The self-improving system relies on high-performing schools and effective school leaders working beyond the parameters of their own institutions to support the wider school landscape. At its heart is the notion that stronger and weaker schools should work together to drive up standards for the mutual benefit of both. But what does this look like in practice and does the system have the capacity to support it?
The theory of the self-improving system
Policy on school improvement in the past decade has focused on capacity building and emphasised the importance of a self-improving education system, an approach explored in the 2015 ASCL Blueprint.
It was first formally introduced by the Department for Education (DfE) in the 2010 White Paper The Importance of Teaching, which stated:
“Our aim should be to create a school system which is more effectively self-improving... It is also important that we design the system in a way which allows the most effective practice to spread more quickly and the best schools and leaders to take greater responsibility and extend their reach.”
A school-to-school partnership approach can facilitate collaboration and allow schools to provide resources to support each other. Ideally, arrangements should involve institutions demonstrating excellent practice that can be shared, whilst recognising that such practice cannot be simply replicated between institutions.
However, collaboration between institutions should be two-way. At the ASCL Conference last year, Sir David Carter, the National Schools Commissioner, said that every school should be both a giver and a receiver of support. That there is as much, possibly even more, to learn from the teachers in schools which have gone from special measures to good as there is from the ones in schools that have gone from good to outstanding.
Capacity for collaboration
For these types of approaches to work, there needs to be sufficient capacity in the system within reasonable travelling distances. To assess capacity for collaboration NFER conducted an analysis to identify and match underperforming schools and high-performing schools within the same phase within a limited radius using Ofsted and DfE attainment data.
The analysis, reported in Capacity for collaboration? Analysis of school-to-school support in England, and supporting interactive map highlighted that there are more high-performing schools than underperforming schools, in both phases of education.
To assess the level of potential support, the research team looked at how many high-performing schools each school in need has nearby. The analysis revealed that each secondary school in need of support has a median number of two high-performing secondary schools within the set radiuses. While having support close at hand does not necessarily mean that the schools in question will want to or will be able to help (because, for example, they may already be working with other schools), nor does it automatically mean that the leadership of underperforming schools will seek help. Therefore, additional policies to complement a self-improving system are also needed.
Support for school improvement
Since the 2010 White Paper, a range of policies have developed which are key components in a self-improving system and offer considerable opportunities for schools: the introduction of Opportunity Areas, continued growth of multi-academy trusts (MATs) and teaching school alliances, and the introduction of funds designed to enhance collaboration such as the Strategic School Improvement Fund (SSIF) and the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund (TLIF).
Focus on the SSIF
The SSIF is a £140 million government fund to support schools and further build a school-led system. It facilitates the collaborative approaches described above by requiring schools to apply in groups of at least four schools (or in the case of MATs, requiring at least 25 per cent of schools must come from outside the trust).
So far, nearly 3,000 schools have received support from the fund and about £45 million has been committed, for example in round one, Birmingham Education Partnership received funding to run a programme targeting leadership in 20 of the city’s schools.
The third round of funding is open until Friday 20 April 2018, and if you haven’t applied yet, it may be a key tool that you can use to work beyond the parameters of your own institutions and support the wider school landscape.
For more details of the research described in this blog, and the SSIF application process, join Karen and Ian’s breakout session, School Improvement: Capacity and Opportunity, at 2pm, 10 March, ASCL Annual Conference 2018.
Karen Wespieser is Head of Impact at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).
Ian Bauckham CBE, CEO Tenax Schools Trust and Member of the South East and South London Regional Schools Commissioner’s Headteacher Board, NFER Trustee, and an ASCL Past President.