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Giving super powers to school super-heads is not a panacea

Most heads could do with some super powers. Ben Northern, CC BY-NC-ND

Ten years ago, if a school in England was deemed to be failing, there were three broad responses: send in a team of advisors to support the existing leadership, parachute in a “super-head” to turn the school round, or, controversially at that time, close the school and turn it into an independent academy with a sponsor.

Today, the landscape has altered to a remarkable extent. A 2013 report on school partnerships by parliament’s education select committee made clear that school-to-school support has emerged as the key model for school improvement and intervention. Instead of consultants and lone super-heads descending on schools in difficulty, it is serving leaders from other schools who are most likely to provide the support.

The most recent example of this is the Trojan Horse investigation into Islamic extremism in Birmingham schools, where it has been suggested that “super-heads” could be brought in from other schools through an academy sponsorship model.

The school leaders who lead this school-to-school support work are still sometimes called “super-heads” in the media, though they would be more likely to call themselves “system leaders”. Of course, their head teacher colleagues might call them any number of things, from “empire builders” to “visionaries”.

There are a number of ways in which school-to-school support and system leadership can be brokered and structured, none of which are mutually exclusive. The key models in place include structural governance models (such as multi-academy trusts and federations), designations based on formal criteria (such as National Leaders of Education and Teaching Schools) and role related partnerships (such as where an executive head oversees two or more schools).

These partnerships are being seen as the answer both at the “failing” end of the spectrum (where academy chains, ideally led by outstanding schools, are brokered to take control), as well as the “upstream” improvement of existing teachers.

Holy grail of reform

The concepts of school-to-school support and system leadership largely emerged from the experience of the London Challenge (and its permutations in Manchester and the Black Country), where leaders from many of the most successful schools agreed to support the schools that needed most improvement. These early system leader heads didn’t work alone, but drew on the capacity and resources of the staff in their home schools.

This process provided a powerful learning opportunity for everyone involved. Rather than draining capacity and expertise away from successful schools (something that many governing bodies and parents understandably worry about), school-to-school support and system leadership appeared to benefit both schools.

At the same time, London Challenge offered a range of other programmes as well as a wider infrastructure to support and challenge schools. These included an overarching commissioner, education experts known as Challenge Advisors and data packs which allowed schools to compare their performance with other schools with similar characteristics. The result was sustained, whole system improvement according to a 2010 Ofsted report: the holy grail of education reform.

When the coalition government came to power in 2010 it took some, but by no means all, of the learning from London Challenge to inform national policy. For example, the concept of Teaching Schools had been pioneered as part of the London Challenge, while the number of National Leaders of Education was doubled.

But the coalition arguably put far more energy into delivering on other manifesto commitments that had not been part of London Challenge’s success: for example, offering academy freedoms to all schools and establishing free schools.

The past few years have been exhilarating for many leaders, such as the entrepreneurial heads who have built and expanded academy chains by taking on ever more schools and by opening free schools. For those heads observing the collapse of local authority services and the arrival of new sponsors in an area, the response has ranged between nervous acquiescence and a determined ambition to establish alternative models, such as co-operative trusts, that might sustain their independence whilst offering a safe haven in the storm.

A mixed bag

The resulting picture on the ground in most local areas is dizzyingly complex. In some areas, such as Wigan, the local authority has the credibility, capacity and lack of self-interest required to foster a shared vision and rigorous partnership working that meets the needs of all schools.

In others, it is school system leaders who are forging the partnerships, but often with insufficient capacity for the tasks they are taking on and an incomplete picture of how it will impact across the board. Even where historic relationships have been strong between schools, real reciprocal collaboration can be vulnerable, with issues ranging from petty jealousy to inertia.

My view is that we need both models of system leadership: an intervention model to address weak performance and a voluntary partnership model that builds capacity and improves teaching and learning in all schools.

The problem we have at the moment is that this relies too heavily on a small cadre of system-leader head teachers who are willing and able to forge new ways of working in the face of a wider policy framework that prioritises competition and quasi-markets over incentives for collaboration. Equally, the infrastructure around those same leaders is fragmented and weak.

The coalition needs to learn the full lessons from the success of the London Challenge, which had sustained and coherent support and investment focused on helping all schools to improve.

If it doesn’t, we will see some powerful examples of what is possible, but these will be drowned out by the negative stories of under-regulated “super-heads” who have fiddled the books, academy chains that have failed to make a difference and schools that have fallen through the cracks of a supposedly self-improving system.

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