City of London.
A resilient approach to external government policies and pressure
Tower Hamlets’ leadership was consistently robust in its approach to government initiatives. In some cases – for example, early piloting of literacy and numeracy strategies – it was an enthusiastic cheerleader for government support; in others – for example in setting improvement targets – it wanted to be more ambitious than government advisers counselled, embracing London Challenge with enthusiasm. In yet others it rejected government pressure – for example, no Tower Hamlets school was converted to academy status between 2002 and 2010.
Our report has attracted wide attention – a double page spread in the Independent, and, strikingly, a feature article in Forbes magazine. That article bore the headline – not quite accurate like all headlines, but worth having anyway “How London’s failing schools became the best in the world”. Our conclusion was a little more measured, but we believe that Tower Hamlets has shown that it is possible to create superb urban schools in genuinely challenging circumstances.

Exporting London Challenge is complex and challenging

Blog Editor, IOE Digital31 October 2013

 Chris Husbands

London schools are among the best in the country. Many are, simply, amongst the best urban schools in the world. This was not true even half a generation ago. But the evidence on the success of London schools is clear. The headline statistics – as Sam Freedman pointed out in an important blog which draws together a range of evidence – undersell the story. Their real success is in their performance for children from poorer backgrounds: as Sam pointed out, 49% of London pupils eligible for free school meals secure 5 A*-C GCSEs including English and mathematics, compared to just 36% outside London, while disadvantaged London schools appear massively to outperform similarly disadvantaged schools outside London.

Sam’s blog tries to do two things: first to explain why London schools are now so good and second to work out what we can learn from that for education reform and improvement elsewhere. Both are quite complex. Sam’s explanation itself explores two dimensions. The first is the scale of  socio-economic and demographic changes in London over the last 15 years, which have been striking. He quotes a Stephanie Flanders blog post suggesting that the value of property in London has increased by 15% since the recession began – at a time when real wages levels have fallen, and a remarkable map produced by Daniel Knowlson tracking the speed of gentrification in inner London. Indeed, those boroughs whose schools have improved most – Southwark, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Hackney – are those which have changed the most. Put differently: one reason London schools changed is because London pupils changed. London schools became posher.

So London Challenge was working on fertile ground. The review evidence its positive. In 2010, OFSTED concluded that “London Challenge has continued to improve outcomes for pupils in London’s primary and secondary schools at a faster rate than nationally”, and attributed this to clarity of purpose, consistency of monitoring and “programmes of support for schools… managed by experienced and credible advisers”. Above all “London Challenge… motivated London teachers to think beyond their intrinsic sense of duty to serve pupils well within their own school and to extend that commitment to serving all London’s pupils well”.

The most systematic evaluation of City Challenges, including London Challenge, noted that London head teachers themselves were convinced that London Challenge had made a difference, though it concluded, with due academic caution, that “A great many factors contributed to this improvement, including national policies and strategies and the considerable efforts of head teachers and staff. However, these factors apply everywhere in the country. The most plausible explanation for the greater improvement in Challenge areas is that the City Challenge programme was responsible”.

There were attempts to export London Challenge elsewhere in England: to Manchester and the Black Country. Sam wonders why these were less successful, though he underplays the success of Manchester.

This for me is where the issues become more  interesting. There are, I think, three reasons why it has proved more difficult to export London Challenge. The first is the issue of scale:  there are 400 secondary schools in London. Performance benchmarks can be finely calibrated: the now famous families of schools data comparing performance put schools into over 20 families each of 20 or so schools. It’s difficult to get such rich benchmarking at smaller scale.

The second is the problem of hindsight;  London Challenge was a great success. But it was not a single thing: it was a package of policies. It included school-to-school support,  it included the development of the Chartered London teacher scheme, it included improvements to teacher supply; it included academisation of schools. These were not done to a pre-ordained plan: they were customised to different settings. We look back on a policy initiative called London Challenge, but it wasn’t like that as it developed.  And this makes it difficult to replicate. London Challenge looked different depending where you looked from – which makes it difficult to copy and transfer. London Challenge, moreover, was well funded – schools that were already well-funded by national standards were even better funded as a result.

And  finally, there is the issue  of context: London was changing. The changing demographics of London were part of that context.  Other towns and cities are changing too, but in different ways.

All these things make the story complex. The key message of London Challenge: ambition for every child in every school is transferable. Some of the policy levers are transferable.  But the way they combine and are used together demands careful attention to context.