School Partnerships and Cooperation - Education Committee Contents

5 Coordinating collaboration

The middle tier and the new role of local authorities

74. The debate over whether there is a need for a middle tier in the new school system as a result of the academies programme has been going on for some time. Several submissions to this inquiry argued that a middle tier is an important part of a self-improving school system. The McKinsey report "How the world's best education systems keep getting better" argues for the critical role of a "mediating layer" or middle tier for several reasons: they can provide targeted support to schools; act as a buffer between central government and schools; and enhance collaborative exchange between schools (for example through brokering support).[159]A review of the role of the middle tier by the National Foundation for Educational Research argued that the key foci for the middle tier in enabling school-to-school support are to:

    Develop a long-term vision and strategy for Teaching and Learning that moves beyond compliance and to which all partners sign up. [...] Develop a framework for school-to-school support.[...] Embed evaluation and challenge.[160]

75. Who or what should constitute the middle tier is also a matter of some long-standing debate. Dr John Dunford argued that Ofsted might have an important role in brokering partnerships, especially in using its data as "the starting point for a comprehensive database of excellent practice".[161] The majority of witnesses, however, pointed to the unique position of local authorities. The Local Government Association told us that "The councils we have spoken to see a continuing council role in holding school improvement partnerships to account, backed by a continuing council role in tackling underperforming schools. The importance of this 'convening' and 'accountability' role for councils has been underscored by Ofsted's decision to inspect council school improvement services".[162] Devon County Council also considered that "the Local Authority's brokerage role is key and ensures that these partnerships are robust and sustainable."[163] Speaking from a non-local authority viewpoint, Sir David Carter cited the "soft intelligence" held by local authorities and the important role this can have for effective collaboration. [164]

76. Witnesses did not advocate a return to the old model of LEA-led improvement. Peter Maunder identified some of the limitations of the previous system, in particular that, while "the expertise resided in schools", it was delivered by "top-down systems through advisers and consultants who had been out of schools for a very long time".[165] Rather, the evidence suggests that local authorities have already adopted a new way of working. Recent research for the National Foundation for Educational Research into what works in enabling school improvement found that "LAs were repositioning themselves to put schools in the lead, while securing delivery of their statutory duties through education partnerships. They were adopting a more adaptive style of leadership, and were prepared to move radically to enable school to school support".[166]

77. Mervyn Wilson described the new role of local authorities as being to create an "enabling environment" within which schools could find the support they need.[167] The task for local authorities, therefore, is to have the big picture of schools across their districts, such that they are in a position to identify areas of concern and mobilise strengths within the schools, including academies, which can be used to address these challenges. At the same time, they must be ready to intervene where a school is seen to be a cause for concern. We heard from Kirston Nelson of Wigan Council that this is a model they have already adopted:

    providing an enabling infrastructure, which is about being able to identify, through performance data, the schools that may require support through the partnership. It is a commissioning and brokerage role, but we also have a role in terms of quality assurance. Our school partnership and the model that we have put in place reflects that, but it reflects a collective accountability with head teachers, all on the same driver in terms of moral purpose for system improvement for all children in Wigan.[168]

78. The new role has been recognised by Ofsted and by the Government. Earlier this year Sir Michael Wilshaw told us that "local authorities have a key part to play: in brokering [school collaboration] and incentivising those chains of schools. I would hope that central Government provides the financial support to local authorities so that they can do that".[169] The Government's Schools White Paper stated that "In a more autonomous school system, local authorities have an indispensable role to play as champions of children and parents, ensuring that the school system works for every family and using their democratic mandate to challenge every school to do the best for their population".[170]

79. Lessons regarding the tasks required of local authority staff in this new context can be drawn from the work carried out by the expert advisers employed to coordinate school to school support within City Challenge.[171] There is strong evidence that their contributions were essential in making partnerships effective, such that the best practices were made available to a wider number of learners.

80. Local authorities still have a critical role to play in a school-led improvement system, in particular through creating an "enabling environment" within which collaboration can flourish. We welcome Ofsted inspection of local authorities' school improvement services which has acted to highlight the importance of this role. We also support the new system which is emerging with recognition that the expertise lies within schools but with local authorities as part of the picture. The role of local authorities is still evolving and some clarification of what is expected of them is needed. We recommend that the Government set out clearly the role of local authorities in helping to broker school-to-school partnerships and acting as champions of all parents and children, with particular reference to academies in their region.

Strategic oversight

81. Mervyn Wilson identified the role of the 'middle tier' as being "not about control, it is not about delivery, but it is about a strategic oversight" and argued that "it does need that joined-up approach, otherwise that will be lost and people will be left vulnerable".[172] We heard concerns from witnesses that there are parts of the country where little school-led improvement is occurring. This picked up on many of the same fears about rural communities and coastal towns expressed by Sir Michael Wilshaw in his "Unseen Children" speech.[173] Professor David Woods highlighted this, noting that "geographically, we are going backwards, arguably, in raising attainment and standards. In the other half of the country—and I would say that about London Challenge and City Challenge—we are leaping forwards".[174] Sean Harford, Ofsted Regional Director for London and the East of England, agreed and highlighted the differences he saw between the East of England, where Teaching Schools are lacking, and the continuing progress in London.[175] In some areas the absence of outstanding schools means that there are no teaching school alliances and few national leaders of education to stimulate cooperative activities.[176]

82. To address this difficulty, Sir Michael Wilshaw has called for 'sub-regional challenges', a more strategic approach to the appointment of National Leaders of Education, and 'National Service Teachers' to help spread high quality leadership to where it is needed.[177] The DfE told us that, in respect of Teaching Schools, "national coverage has increased by 16% to 89% and there are now 360 Teaching Schools with 136 LAs now seeing a Teaching School operating within their boundaries".[178] We note, however, that some local authorities are very large areas and being in the same local authority as a Teaching School may not mean particularly good access for all schools, particular those in rural areas. As Altringham Grammar School for Girls pointed out, "Pupils in areas with no Teaching School should not be disadvantaged; you could match a high-performing school with schools outside their geographic area".[179] The DfE explained that the National College had already used the NLE Deployment Fund to match NLEs with areas of need, including some NLEs travelling from London to parts of the South East and East and NLEs from Greater Manchester supporting schools in Merseyside.[180] Again, we have concerns that there are geographical limits to the possible success of such an approach.

83. We recommend that the DfE and NCTL take steps to identify and designate system leaders, such as National Leaders of Education and Teaching Schools, in areas where they are currently lacking. This should be coupled with increased incentives for existing system leaders to work in the areas of greatest need. Coordination of system leadership may well be better achieved at a sub-regional or local level than at the national level and we recommend that DfE and NCTL explore such an approach.

84. The discussion on system leadership suggests to us a need for greater oversight of school partnerships and cooperation, possibly on a regional basis, in order that the successful practices that exist lead to system-wide improvements. Without some form of coordination the development of a self-improving system could lead to some vulnerable pupils being overlooked, as their schools opt out of any form of grouping. We have already identified a role for local authorities as part of this greater orchestration and we also recognise the part played by Ofsted. Nevertheless, there is a risk that no one will be responsible for keeping in mind the bigger picture of the patterns that are emerging and taking steps to encourage the development of fruitful partnership working in areas where schools are slow to respond to the existing incentives. This is not about dictating the how, what and who, but about awareness and enabling. The Government should set out how organisations in the middle tier will be held to account for strategic oversight of partnership working in all schools and how they will ensure that gaps are not allowed to develop or remain unfilled, particularly in rural and coastal areas.

Role of advisers

85. As we have noted, there is evidence from the City Challenge programme that expert advisers made an important contribution in analysing the situation in schools experiencing difficulties and finding an appropriate strong partner school.[181] They also had important roles in ensuring that schools were not overlooked and, where necessary, brokering partnerships that cut across traditional local authority boundaries. The independent evaluation report suggested that this was a key factor in respect to the success of such arrangements, noting:

    Individuals in these roles were valued for their expertise and for being encouraging and supportive. KTS/PTA worked best when the Challenge advisors and other key stakeholders including NLE/LLEs, School Improvement Partners (SIPs) and LA officers worked effectively together. [182]

Similar roles were subsequently introduced to support the National Challenge in secondary schools. However, in the new policy context, it is unclear who has taken on the role filled by Challenge advisers. Professor Berwick told us:

    We were never able to replicate the adviser role. It is interesting: we do not have the same degree of advisers, for a number of reasons. Maybe they were not accredited, or whatever it is, but they are in short supply, basically because the way they were operated in London required three really important elements. There are lots of people around who can judge where a school is now, and that is done pretty thoroughly and tested in the courts etc. There is a smaller group who can decide what should happen next: "We know you are bad but what are the things you ought to do next to be better?"[183]

He considered that "It is one of the huge issues in the system at the moment."[184]

86. Dr John Dunford was adamant that advisers should be found within schools themselves and that the emphasis should be on "using that expertise and having the leadership capacity in the schools that employ them to enable them to go and work in other schools".[185] Another witness, Kirston Nelson from Wigan Council, pointed out that providing such expertise raised issues of "funding, resources and sustainability".[186] Local authorities do not have sufficient of the former two of these to ensure the latter.

87. London Challenge and City Challenge, two of the most successful school improvement initiatives of recent years, both relied heavily on the use of expert advisers. We recommend that the Department for Education make an assessment of the quality and capacity to provide this expertise within a school-led improvement system and ensure that schools are aware of where they can access such advice.

159   Mourshed, M., Chijioke, C., Barber, M. (2010) "How the world's best performing school systems keep getting better", McKinsey & Co.,p.81-87. Back

160   Aston, Easton, Sims, Smith, Walter, Crossley and Crossley-Holland (2013). What works in enabling school improvement? The role of the middle tier. National Federation for Educational Research. p.9. Back

161   Ev 79, para.4. Back

162   Ev 78, paras.1&3.1. Back

163   Ev 95, p.2. Back

164   Q 16 Back

165   Q 15 Back

166   National Foundation for Educational Research, What works in enabling school improvement? The role of the middle tier (Slough, 2013), p 4 Back

167   Q 16 Back

168   Q 117 Back

169   Oral evidence taken before the Education Committee on 13 February 2013, HC (2012-13) 980-i, Q 40 Back

170   Department for Education, The Importance of Teaching: the Schools White Paper 2010, Cm 7980, November 2010, para 5.28 Back

171   Hutchings, et al (2012) Back

172   Q 50 Back

173   "Unseen Children" Speech by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, 20 June 2013 Back

174   Q 166 Back

175   Q 124 [Sean Harford] Back

176   Q 125 [Professor Woods] Back

177   Access and achievement: recommendations, Ofsted, 20 June 2013, Back

178   Ev 50 Back

179   Ev w52, part 3 para 4 Back

180   Ev 55 Back

181   Hutchings et al (2012) Evaluation of the City Challenge programme. Research Report DFE-RR215, Department for Education. Back

182   Hutchings et al (2012) Evaluation of the City Challenge programme. Research Report DFE-RR215, Department for Education, p 9 Back

183   Q130 [Professor Berwick] Back

184   Ibid. Back

185   Q110 [Dr John Dunford] Back

186   Q130 [Kirston Nelson] Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 6 November 2013