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Towards a self-improving school system: two steps forward one step back?

28.04.16

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Author: Ian Dewes

The rhetoric from the government has been consistent for some time: from Michael Gove to his successor Nicky Morgan, the ideal of a Self Improving School System (SISS) has been at the centre of policy for nearly six years. So if the message is clear, why aren’t more successful schools supporting the idea? I would argue speeches from the Secretary of State are not the primary driver for schools’ actions.

The introduction of the SISS has not been gentle; funding for local authorities have been cut making the SISS a necessity, while accountability measures have become undeniably sharper. The SISS needs not just to exist as a concept, but to be effective on the ground. The SISS requires successful schools to look beyond their own school and support others, but my concern is that school leaders aren’t prepared to support the idea in practice.

In my neighbouring local authority of Coventry, the hope is "a new generation of leaders will be coming through who see school-to-school networks and support as the norm" but in the meantime this is a vision which doesn’t appear "to be shared by many school leaders yet".1  My own LA, Warwickshire, has been identified as having a shortage of National Support Schools (NSS) and National Leaders of Education (NLE) in the primary sector and they are not alone.  In tranche 16 of applications for schools to be designated as NSS and their headteachers to be NLE, 43 local authorities were identified as needing more primary applicants. In the current application round (tranche 18) this number had grown to 50.

What’s the vision?

With such a heavy emphasis on the SISS you would imagine that it would feature centrally in the patchwork of documents which influence decision making amongst school leaders. Surprisingly, the SISS rarely gets a mention.

At the heart of much decision making in school, at least in theory, lies the school’s "vision statement".  I picked a random sample of ten schools in the primary sector in Rugby and looked to see if their vision, ethos or values made reference to supporting a SISS.  At a stretch, two schools had a sentence which could be viewed as referring to responsibilities in the SISS:

"Be responsible – take care of ourselves, others and our diverse community"

"We all play a full role in the local community as well as the wider world."

However, such sentiments were far outweighed by a focus on each school’s individual setting. The word "children" was preceded by the word "our" on nine occasions, suggesting the vision of most of the schools was limited to the children who went to it. Considering the focus that is placed on 'vision and mission' in strategy setting, it is somewhat surprising that SISS is so conspicuous by its absence.

If vision statements are doing little to encourage a SISS, what other possible drivers are there? The Governance Handbook is the key document for school governors. Substantially rewritten in November 2015 it sets out four core functions for a governing body. The only mention of a SISS in relation to these functions is under "setting the vision" where the handbook states a school's vision "should include ambitions for current and future pupils, as well as for the school’s relationship with other schools".  Not really a clear instruction for schools to go out and support each other; more a gentle reminder that it’s a possibility.

The OFSTED Inspection Handbook (rewritten in September 2015) explains how schools will be inspected.  It sets out criterion for schools to achieve if they are to be judged "good" or "outstanding".  Schools can achieve the highest grade without contributing to the SISS. Even for schools seeking to maintain an "outstanding" grade, there is no expectation they will have worked with other schools; Such is the power of OFSTED over schools, if the government wanted to see an acceleration of schools supporting others, reference to it in the Inspection Handbook would probably be the quickest way of achieving it.

By contrast the National Standards for Excellence of Excellence for Headteachers does refer explicitly to the sort of actions needed in a SISS. Published in January 2015 to replace the National Standards for Headteachers, the document is designed to "define high standards which are applicable to all headteacher roles within a self-improving school system". It is non-statutory, but anecdotally, I am aware of it being widely used to inform the appraisal of headteachers.  Four domains are set out, the fourth of which is "the self-improving school system". Heads are encouraged to "create outward-facing schools which work with other schools and organisations - in a climate of mutual challenge - to champion best practice and secure excellent achievements for all pupils." (My emphasis.) 

Replacing "our pupils" with "all pupils" makes a significant difference. We work in a highly accountable school system, where a decline in school performance can lead to heads losing their jobs, forced academisation, and replacement of governors. In such a climate, it is not surprising that school leaders are very focused on their own school.  As a concept the SISS is not new, but in practice it is not fully established. If the hearts and minds of school leaders have not been won over yet, perhaps the government needs to look at creating a consistent framework of statutory and non-statutory guidance which leaves leaders in no doubt that the SISS is everyone's responsibility.   

Ian Dewes is headteacher of Dunchurch Infant School and Nursery, a National Leader of Education and a governor at Northlands Primary School in Warwickshire. 
If you have an interest in structural reform, please consider joining the BELMAS Structural Reform Research Interest Group (RIG). To join the RIGs, become a BELMAS member or click the box alongside the relevant RIG groups on your 'My Details' page. Views or opinions expressed in BELMAS blog articles are solely those of the author and do not represent the views or expressions of BELMAS or BELMAS RIGS.
Next article: Why we need to think seriously about structures

1 Greany, Toby, and Tracey Allen. "School Improvement Networks and System Leadership in Coventry: Evaluating progress, areas for development and possible next steps." (2014).

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