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

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.

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Posted in Leadership and management
5 comments on “Self-improving school system: will it be survival of the fittest or team effort?
  1. behrfacts says:

    Reblogged this on behrfacts and commented:
    This post links to some of my own thinking on the role of what I call Localised Strategic Education Partnerships (LSEPs).

  2. Miss Honey says:

    In a winner takes all society, in which individualism and competition are held up as ideals, there will be those who engage in partnership, if they engage in it at all, only as a means to individual ends. School eat school is inevitable under such a policy, and, almost certainly, intentional. Those remaining in partnership, if not deceased, will be on the menu.

  3. […] job in May will need to grapple with a complex web of issues if they are to avoid an increasingly fractured two-tier, and potentially two-speed, school system. Particularly when put alongside the forthcoming ASCL Blueprint for a self-improving school system, […]

  4. […] in which he outlined several of the challenges to developing a self-improving system and laid out two possible scenarios for the future. One scenario is unbridled competition in which every school is essentially out for […]

  5. […] Other papers address changes in the relationship between central government, local government and schools. Anne West argues that local markets have emerged in both early years and school education while Paul Temple outlines the policy steps taken in the marketization of higher education. Toby Greany’s lucid and bold analysis of what the Coalition called a ‘self-improving school system’ delves into the complex realities of local relationships. Greany’s conclusion – that the Coalition’s focus on structural reforms has placed additional demands on leadership within local school systems – has implications not just for school leaders, who are increasingly the locus of government expectations, but also on local authorities who retain critical statutory responsibilities. (See his blogs on the subject here and here) […]

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