School improvement and the middle tier

The future role of local authorities in education, the shape of the new middle tier between central government and individual schools, and the way that school improvement is organised are all in a state of flux. These issues are inter-related and need a strategic solution, sooner rather than later, to replace the creative chaos that currently passes for government policy.

It is time that England had a planned system for supporting schools. For many years much thought has been given to accountability, with sharply targeted national inspection and increasingly detailed performance tables at the pinnacle of centrally driven accountability. No such strategic thinking has taken place on how schools should best be supported when they are in difficulty, although schemes such as the London Challenge, City Challenges, the National Challenge, National Leaders of Education (NLE) and Local Leaders of Education (LLE) have created a patchwork of support mechanisms that have generally been very effective where they have operated. However, this has been in a minority of areas and, where local authorities have been expected to fill the gap, they have often been found wanting.

The heavy hand of central government has frequently been felt by heads and governing bodies of schools that are under-performing, as ministers and officials have used direct intervention to improve results in a wide range of schools.

One of the mechanisms adopted by central government has been to ask chains of schools to take on the task of improving other schools and there have been some notable successes, as recounted in a report by Robert Hill and others for the National College, published in March 2012 at www.nationalcollege.org.uk/academychains/.

For schools in this situation, the headquarters of the chain has become the new middle tier. In some parts of England, and all of Wales, the middle tier remains the local authority. But, for other schools – notably standalone convertor academies – the middle tier has effectively disappeared, apart from the administrative function of the Education Funding Authority (EFA).

Local authorities still have a middle tier role in the wider children’s services, but the situation has moved on rapidly from what was set out as recently as December 2010 in the government’s white paper, The Importance of Teaching (https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/standard/publicationDetail/Page1/CM%207980 ), and it is already difficult to see how local authorities, slimmed almost to the point of disappearance, can any longer have a leading role in school improvement. Most now have no expertise in secondary school improvement and, although some have retained a core of primary school experts, they are insufficient in number (and, often, in recent school leadership experience too) to provide a high quality school improvement service. The school improvement house must be built on something much stronger than sand.

The government appears not to have a policy on the future of the middle tier, with ‘creative chaos’ being the most complimentary term I have heard used. As ASCL general secretary, there was nothing I liked better than an empty policy vessel into which to pour ideas. I do believe that there is a good solution to the ‘middle tier’ question and it is inextricably linked with the development of a strategic school improvement system.

There are four stages to school improvement:  Identify problems in the school;  Broker solutions to the problem;  Commission people to support the school; and  Deliver the support.

Experience in recent years means that we know how to do the delivery. Expertise in school improvement lies within schools and so school-to-school support can be used to produce the necessary improvements.

Where a school has problems, the head and governing body may well not be identifying the critical issues or know where to look for the right kind of support, so identification, brokering and commissioning often require an agency beyond the school itself. As recently as 2009-10, school improvement partners (SIPs), whose role was ‘support and challenge’, did the identification and local authorities (sometimes at the behest of central government) did the commissioning. Brokering, however, has always been done haphazardly in most parts of England, through a lack of solid information on where expertise lies.

In 2012, SIPs have disappeared (except in schools that have wisely employed someone in a SIP-type role) and most local authorities no longer have the capacity to broker support or the funding to commission it. Most chains of schools are demonstrating how all four stages of the process can be done efficiently and effectively.

A successful education system, however, needs universal coverage of each part of the four-stage process. Underpinning each of the six models set out below should be a database of excellent practice on which schools can draw for advice and support. The National College, co-ordinating the network of teaching schools, trains and monitors the support activities of National Leaders of Education (NLEs), Local Leaders of Education (LLEs) and the new Specialist Leaders of Education (SLEs), the latter being identified by teaching school alliances.

In addition, Ofsted has a much bigger part to play in this aspect of school improvement. It is culpable that Ofsted has, for so many years, had the biggest database of excellent practice in the country (possibly, in the world) through the evidence gained in its school inspections and surveys; yet it has never revealed the contents of this secret treasure chest of outstanding (to use its word, although excellent would be much better) practice. It has now dipped its toe into this water, but should be providing a much more comprehensive and easy-to-access database.

McKinsey research has shown that all the highly successful school systems in the world have a middle tier between central government and the individual school – and most of the jurisdictions in the McKinsey study are much smaller than England. The Department for Education cannot run 20,000 schools, so I take it as axiomatic that a middle tier should exist. The questions are: What form should it take? And should it be the same across the whole country?

Of the six options for the middle tier, two are national systems, relying on national democratic accountability for their control and two are local systems, with local democratic accountability. One proposal – local commissioners – could be either nationally or locally accountable and the sixth option is a mixture of national and local.

1. Local commissioners of schools

Rick Muir has argued in Progress for local commissioners of schools, appointed by the local authority or elected mayor. (http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2012/04/10/the-missing-middle/). In his view, these appointees would commission (but not run or manage) schools in their area, including free schools and academies, and have a focus on school improvement. If schools coast or underperform, the schools commissioner would have the power to intervene, including the replacement of the head and governing body. Commissioners, Muir proposes, “would act as a mediating layer for the majority of schools that are not part of academy chains, supporting them to improve through collaboration, promoting the professional development of teachers and ensuring schools respond effectively to national policy changes. They would be responsible for making sure that the needs of all children in their area are being met.”

There could also be a system of nationally funded local area commissioners, as suggested by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, and reported in http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/dec/28/new-ofsted-chief-failing-academies Wilshaw argued that, as more schools became academies, local commissioners are needed to help to identify problems. “I speak as someone who believes in autonomy and who believes in independence and as a great supporter of the academy programme, but we know there will be some academies that won’t do well,” he said. “It is no good just relying on Ofsted to give the judgment. By that time, it is too late. We need some sort of intermediary bodies which can detect when things aren’t going well, look at the data and have their ear very close to the ground to determine when there is a certain issue.”

Sir Michael suggested that the local commissioners would report directly to the secretary of state, monitoring the performance of schools and chains in their area and bringing in other agencies where necessary.

Wilshaw’s model, which could be based on areas containing about 1000 schools each, has national democratic accountability; Muir’s model has local democratic accountability. Both are feasible options, although my preference is for the national model, as the local model would be likely to be as variable in quality across the country as local authorities have been.

2. Area HMIs

Up to the 1980s, HM Inspectorate included District Inspectors – HMIs based in areas whose job it was to make links with local authority chief education officers and to know what was happening in local schools.

A network of about 40 District HMIs could be reinvented for the 2012 context, charged with monitoring performance of schools in their area, getting to know head teachers and keeping an ear to the ground for good and bad practice in local schools.

With a truly independent Ofsted, this could provide valuable intelligence to the system, helping to spread good practice and advising Ofsted and the government on where intervention is needed at an earlier stage than tends to happen now. Their remit would cover all types of school and issues between local authorities and academies would be entirely avoided by this nationally-led system.

With Ofsted increasingly seen as an arm of government, there is a danger that the District HMIs could come to be seen as the men and women from the ministry, as their predecessors often were in the second half of the 20th century.

3. Chains of schools and/or teaching alliances

For an increasing number of schools, the central office of a chain of schools is their middle tier. As teaching school alliances grow, a larger number of schools will be part of an alliance and, since teaching schools have responsibilities in the school improvement field – not least through the deployment of national, local and specialist leaders of education – chains and teaching school alliances form an important part of the middle tier in the school improvement field, although they will never have universal coverage.

The effectiveness of the chains has been discussed in Hill et al http://www.nationalcollege.org.uk/academychains/ but the effectiveness of teaching school alliances is still unproven. There is the possibility that one or more of these groups of schools will fail and therefore they themselves need to be monitored, either by the Department for Education itself (as happens currently) or by an agency other than the local authority, since no substantial chains confine themselves to a single local authority area.

4. Single local authorities

The 150 local authorities in England are (to use a much discussed educational term) a mixed ability group in school improvement terms. A good, but declining, number still offer a school improvement service to primary and special schools, but few have the expertise or capacity to do so for secondary schools.

Local authorities have a hugely important role to play in wider children’s services and this is important in helping many disadvantaged young people to achieve their potential, but the days when expertise in school improvement lay in County Hall or City Hall are gone. The expertise now lies firmly in successful schools.

The opportunity to drive school improvement through groups of local heads, facilitated by the local authority, has now passed as the number of academies has grown. These local heads’ groups are a good area school improvement model, used in some successful jurisdictions such as Alberta, and it could still be implemented in the UK in Scotland and Wales, but England has passed the point of no return and local authorities now need to concentrate their efforts on providing a good service in areas other than school improvement. Muir’s local commissioner model is perhaps the only way in school improvement could now be overseen by local authorities.

5. Groups of local authorities

Local authorities do not have a good record of working together collectively. Where there has been collective action, such as in the London Challenge or in the City Challenge, the driving force has been central, rather than local, government, with local councillors tagging along because they had little alternative. In theory, sub-regional groups of local authorities could set up a school improvement system, but it is difficult to imagine that groups of local authorities in England, some of which have already thrown in the towel in the face of advancing academy numbers, have the will or the imagination to create such a system. In Wales, however, this may well the right model for the future and the government in Wales is moving in that direction.

6. A mixture of chains, teaching schools and national or local structures

In reality, this is where we are now – a somewhat chaotic situation that leaves huge gaps in the school improvement system. Chains are driving forward their improvement agendas; teaching school alliances are starting to feel their way in the school improvement field; some local authorities have good systems for identifying where schools are under-performing and work with central government and the National College to broker support where it is needed. But this still leaves huge gaps.

7. Conclusion

Governing bodies have not been mentioned so far, but the variation in quality of governing bodies is at least as great as the variation in overall school performance. In some schools, the governing body is part of the problem. Regrettably, therefore, they cannot be a significant part of a national solution.

The system of school improvement in England has never been strategically planned and executed, with clear responsibilities set out for each of the four stages outlined above. With the increase in academies, the need for a strategy is both greater and harder to achieve. Of the models above, the reinvention, in an up-to-date form, of district HMIs would be beneficial, not least because it would force Ofsted to play a stronger role in school improvement, as well as in accountability.

Although such a development is necessary, it is not sufficient. A nationally funded network of local school commissioners is probably the only way in which universal coverage of the country can be achieved in an effective manner.

For many schools the middle tier will be the office of the chain; for others – mainly primary and special schools – it will still be the local authority. For convertor academies that are not in chains, the middle tier will be the local school commissioner, keeping a watchful eye on their performance and intervening when progress falters.

With autonomy in any public service comes greater accountability for the efficient and effective spending of public money. The issue is not whether there should be this accountability, but whether it is intelligent accountability and by whom it is exercised. In the mixed economy of schools in England, the area commissioner may be the best way forward.

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