School to school support-lots of questions, any answers?
School to school support, much favoured by Mr Gove and evidenced by the teaching school alliances, academy chain alliances and continual discussion that ‘great’ schools should support others has been at the forefront of both local and national current discussion. Local schools are being forced into academisation and take-over by other establishments; some schools are going into others to help them move out of Ofsted categories and some just collaborate and share ideas because they think that they should. Perhaps it sounds a brilliant idea to help each other but for me, and I would imagine others, the process has raised so many unanswered questions; some of which aren’t usually aired publicly. I don’t know of too much research into effective school to school support but do know it has become quite a lucrative business for some. I suppose that because our school isn’t a part of any alliances we may be a different case BUT we are involved and we need to be aware of ‘best’ practice.
Before our 2012 Ofsted, it would be fair to say, that like most schools [certainly in our area] we hadn’t been too involved in school to school support or in a great deal of collaborative work with other schools. The business of Meols Cop was Meols Cop and we were keeping our noses to the grindstone of rigorous self-improvement and analysis so that; our school was safe from the very real threats of closure and redundancies, our teaching was improving to provide our students with quality learning, our reputation was growing locally so we could fill our classrooms and we were developing [internally] a Meols Cop mentality of strength in staff collaboration and supported development-bit like Sir Alex achieved but without the tea cup throwing! The LEA during this time had declined in terms of the support it could offer and whilst some schools had joined together for mutual support and training, we hadn’t. This wasn’t borne out of arrogance and a feeling that we didn’t need help; quite simply we believed that we had got the right people in school who could keep up to date with the latest initiatives and innovations, who knew best what our students and staff needed and by saving the money we would have spent on joining groups-we could spend it wisely on external CPD or resources that would make a real impact and difference on learning.
The week after Ofsted had been, we straightaway began to think of how we could sustain what had been achieved and where the school needed to move towards over the next few years. This has been a constant theme on some of the blogs so that parents and friends can share and comment back on our vision as it develops. We were approached immediately by some schools who wanted to work with us or come in and talk to us about how we had prepared for what was then the new Ofsted criterion. Interestingly these tended to be schools in a strong position to begin with. HMI approached us and asked us to support some schools who they felt needed some advice and other approaches came vIa the LA and other schools who found themselves in special measures or perhaps thought that they might end up in an Ofsted category! We openly offered to talk to any schools but surprisingly some still seemed unable or unwilling to come and talk. We wanted to be helpful and supportive but we were unsure as to the protocol, what great support actually should look like and we had some big questions that schools often avoid discussing openly.
I hate using the word ‘competition’ in education but in each local area the schools obviously ‘compete’ for a number of children so there is competition and if you don’t get enough children, jobs are at risk and this school has been there in the past. One big support question is should you give your ideas and help to local schools who may then improve themselves and take a portion of your life-blood of student numbers? Supporting schools further away may help solve your moral dilemma. Or do you support academies or free schools to improve so that you provide evidence of their growing quality for Mr Gove to trumpet and probably sound the death knell for your own non-academy school! Perhaps an independent or selective school might call-should we help them too? We were also concerned with requests that might reflect another school’s needs and priorities but were not ‘our way!’ For example visiting to evaluate the quality of teaching [using grades] or prepare criteria for grading lesson observations. It isn’t for us, especially when their needs are driven from a disappointing inspection and morale is rock-bottom, to tell others-‘you should do it our way!’
We like to think that we are driven by a morale purpose and when John West-Burnham wrote about the socially just school in School Leadership Today where the leadership is committed to diversity, we would hope that over the last year we have ‘moved beyond the historical boundaries of the school as an autonomous institution into recognition of a far wider, moral responsibility,’ He quoted Hargreaves and Fink and according to them,’ The hardest part of sustainable leadership is the part that provokes us to think beyond our own schools and ourselves. It is the part that calls us to serve the public good of all people’s children within and beyond our own community and not only the private interest of those who subscribe to our own institution…Sustainable leadership is socially just leadership’ But how do we become socially just, keep our own school driving forward and deliver the best possible effective support to other schools that we can?
Our staff has readily accepted that we should try to offer school to school support and have been really supportive when visitors have appeared. Last June, in an early blog, I tried to explain some of the benefits for our staff and students based on our early experience of support and visitors.
Contact with other schools has confirmed our own practice and given opportunities to our own staff to reflect on their practice and to prioritise the key drivers behind outstanding schools and the transferrable nature of those drivers to others who wish to transform their schools. Potential leaders have emerged after our observation of how colleagues have prepared and have presented their own practice and that of the department and students. This has helped us at a crucial time in the school’s development as we seek to sustain and develop our own leadership capacity and succession planning.
Our students too have benefitted from the chances to speak to visitors-their own language of learning has improved and after making a huge impact on visitors we realised that we should develop student leadership even more. In fact, the visits have helped us to tighten areas that we know will be under scrutiny-the spotlight of other school’s perceptions of our practice has highlighted any issues that are lacking in rigour or not sufficiently supported by evidence of impact.
We have had well over 50 visits in a year, hosted conferences and welcomed NCSL leadership delegates and try to be as welcoming and honest as we can. When schools ring to visit we ask them for as many details about what they actually want from us as possible so we can prepare resources and have the appropriate people ready to see them. We try to involve speaking to our students and visiting classrooms [even without notice] so that guest can see that we don’t just talk the talk! We want any visitor to leave Meols Cop with a good impression and we feed and water folk until they are fit to burst! However-are we getting it right and what is right? Are schools seeking support asking the right questions, making the most use of the opportunities and again what is the most effective way for them to use support? A few points to consider;
- It takes a lot of time and organisation to make a visit as worthwhile as it needs to be. For example, when other schools visit our English faculty or come to talk about literacy-the faculty leader/literacy leader will prepare resources, have books ready, arrange for the literacy leaders to be excused from lessons and prepare them for questioning and so on. This is a lot to ask of a volunteer on top of their own planning and preparation. It’s great CPD for them and the students but I have provided cover sometimes so they can prepare thoroughly-our students then may miss out on their teacher-how sustainable is this for a small school like us? If we appoint our own staff as SLEs [15 possible days put of school supporting others]-we might have a bit of supply money but does is it sustainable without impacting on the learning of our students? Supporting others is the right thing to do but at what cost? Some teaching schools have lots their ‘outstanding’ status and believe that supporting others has detracted from their own infernal performance-there has been no special consideration for them from Ofsted or the government.
- Vikings raided this part of the North West and some visitors are set to pillage what they can! They have obviously been told to ask for schemes of learning, any assessment that moves revision materials and so on. My colleagues are kind –we share every week in our blogs without any hesitation but some of the items requested take hours of work and whilst visitors may be in desperate need- just taking what you can grab rarely supports your development when you get back to your own school. When this is taken to the whole school scenario of a new leader or school taking over-the implementation of one successful ‘system’ into another school –there has been some spectacular nose-dives in the North-West. Systems and teaching that works well in one school doesn’t necessarily transfer immediately.
- Sadly some visitors arrive who have been sent by SLT and are resentful and angry that they have to come to another school because basically they haven’t [in someone else’s’ opinion!] been doing their job well enough. We try to be helpful and sensitive-but it isn’t easy and this is an area that the school seeking support needs to be sure that it has approached the whole situation carefully and informed us, and the person visiting, if there is a structure and support criterion within which we are offering our support.
- Human nature means that sometimes visitors may seek faults-‘call themselves an outstanding school!’-well actually we don’t and many of our ideas or lessons that we share on the blogs and with visitors are not necessarily the most wonderful ever. I see great ideas all of the time, many better than mine or ones that I’ve seen at Meols Cop BUT-we are open to sharing, want to discuss ideas and the key to a great school isn’t the fact that a few teachers or leaders have superb ideas-it’s getting everybody-staff and students to deliver the very best learning and teaching that they can! I would also add that it is disappointing to see some teachers in SM/RI schools now worrying that their ideas are not worthy of sharing and supporting other schools and colleague’s just because of an inspection judgement. I shared some excellent marking from a friend in a SM school-twitter, blogs, teachmeets-we are all teachers-look beyond judgements, especially of observations and share away-who cares-but be non-judgemental and take support when offered by volunteers in the sprit it is meant in.
- Most visitors are great and have long discussions with my colleagues and we follow up our initial meeting. When and how support begins and finishes is another key question. Very practical support of us going out to join in lessons, leadership discussions and visiting classrooms seems to be well received and during this week of Easter revision lessons, I have heard of schools supporting others with controlled assessment marking and revision teaching-brilliant-and I know that some leaders work with other SLTs for periods of time. Joint inset to share ideas or afford big name speakers has existed for some time and other schools, like us and many others, have used blogs, conferences and publications to send ideas across the country. How much use these are in providing effective support and whether they are worth the effort-I simply don’t know! The best of intentions isn’t necessarily the best way!
Financial gain [or a least covering the cost] becoming involved in the school to school support system does give an expectation of ‘good’ support and I’m sure that within the federations and chains of schools there must be policies and affirmations of what effective STS should be like for all involved parties. For the rest of us, expected to or just wanting to support other schools; what should we be doing that will make a difference, whilst sustaining our own development? What should schools expect from us and how should they use support to go way beyond the very short term gains that so many post Ofsted support packages try to provide? Alex Quigley raised concerns over the Outstanding Teacher Programmes some schools/organisations are currently running here http://t.co/WzUf4sFIrW and raised the issue of researching into their utility and perhaps it is time for the effect size style of research of Hattie and the SuttonTrust to join forces with CUREE, TDA and others interested in CPD to offer guidelines supported by hard evidence on the most effective methods of school to school support.