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.

Teaching Schools

Teaching Schools are the centre piece of the recent White Paper. There may be up to 100 created this year and 500 by 2015. Their daunting role is to provide and quality assure ITT, CPD and Leadership Programmes to a cluster of schools. The status is also open to Primary, Special and Independent Schools. The budget is said to be £72million – the proposal might provide an avearge of approximately £60,000 per school.

There are a number of critical questions surrounding Teaching Schools:

1. Establishing a functioning (and eventually income generating) cluster is not easy and schools which have been working at this for the past 10 years or so (Training Schools and others, who currently cover much of the ground) are not going to relinquish their own clusters and partnerships without very good cause. There are few areas that do not have access to some form of cluster support should schools seek to participate.

2. Any system of ‘application’ is fraught with dangers unless the criteria are clear and unequivocal. We have a number of ‘entry’ requirements published by National College but there is likely to be some form of final judgement about an application – who will make this judgement and how will it be done? Surely schools will have to submit a credible plan of operation? There are, we are told, already over 800 interested schools for between 50 and 100 places this year. Given the competition, this looks like a recipe for frustration.

3. The criteria suggest that a very narrow band of ‘outstanding’ schools will be eligible. Such schools may have both capacity  and the right OFSTED credentials but without the involvement of a broader, more ‘accessible’ range of  schools in the role, or without some flexibility with the criteria, Teaching Schools are unlikely to make much of an impact.

4. Where have Teaching Schools come from?  They do not appear to be a solution to the problems and needs of the majority of schools, rather, they appear to be yet another example of the ‘strong’ schools getting ‘stronger’.  All schools  surely need to be supported to continue the process of linking up with local partners and to develop long term, mutually advantageous strategies for training, recruitment and development. This process is likely to involve a degree of federation and specialisation. The ‘colonial models’ of the super school operations are surely both unsustainable and anachronistic.  The outstandingly successful Training School programme, which had made much progress in sensitively supporting local partnerships and responding to local need, appears to have been brushed aside.  The critics of Training Schools claimed that  not all of the appropriate schools in the right places had been appointed – this will surely be the same and inevitable problem for Teaching Schools, made worse by the attempt to introduce another system on top of an existing and successful one. If the aim of Teaching Schools is to support the identified needs and contexts of  Local Authorities  and to develop the capacity for greater school based Initial Teacher Education, then this surely needs to be a local and not another  nationally driven initiative.

5. One way to salvage this situation would be for the exisiting network of Training Schools (those that had a successful TDA Annual Review this year) to become the first wave of pilot Teaching Schools, thus assuring continuity and uninterrupted development. 200 such schools receiving £60,000 would only cost around £12 million for the first year. Schools could then subsequently apply for Teaching School status in the areas without Training School coverage and in the areas where Training Schools had not met the requirements of the pilot. This solution would also save the substantial costs and risks associated with the proposed application process.

Waggon and SWOT

Some things survive from the relentless days of the 90’s when management speak crept onto the agenda for Training Days. SWOT is perhaps one, as it introduced the idea to schools that it was a useful exercise to identify Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats as the need and opportunity to see oneself as others might, became more pertinent.  I guess it was the beginning of a process of commercialisation, which, like it or not, has become an increasingly significant part of the landscape. In the current climate, with the enforced retreat of Local Authorities and the advance of the powers of competition, the majority of schools are likley to feel more vulnerable. A good place to start is to identify strenghts as this can provide a platform for confidence and for negotiating positions. It is not easy to make a clear judgement about either strengths or weaknesses – we are often too close to see these things and of course these things are relative and we may be way off beam. If we include opportunities and threats, we are looking at an exercise that is probably best completed with local partners and is a useful first step in trust for exploring collaborative ideas. If the waggons are to be drawn up we need to decide what needs to be outermost, what needs to be protected and nourished, what are the dangers and for whom do we need to leave a gap, physical or digital, so that we may be  reinforced and supported.