Features: March 18th, 2011

Failing schools get much publicity. So too do the strategies for turning them around. What is now emerging as a greater concern is the failure to sustain improvement. Jonathan Crossley-Holland explains how Tribal launched The Inspirational Schools Partnership to allow schools to share their expertise and to bring leaders and managers together. He describes how professionalised school-to-school support and the use of online tools can bring the benefits of sustainability.

The debate around school turnaround and improvement is now a well-trodden path, both in the UK and internationally. Despite this, there are increasing questions about the sustainability of turnaround strategies as the same schools fall back again, especially in the US. Educationalists should now have this pressing concern at the top of their agendas: how schools could be helped to sustain improvement and go on to being outstanding and beyond – although so far, little has been written about this. Governments tend to focus on schools which are failing outright – and the current coalition government has a strategy to address this, as had its predecessor. This is through enforcing Academy status on consistently underperforming schools, engaging Sponsors of Academy chains and the assistance of NLEs and converter Academies. We are now looking to a new kind of ‘Middle Tier’ to help schools achieve sustainable improvement, not just for failing schools, but also sustaining improvement for those that are outstanding. The ‘Middle Tier’ can be defined as the intervention or ‘buffer’ between central government policy and schools themselves. It should provide targeted support for school improvement, support change and promote collaborative working between schools.

The irony is, of course, that it is a statistical fact that most children who are underachieving are not in the worst performing schools. This is the challenge facing the country if the Government wants to achieve one of the aims stated in the November 2010 White Paper, of rising up the League Table: “What really matters is how we are doing compared with our international competitors”. We also know that sustainable change only comes when school staff, students and ideally the parents drive their own improvement. The key question is what kind of environment, what new ‘Middle Tier’ is going to create the best conditions for the majority of schools to improve with the end of the National Strategies and the sharp reduction in the capacity of local authorities. The view seems to be that their contribution was patchy. Some may question whether we need a ‘Middle Tier’ at all. The latest McKinsey Report How School Systems Get Better looked at how the 20 best educational systems in the world got better and become outstanding. An effective ‘Middle Tier’ was one of the key features but its nature must depend on the stage of development of the system and the culture.

An effective ‘Middle Tier’ needs to do a number of things, but amongst these it must make available high quality school improvement and a lively learning community. It needs to cater to schools’ needs wherever they are on their improvement journey, especially for those on the satisfactory to great, where the gaps in provision are most apparent.

Inspirational Partnership

It is for this reason that Tribal launched The Inspirational Schools Partnership (ISP) in November last year. The Inspirational Schools Partnership is a school improvement programme that combines the sharing of expertise between schools with technology to empower the whole school and to ensure that improvement is informed by the people who know best – the schools’ leaders and managers. The ISP framework allows a school to model its own improvement journey based on data gathered not only from exam results, but from the opinions of staff members, students and parents as they give their honest feedback on how they think the school is currently performing. Once areas for improvement have been identified, schools can then access the expertise of others to implement changes. The Partnership now has 80 secondary schools as members, and the Association of School and College Leaders has adopted ISP as its main school improvement partner.

It is already possible to see the benefits of the use of more professionalised school-to-school support and the role that online tools can play in engaging staff. To take an example, we can look at the work between ISP member schools Wildern and Woodlands Community College.

Partnership in action

In the spring of 2010 work between Woodlands Community College and its trust partner school, Wildern, began. The GCSE A*- C maths results at Woodlands Community College in 2009 were 26%, and although Woodlands had seen significant improvement in English results, a further increase in maths was required if the school was to achieve the 30% floor target set by the National Challenge. The whole school used the ISP Navigator™ tool (discussed in detail below) to gain an insight into the perceptions of each member of the department, enabling the team to see where resources needed to be targeted and take control of this process.

Precise action plans could be created to raise standards, as every member of the maths team understood where the strengths and weaknesses were. Following this initial assessment, collaborative work between Woodlands and Wildern began, with joint work and planning between Woodlands’ Head of Maths and an experienced senior maths specialist from Wildern to put in place strategies which would have an immediate impact on the 2010 results. To enable this, a comprehensive student tracker system was introduced and resources between Woodlands and Wildern were shared via an Intranet system.

Following less than half a term’s work, the prediction of A*-C in maths increased by 3% and the school achieved an actual 8% increase in the 2010 results.

We have observed three key strategic points that underpin a successful school improvement strategy, and have designed the Inspirational Schools Partnership around these points.

The first of these points is that system change works best when there is a flexible school improvement model, in which all the school community, staff and students can understand and take part. This is a fundamental requirement of sustainable change and transformation. A flexible school improvement model is characterised by a number of important features:

• Implementing short term strategies – they make a real difference, have impact and build confidence.
• Assure quality systems – it is not just what you do – it is how well you do it.
• Do fewer things really well – less is more.
• Embed use of performance data – know every student and know their potential.
• Engage with Curriculum Design even within the year.
• Develop leadership at all levels.
• Learn from other schools – outreach within the school too.
• Create and sustain the “right” culture – people matter.

The second key strategic point underpinning a successful school improvement strategy is the crucial role that technology can play in securing the whole school ownership and engagement with the school improvement strategy. Tribal has developed two online tools to deploy technology in the way: the first is ISP NavigatorTM, which is now being used by 80 schools. ISP Navigator™ provides an easy to use technology platform that enables schools to develop their knowledge and capture perceptions of where they are now and collectively map their improvement journey. The second online tool is ISP Intelligence™. ISP Intelligence™ identifies trends and patterns in a school’s student population, giving a clear picture of each student. Intelligence looks not just at academic results, but a cross-section of all factors such as attitude and parental input, ensuring that schools can see when a student needs extra support. The system will also analyse why a student is performing well, looking at strengths and weaknesses as well as external influences such as parental input.

The third and final key strategic point underpinning a successful school improvement strategy is the belief that the best school improvement support can come from other schools. This belief is fundamental to the Inspirational Schools Partnership model of school improvement, which encourages schools to help improve other schools. The strategies that make a real difference already exist within our education system – but it is essential that they do not remain in silos of expertise, but are shared between schools.

At the heart of all this is the notion of empowering and motivating schools and communities to make a difference for them and encouraging them, despite all the accountability pressures, to have the confidence to set out to be inspirational.