School Partnerships and Cooperation - Education Committee Contents

3 Diversity and desirable features

Diversity of models

40. During this inquiry we heard about the wide range of ways in which schools are working together and the many different models of school partnership and cooperation that support this. Even within the broad headings given to different models there is a great deal of variety in the way these operate. We took oral evidence from representatives of an academy chain, with an overlapping Teaching School Alliance; a maintained school, accredited as a Teaching School and leading a Teaching School Alliance; an independent school, participating in an Independent State School Partnership; Co-operative schools; a local authority, whose schools were now part of autonomous self-improvement consortia[74]; and a national collaborative organisation. In addition, we received written evidence describing an even broader range of collaboration arrangements. Understandably, witnesses each argued for their own models of engagement.

41. In their written evidence ASCL advised us that, such was the diversity of collaboration between schools, that one should not "be fixated on a limited number of named types of partnership".[75] Various witnesses argued that this diversity was important to the success of the approach and that autonomy of choice was key. The NAHT argued that "Open and transparent collaboration can provide school leaders and governors the opportunity to tailor partnerships to their individual school and pupils' needs".[76] On a similar point, Tavistock College emphasised that: "Partnerships are far more effective if they are driven at the local level. This doesn't mean to say that they are insular and that national/regional expertise cannot be brought in but there needs to be a local structure that has autonomy",[77] and the National Association of School Partnerships told us that:

    if schools are going to benefit long-term from real partnerships that begin to transform the system, then a large degree of autonomy is always going to be important. Otherwise there is a risk of one system (Government/Local Authority controlling) being replaced by a similar one (Academy Chains/Teaching School Alliances controlling) and a real school partnership driven system, with all of the benefits this can bring, may not become a reality.[78]

42. Different organisations highlighted diverse aspects of partnerships as being of importance to them. Academy chains, such as the Cabot Learning Federation in Bristol, are at the harder end of partnership, and Sir David Carter clearly felt that this was important to the organisation's success: "the tighter your structure, the better the accountability".[79] However, even within the category of academy chains we heard that there is a great deal of diversity in the closeness of the relationships between schools involved.[80]

43. Members of and advocates of Co-operative school clusters emphasised the importance to them of being "multi­stakeholder models that engage parents, staff, learners and the local community".[81] Titus Alexander, convener of Democracy Matters, argued for the benefits of such a Co-operative model because: "The membership based model of community stake-holding offers genuine localism in the management and use of public assets by local communities. Co-operative trusts are about mutualisation and groups of schools working strategically together for the common good".[82]

44. The evidence we heard explained different schools' rationales for their particular models, in terms of suiting a particular school's ethos and history. There was no support for the need to tidy up what can appear a 'messy' picture. Kirston Nelson, Assistant Director of Education at Wigan Council told us that they didn't want the Government to start prescribing what sort of partnerships should be being created.[83] ASCL expressed the view that "Where schools are forced to collaborate, especially with partners with very different institutional cultures, then the collaboration tends to be token, and the benefit slight".[84] More practically, Sir David Carter argued that it would be a distraction to alter the terms of engagement for a partnership, when it is working effectively.[85]

45. The DfE told us that "At the heart of this Government's reforms is the belief that school leaders and those working in schools are best placed to make effective decisions regarding schools".[86] Whilst the Minister was "clear that the strongest and best form of collaboration is found in the strong governance of a multi-academy trust", he also considered that "most school partnerships should be down to local determination". [87] We believe that, in common with the Government's view of the education system, schools are best placed to identify the most effective ways to work with other schools, based on their particular history, ethos and challenges. Schools should be able to adopt models of partnership and co-operation that suit their needs within a legislative and policy framework that is as non-prescriptive as possible.

46. There were common threads that emerged from the successful models about which we heard. Altrincham Grammar School for Girls argued that "under a more formal arrangement such as a trust of sponsored academies, there is the capability to make things happen in a more strategic and consistent way. There is more ownership by all".[88] Similarly, Mervyn Wilson described the Co-operative school clusters as "not unbreakable but sustainable beyond individuals".[89] The DfE echoed these sentiments: "It is the Government's view that many of the advantages of collaborative working can only fully be realised through establishing formal partnerships in which all those involved make a long term commitment to the partnership and in which the lines of accountability are clear".[90] We believe that school partnerships with clear lines of accountability and some element of obligation are more likely to be successful in achieving gains from collaboration.

Families of schools

47. We heard evidence that school-to-school cooperation has to be based on an analysis of data that invite schools to compare their performance with other schools serving similar populations, for example through 'families of schools' data as used in the City Challenge programmes.[91] Professor David Woods, former Principal National Challenge Adviser for England, told us this should include socio-economic make-up and prior attainment.[92] The GDST told us their schools' performance data is shared across the group, "encouraging those who are not performing well in some areas to seek advice from those who are".[93] The use of such data systems provides a challenge to existing expectations as to what is possible and helps to ensure that there is an emphasis on mutual learning within the collaborative activities that occur. Professor David Woods and Professor George Berwick, Chief Executive of Challenge Partners, both expressed this in terms of preventing schools from being in denial about what they could achieve for their pupils.[94]

48. Without this, it was felt that there is a danger of creating time-wasting 'talking shops' that have little or no impact on the practice of schools and the learning of pupils. In commenting on the Greater Manchester Challenge, Professor Mel Ainscow, Professor of Education at the University of Manchester and an adviser to our inquiry, observed that "collaboration is at its most powerful where partner schools are carefully matched and know what they are trying to achieve. Data also matters in order that schools go beyond cosy relationships that have no impact on outcomes".[95] In addition, detailed analysis of schools data helps to identify areas of relative strength that can be used for the purpose of mutual improvement. Professor Ainscow argued in a research article that "schools have to dig more deeply into the comparative data in order to expose areas of strength that can be used to influence performance across their Family, whilst also identifying areas for improvement in every school".[96]

49. The Government has recently introduced 'similar schools' data to the performance tables on its website. Using a statistical matching technique, these place secondary schools within a group of 55 and primary schools within a group of 125 similar institutions, based on prior attainment of their intake. Unlike the families of schools, these are not fixed groups, but rather generated separately for each school. For secondary schools the Key Stage 2 performance of each member of the school's intake is used to predict the probability that they will achieve 5 A*-C grades in GCSE or equivalents, using national-level data. An average figure for the school is then calculated. The schools are then ranked by the actual proportion who achieve 5 A*-C grades in GCSE or equivalents. Schools achieving statistically significantly higher than the school of interest and located within 75 miles are highlighted in green as potential partners.[97] A similar method is used for primary schools, except that the probability of an individual achieving Level 4 in English and Maths at Key Stage 2 is predicted using scores from Key Stage 1.[98]

50. Andrew McCully from the DfE told us that the similar schools data "is precisely the kind of information that was so powerful in the London Challenge".[99] We are not convinced that this is the case since, as discussed above, a key feature of the families of schools was that they compared schools outcomes across several characteristics. The data included GCSE results with and without English and Maths, and a Contextual Value Added measure, as well as additional contextual families focusing on EAL and Mobility that enabled schools with significant proportions of pupils with these characteristics to compare themselves and share their experiences with other similar schools.[100] This meant that matches could be made where both schools could see what they could learn from collaboration. The similar schools data is more limited. The Government's publication of similar schools data is a useful first step but much more needs to be done to make this an effective resource for schools. In particular, the data should highlight schools' strengths and weaknesses so that schools find it easier to form partnerships where both parties can challenge and be challenged to improve. We recommend that the DfE review the presentation of similar schools data in consultation with schools in order to provide richer and more easily accessible information on possible partners.

51. Doubts were also expressed about the rationale behind changing the name from 'families of schools' to 'similar schools'. The term 'families of schools' was raised in several submissions to us, suggesting an enduring familiarity among schools in former-City Challenge areas. Andrew McCully advised us that he was "unsure how much faith you should put in a name".[101] The Minister later told us that, given the changes in methodology outlined above, "it would be confusing to previous users if we used the same title".[102] Having seen the implementation, we agree with this assessment, but consider that this highlights the shortcomings of the new system. The Government's 2010 White Paper appeared to envisage the introduction of a system much closer to the original 'families of schools' approach.[103] It is regrettable that, in establishing the similar schools data system, the Department for Education did not adopt a model more like the original 'families of schools' and then use the familiar name to help achieve buy-in from schools.

Geographical coherence

52. We heard during this inquiry that the issue of locality, or geographical coherence, is a key factor in creating effective school partnerships.[104] More specifically, much of the evidence suggested that groups of schools that serve a relatively small area have a greater chance of moving expertise around in order to address challenges and raise standards.[105] This argument was seen to be relevant to all types of partnership, including chains of academies. In his written evidence, Sir David Carter emphasised the importance of proximity in arguing: "In a school system where the accountability rests within schools and between partnerships, there can be no better way for a group of motivated and talented leaders, sponsors and community representative to take responsibility for the educational standards in the towns and cities where they are based".[106] Peter Maunder similarly emphasised the moral purpose generated in working together for children within a particular place.[107] We heard from Mervyn Wilson that this was about being rooted in a community.[108] There are also practical difficulties if geography is not given priority. Wellington School, which sponsors an academy a considerable distance away, told us that "the distance between the College and its Academy has proved a challenge at times. Logistical difficulties (time taken to travel, differing length of the school day at each establishment, cost of transport) has inevitably required careful planning and budgeting".[109]

53. The view that partnerships should be in a tight geographical area was not universally shared. Devon County Council told us in its written evidence that it has found that geographical proximity between schools is not essential for effective partnerships.[110]

54. As discussed above, we consider that the best partnerships are built bottom-up and, while many are likely to emerge on a geographically coherent basis under these conditions, some may not. The idea of a self-improving school system is that schools are generally the right bodies to identify the support they need. As such, it would not be right to circumscribe schools' options on geographical lines. Some partnerships, however, such as forced academisation, do involve a central body picking a sponsor. In these cases, it seems right that the importance of geographical coherence is taken into account and the Minister assured us that it is one of the criteria used.[111] The preponderance of the evidence we received suggests that partnerships in which all members are located within close proximity are most likely to be effective. The DfE should bear in mind the significance of this when identifying sponsors for academies and should ensure that the advantages of geographical proximity are set out in relevant guidance on school partnerships and cooperation more generally.

55. We discussed with witnesses the question of the areas within which partnerships are best located. Sir David Carter told us that the members of John Cabot Academy's Teaching School Alliance are all "within 25 to 30 minutes of each other and probably within three or four square miles" and that the Federation would struggle to achieve the same depth of collaboration, such as movement of staff and pupils, without this close proximity.[112] The distance between Wellington School, whose concerns about distance we noted above, and The Wellington Academy is approximately an hour's drive, under 50 miles as the crow flies.

56. The Minister told us that 'similar schools' data would include a higher performing school "within a reasonable travelling distance",[113] which he clarified to mean a maximum of an hour's drive.[114] The 'similar schools' data now provided on schools' performance tables highlights "better performing schools in each group that are located within 75 miles of the focus school".[115] 75 miles is not legally an hour's drive between any two points in England and is considerably further than can be travelled within an hour in many parts of the country, including major conurbations and very rural areas. We are concerned that the Government's definition of a "reasonable travelling distance" has not been sensibly applied to the similar schools tables. We recommend that the definition is altered to become "within an hour's drive" (ie 30 to 50 miles depending on location).

  1. We note that in rural and coastal areas the number of suitable partner schools within an hour's drive may be very limited. We recommend that the Government set out how the similar schools model applies to schools in rural and coastal areas and assess the applicability of the collaborative model to remote schools.

74   Local Government Association, The council role in school improvement: Case studies of emerging models (London, 2013), p 18 Back

75   Ev w6, para 16 Back

76   Ev w25, para 8 Back

77   Ev w18, para 2 Back

78   Ev w64, p 3 Back

79   Q 19 [Sir David Carter] Back

80   Ev w6, paras 21-22 Back

81   Q 8 Back

82   Ev w100, para 3.2 Back

83   Q 116 Back

84   Ev w6, para 20 Back

85   Q 20 Back

86   Ev w46, para 28 Back

87   Ev 55 Back

88   Ev w52, part 3, para 1 Back

89   Q 14 Back

90   Ev 46, para 6 Back

91   Ev 1, para 10 Back

92   Q 131 [Professor Woods] Back

93   Ev w13, para 46 Back

94   Q 131 [Professor Woods] Back

95   Ev w1, para 10 Back

96   Professor Mel Ainscow, "Moving knowledge around: strategies for fostering equity within educational systems", Journal of Educational Change, vol 13 (2012), pp 289-310 Back

97   KS4 Similar Schools Guidance, Department for Education website, Back

98   KS2 Similar Schools Guidance, Department for Education website, Back

99   Q 174 Back

100 /publicationDetail/Page1/DFES-0438-2006 Back

101   Q 175 Back

102   Ev 56, paras 3-4 Back

103   Department for Education, The Importance of Teaching: the Schools White Paper 2010, Cm 7980, November 2010, para 7.10 Back

104   Q 13 [Peter Maunder] Back

105   Q 12 Back

106   Ev w107, p 8 Back

107   Q 13 [Peter Maunder] Back

108   Q 13 [Mervyn Wilson] Back

109   Ev w109, para 2 Back

110   Ev w95, para 1 Back

111   Q 242 Back

112   Q 12 Back

113   Q 176 Back

114   Q 177 Back

115   KS4 Similar Schools Guidance, Department for Education website, Back

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Prepared 6 November 2013