National v Local

The centralisation of control of education is leaving schools prey to even more political influence. The pendulum will swing back – this usually happens as a result of an eventual realisation that things are not working and because of a weakening of the collective amnesia as to what the merits of the old order were.

Local management of schools brings the system closer to the parents and communities which the schools serve. One of the areas of collective amnesia at the moment is about schools being an organic element of a community – if you detach the system from its immediate roots it will inevitably wither.

Schools work best when the community and the parents feel ownership. Teachers feel valued for the wider aspects of the work that they do in supporting families and community.  The curriculum can be adapted to suit local needs. The whole process is a partnership, a joint enterprise. It surely takes the proverbial village to raise the child.

The current climate is pressing schools to collaborate – the economies of scale in the current climate are too great an advantage to forgo. The threat of take over by an external asset stripping academy chain is another driver towards local networks. What we miss at the moment is local leadership. This has been exacerbated by the relentless attacks on Local Authorities and it is difficult to see where leadership will emerge. Such a need for local leadership is not confined to schooling – locally organised responses to economic hardship, energy supply and threats from a lack of planning control also stand out.

Atomised societies are difficult phenomena to change.  What we need are successful pioneers to emerge and for their achievements to be shared and understood. There must be a community somewhere in the Western world that is leading the way, but where?

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The Co-operative Multi Academy: A true beacon.

Amidst the churn and chaos of the current school system, with the shrinking Local Authorities, the growth of Academy Chains and Free Schools, there is a ray of hope. Any school that wishes to bind itself to others, for the sake of security from predators and for the sake of achieving a little of a collaborative’s  political and economic power, might consder the Schools Co-operative Society (SCS) Multi Academy model. This model provides the philosophy and the framework for schools to collaborate on secure and equal terms.

The  SCS structure enables schools to link together, either on the basis of needing to receive or wanting to provide support, without losing identity and without being seen as predatory. The structure also provides a distinct role for the Community and where possible for the Local Authority. The model probably provides the best chance that some of the Every Child Matters mechanisms and Community Leadership philosophy, will survive.

The Academy Trust is established around a series of representational forums for staff, parents, pupils and the community. Each group has equal voting powers. The Trust is also built on the tenets of the Co-operative ethos (self responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, solidarity, ethical values) which, in the developing ‘fighting for a place in the lifeboat’ atmosphere, is a true  ‘beacon’.

Strategies for Schools: Ten Thoughts for Turbulent Times

  1. The need to protect your own capacity to develop and sustain high levels of achievement by each student and each member of staff.
  2. To conduct a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities,Threats analysis to assess your situation objectively and to consult with all your stakeholders about the school’s priorities.
  3. To avoid invitations to join projects of the  ‘how to fill the vacuum left by Local Education Authorities, or how to help us to sustain our QUANGO, or how to maintain another school’s position of influence, or how to run the system with less funding’ variety, unless they relate to schools, institutions or agencies with whom you share the same young people and families, or schools with a genuine and pressing need to which you can, in some part, respond.
  4. To remember to differentiate between the political whims and swings of the pendulum, from that which is unchanging and which will not be reversed or dropped at some future point.
  5. In consultation with the whole school community, to save costs and through collaboration with other schools and partners, to achieve economies of scale and commissioning power.
  6. To sustain and develop your recruitment by taking advantage of and developing your existing ITT Partnerships. Be ready for the training places opportunity offered by School Direct in 2012, identifying prospective employees in advance, ensuring that your school is a highly desirable employment and career destination.
  7. To secure Academy status under your own terms and to seek to consolidate your position and that of your partners’ by having a clear and unambiguous ethos and perhaps an affiliation to an umbrella organisation (e.g. Schools Co-operative Society, Faith Groups, Local Authority, Commissioning Mutual, Local Area, Trust etc).
  8. To develop closer links and collaboration with your Secondary, Junior and Infant link schools.
  9. To ensure quality in your classrooms and management systems through research, critical enquiry, dialogue and reflection.
  10. To strive, as appropriately and as far as possible, to achieve the goal of all your students, staff, visitors and friends finding your school to be a happy and rewarding place to be. 

Chord Centres and Our Future – Community Education and Leadership

Ambitious plans to support families and provide greater opportunities are all very well, but will miss the mark if we dont apply them to the challenges of our age. These challenges are, to all of our cost, subjects our politicians shy away from. This, the so called democracy trap – ‘there are no votes to be had (perhaps the opposite) so we will not address these things’. These things being the two great elephants in the room these days – the threat of global warming and the rapidly ageing population.

There seems to be some current interest in localism and society, but I suspect this is more about cuts in services and how this is such a great opportunity for you all! Sadly, all it seems to be doing is damaging the brand just when we need it. If we are to tackle the big issues we will need community action. We are back to the village – or orbits around market towns, urban neighbourhoods.

I suspect the best response to global warming needs a community by community strategy, to reduce energy consumption (and material consumption), to develop alternative sources of energy and more home grown, recyled, resources. The Chord Centre could be the source of information and a focus for leadership – all under the same banner as ‘for our childrens’ futures’. Coping with an ageing population is another potential  ‘village’ project. We need community care residences (where we shall all live one day) and where we can all be involved in looking after the elderly. For resourcing, there could be an element of central support, supplemented by local contributions. 

The school’s curriculum could be greatly enhanced (as some are already) by a practical focus and engagement on Energy and Care. Chord Centre expertise could become truly ‘cradle to the grave’. However, it is important to tread carefully and to pilot the ideas. Leadership and governance models exist in the schools and this is the obvious place to begin. Another pre requisite is for politicians to properly address the issues and please,  for once,  to look beyond the next election.

Accelerating School Partnership Development – Potential Drivers

The obvious place to look are at any current arrangements for things like sharing facilities, transition arrangements, any collaborations with training for staff or parents. These areas could be developed so as to build closer links on existing foundations and established records of trust. Another place to look is at the current list of problems and challenges to see if these could be better faced together. Groups of schools can commission (or bargain) for goods and services with much more success than an individual school. The partnership can identify someone with the best negotiating skills and give them time to lok for good deals for ICT support, paper purchasing etc. This could extend to recruitment with use of shared advertising. Working with the comunity and with parents is another fetile area – these are shared and vital groups  and providing a combined study support for parents, or training opportunities for the community, are other proven partnership activities.

The bigger steps are also well sign posted. Some degree of federation – one bursar, one SENCO, one CPD co-ordinator, one Social Worker or even one Headteacher. Areas that can really create an joint identity, which begin to reap the benefits of using local resources and realising economies of scale, include ideas such as a CPD bank – credits gained from offering skills and capacity, credit which can be drawn upon for identified needs. The bank can take a levvy and use this to provide common services or urgent responses. I am working on a more detailed version of this. One single and local ITT consortium is a good move in this period of instability with ITT – a block approach to the largest or preferred local ITT Provider will appeal, if it allows for stability and planning, guarantees of quality placements, proposals for closer partnership moving towards a greater local, school focus for operations. Working together to raise standards through a project such as In School Variation is another possibility.

Schools will need identified benefits with which to  motivate themselves. Schools will also need guidance and support, with an accurate assessment of the risks of going it alone. Schools will also need reassurance that the partnership is democratic and here the Co-operative Trust can provide an excellent service and support for the eventual steps towards Academy or Trust status, the logical and probably inevitable outcomes of the current policies.

Accelerating Partnership Development

Or APD in this age of acronym! It is a classic market driven response, for that is exactly what we are facing. Powerful schools scooping up the smaller or the needier to develop a power block. The power block allows for the development of economies of scale, provides an internal market, enables successful commissioning.  The obvious parallels are car manufacturers, supermarkets or banks. Join in now or you will be left on the periphery. It puts me in mind of the UK and the EU when we held back from applying and when we did eventually ask to join, the price had gone up. This market model may not be realised (a week in politics….) but we are still left with some economic and professional drivers pushing towards closer collaboration between schools.

The problem is that the majority of schools are not quite in a position to partner up. These are big steps that need reflection and discussion – the time for which, as ever, is in short supply – there’s a school to run! The benefits are not yet sufficiently clear, the threats not yet sufficiently real. What we need is a catalyst  that gets things moving. This may require a team of trained ‘evangelists’ armed with an irresistable plan or at least a proposal that makes sense and moves things forward. A risk free, engaging and attractive first step. This is a bit of a Holy Grail for people in my line of business. In my next post I will expand on some areas that I think may have potential.

Educational Cooperatives

An educational  cooperative  might be an autonomous association of schools, united voluntarily to meet their common educational, economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through jointly run and democratically controlled partnerships. A cooperative may also be defined as an enterprise owned and controlled equally by the people who use its services or by the people who work there.  The Cooperative Society supports schools wanting to work to these principles and for those who want to go a stage further and develop a Trust.

The beauty of the Cooperative Society approach is the implicit message that this is not about ‘take overs’ and that everyone has a chance to contribute and the opportunity to benefit from the collaboration. Such a message offers the best basis and the best chance of success for cluster development. I cannot think of a single aspect of a school’s processes that cannot benefit from sharing the task. Recruitment, IT, Cover Supervisors, CPD, ITT, Leaders, Bursars, AST, Special Needs, Community Liaison, Commissioning – the list is endless. The only contrary forces are those that stem from hostile competition which suggests that a secondary working with local primary schools is an obvious  model. Where the landscape is too crowded (e.g.in cities), secondary schools or primary schools might link up together and where this seems unlikley, schools could look  further afield for partners. The best partners are those who want to work with you, whoever and whereever they are.