Why school systems need to be more like the Tour de France

Every head could do with a Team Sky to help them. Anna Gowthorpe/PA

In The Importance of Teaching white paper in 2010, the government committed itself to developing a “self-improving system of schools”. Four years on there is a risk that a two-tier system will emerge in our schools, in which the confident schools and leaders thrive, but the remainder struggle because they do not have the capacity to improve by themselves. Instead, our schools need to be more like the Tour de France: a team effort.

Let me explain. In a recent lecture and blog, I identified four reform approaches that the government is following simultaneously: the world-class no-excuses approach, the freedom-to-teach approach, the market-based approach and the system-leadership approach.

The first three approaches might enable an improving system, but not a self-improving one, because they will not foster the sharing of expertise, capacity and learning between schools or the better use of evidence. Partly in response to these flaws, the role of accountability in these models becomes over-dominant and punitive. And having four parallel approaches creates tensions for school leaders.

In suggesting some possible ways forward, my thinking starts with an acceptance of Professor David Hargreaves’ core argument that if England’s 21,000 schools are to be autonomous, with minimal external support, then most of them will need to work in deep partnerships that provide challenge and support and that meet the needs of every child.

We know that achieving such deep partnerships between schools is intensely difficult: according to the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, partnership is a vulnerable strategy – all it takes is for one school to break ranks and act competitively and its partner schools will feel intense pressure to do the same.

When I work across local areas I do see some genuinely exciting partnership arrangements emerging, whether as part of academy trusts, teaching school alliances or other local responses to change.

But the wider picture I see is much more mixed. Often, a group of visionary head teachers in an area is working hard to develop school-led approaches, but they complain that other schools aren’t really engaging and contributing.

When you talk to those other schools they often feel oppressed by accountability, which prevents them from looking out beyond their school, and/or they feel suspicious about the motives of the visionary heads.

More local solutions

So what might be done? The government’s current approach is all about reducing central and local support in the hope that a self-improving system will spontaneously emerge.

Instead, I think we need to recognise that the system needs more time and support to develop partnerships that meet the needs of every school and every child. Some areas are more mature than others in terms of how schools are working together. We need to find “local solutions”.

In less mature areas, schools need help to build their capacity to take on more. Such help might include the facilitation of workshops for governing bodies and heads to shape a shared vision, as well as giving support for emerging system leaders and rigorous evaluation and feedback loops.

Key to success will be that the government develops a revised, coherent vision for reform that is focused on the development of a self-improving system for all schools. This will require stopping or reshaping policies under the first three narratives (for example market-based reforms such as free schools) that detract from that vision.

I think we also need a budget for building capacity and “local solutions”. I would do this by topslicing 0.5% of the existing schools budget, the Schools Block Allocation. This would provide around £150m per year, of which 100% should be made available to schools.

The government should also adopt Ofsted’s proposal in the Unseen Children report for local area challenges to improve educational outcomes in the lowest-performing areas. These would be modelled on the successful City Challenge programme, although the approach would need to be adapted for large rural and coastal areas.

It should also make Teaching Schools – outstanding schools designated by the Government to build alliances of partner schools which then support initial and ongoing professional development for staff – more sustainable and more focused on impact. At the same time we need to develop evidence-informed teaching, including by pausing any further expansion of School Direct until an evaluation has been concluded to understand what works.

Finally, I would offer funding to higher-performing areas and partnerships. They would need a credible proposal for how they would pass greater responsibility for school improvement to schools over time, with the incentive that if their approach is shown to be robust and effective, then Ofsted would move to a new, lighter touch approach to inspecting the partnership, rather than single schools.

Mortal Engines and Team Sky

I can see two possible scenarios for the journey we are on towards a self-improving school system.

The first is drawn from Mortal Engines, the amazing series of books by Philip Reeve. In a post-apocalyptic world, London is the first city to move itself onto wheels, so that it can then devour and asset strip the other cities and towns in its path, forcing their citizens to work as slaves.

Of course, the other towns and cities follow suit by moving themselves onto wheels, and the world quickly descends into a brutal fight for the survival of the fittest. As this happens, an entire belief system – known as municipal Darwinism – emerges to describe and justify the culture that has developed: the epitome of a two-tier system.

The second is the Tour de France: cyclists competing in a tough professional sport with clear and consistent rules, supported by expert coaches and the best equipment money can buy. The critical point here though is that even though cycling appears an individual sport, it’s very much a team effort: the national teams work together, for example by taking turns in the lead in order to break wind resistance.

If the lead cyclist gets a puncture then the whole team will wait for him to get back on the road. If they are successful they share the prize money.

I think we’re seeing both scenarios playing out on the ground. Collaboration will always remain vulnerable to the stronger competitive pressure, so policy must do more to help make sure it is not crushed.

This article was first published on the Institute of Education’s blog.

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