Academies and free schools - Education Contents

4  Collaboration and partnership in a school-led system

Role of collaboration in a self-improving system

108. Andreas Schleicher told us that "You can have great autonomous schools, but that does not necessarily affect the system as a whole […] building a strong system around [local discretion] is where I see the greatest challenges are, so that knowledge and good experience spreads through the system".[175]

109. In November 2013 we published a report on School Partnerships and Cooperation, which examined how best to promote collaboration and ensure that it continued to drive improvement in the education system.[176] We also recognised the increasingly important part academies will play in a self-improving system.[177]

110. In evidence to this inquiry the DfE wrote that:

    Collaboration is a defining feature of the academies programme. As academies have been freed from local authority control they are leading a developing system of school-to-school support: sharing expertise, providing challenge and improving standards across the education sector.

    Academies sit at the heart of teaching school alliances. 185 of the 357 teaching schools are academies (52 primaries, 124 secondary and 9 special academies). Teaching schools provide outstanding initial training, robust teacher development and strong leadership—all based around a sound understanding of "what works". They establish a network of alliances that drive significant improvement in the quality of professional practice, improving the attainment of every child. 1,100 academies are part of these teaching school alliances. [178]

111. In an autonomous system, collaborative partnerships are seen as essential in order to provide challenge, expertise and economies of scale. MATs are one form of such partnerships but a number of witnesses expressed the view that federations offer the same benefits. Frank Green, the Schools Commissioner, felt that there was little distinction between an academy MAT and a hard federation (which exist in the maintained sector), stating that "The multi academy trust is a hard federation […] by another name. They are the same thing, and that is the greatest strength you have in getting school to school improvement."[179] This view was supported by the headteacher of Sleaford Primary, Helen Fulcher, who was in a federation brokered by the local authority; she stressed that it was the partnership that is effective, rather than the structure of the school or trust.[180]

Monitoring collaboration

112. In our report on collaboration, we raised concerns about the monitoring of the commitment given by converter academies to assist other schools.[181] Evidence given to us at the time indicated that converters were not fulfilling their obligations and that the DfE was not doing enough to ensure that they should.[182] Since then, the DfE has surveyed academies asking whether they support other schools and found that 91 per cent of converters say they do so.[183] We note that they have not taken our advice to survey the recipients of the support rather than those supposed to give it. Of 250 academies surveyed by Ofsted in the summer of 2014, less than a quarter (most of whom were in a MAT) mentioned partnerships as a benefit of conversion. Ofsted inspectors found very few cases where schools in the requires improvement category had used school-to-school support, whilst 90% of them had received support from the local authority.[184]

113. The DfE confirmed that because "collaboration is not a formal part of the funding agreement it is not monitored through formal academy accountability systems".[185] In evidence to the PAC, Russell Hobby of the NAHT made the point that funding agreements do not define "engaging with other schools, so it can include a wide range of practices, from taking over another school to offering advice now and again".[186] There is still therefore no formal monitoring of a converter academy's collaboration with other schools, nor is it formally set out in the funding agreement how deep or extensive that engagement should be.

Incentives to collaborate

114. In February 2014 the DfE told us that "48% of all academies are in some form of group",[187] which implies that more incentives may be needed to encourage all schools to collaborate. One possibility raised with us was making collaboration obligatory. Sir Michael Wilshaw argued that:

    In a school to school improvement system, I think the future is ensuring that all schools, whether they are academies or not, join a cluster, a federation, a collaboration of some kind or another. If they are already in an academy chain, fine. However, if they are not, I think an element of compulsion is necessary—to say, "You have got to join a cluster of schools." The "outstanding" leaders within that cluster will monitor the performance of those schools. I see the future for Ofsted as inspecting the cluster rather than individual institutions. [188]

115. Sir Michael suggested the introduction of a new grade for outstanding headteachers based on their collaboration with other schools.[189] The Academies Commission recommended that evidence of collaboration in support of other, local schools should form part of the Ofsted inspection criteria and that schools should provide evidence on effective partnerships in order to retain an outstanding rating.[190] This was supported in evidence to us by Warwick Mansell, who argued that converter academies will only be compelled to collaborate if they are held accountable for it.[191]

116. There was not universal agreement on this. Jay Altman warned that prescribing collaboration did not create effective partnerships, but instead led to "people collaborating for the sake of collaboration, without it being focused on creating better schools."[192] Lucy Heller of Ark agreed that effective collaboration must be voluntary, and that schools must want to work together if benefits are to be felt across all schools in the partnership. She told us:

    The problem is that collaboration works and is important; conscription generally doesn't in these cases. In order for there to be school improvement, you have to have two willing partners: a school that has the capacity to help to drive improvement in another; and a school that is willing to be helped. I see nothing in the system that stops that from happening, but I am sceptical about whether enforced powers from the local authority or anybody to insist that schools collaborate will generate the results that you want.[193]

117. The Secretary of State was against forced collaboration, professing that "I would prefer to incentivise, whether through specific funding mechanisms or just by people seeing that collaboration absolutely works".[194] This chimes with the evidence we heard from heads who were in collaborative structures and who spoke of the importance of "shared vision" and the head of a primary Multi Academy Trust identified "shared accountability" as the motivation for all in the trust to contribute to the collective good of the schools involved. [195]

Brokering collaboration

118. During the inquiry we heard from a number of witnesses that effective partnerships were made possible only through effective brokerage. Dame Sally Coates told us:

    I have learned more from visiting schools and talking to other school heads than anywhere else or any course I have ever been on. Unfortunately, you need someone to broker it. If it is a network chain, they will broker that collaboration and get it going. I am very happy to collaborate with anybody but, if nobody brokers it, then it does not happen.[196]

119. In our report on collaboration we recognised the critical role of local authorities in creating an enabling environment within which collaboration can flourish.[197] In Hull we heard further support amongst witnesses for the local authority as an effective broker with knowledge of local educational needs and provision.[198] Local authority witnesses agreed that they had "a key role in being a broker", involving academies as well as maintained schools, and that they were "doing huge amounts around brokering".[199] John Clarke from Hampshire County Council explained that it was the detailed local knowledge that was key: local authorities could "identify issues that are particular to geographical areas" in order to "help the schools locally to work together".[200]

Conclusions and recommendations

120. Collaboration is essential in a self-improving school system in order to provide challenge, support and economies of scale. Harnessing the effectiveness of partnerships to raise school performance is particularly important where schools are autonomous. More needs to be done to encourage collaboration and ensure that it happens. We recommend that Ofsted include evidence of collaboration in its inspection criteria and that a school must demonstrate effective partnership with another school in order to be judged 'outstanding'.

121. Evidence to the inquiry suggests that collaboration is much more likely to occur and be effective if it is brokered by a third party, such as a trust or local authority. Effective brokering of collaboration between schools must be planned and considered, to ensure that the partnership is advantageous to both parties, rather than cumbersome, and real rather than cosmetic.

122. We have heard evidence that local authorities can be effective at brokering school partnerships. We recommend that the Government set out how it will incentivise the spread of this best practice, including through Ofsted. The codification we have recommended of the responsibilities of local authorities with regard to academies should include their role in ensuring effective collaboration between all schools.

123. We recommend that the DfE strengthen its monitoring of the collaboration of converter academies with other schools. We also recommend that the Secretary of State seek to renegotiate all existing funding agreements to introduce a requirement for collaboration for school improvement purposes and that all future agreements include this requirement.

175   Q180 Back

176   Education Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2013-14, School Partnerships and Cooperation, HC 269 Back

177   Ibid, para 101 Back

178   Department for Education (AFS0066) para 37-8 Back

179   Q580 [Frank Green] Back

180   Q800 Back

181   Education Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2013-14, School Partnerships and Cooperation, HC 269, para 101, 97 Back

182   Ibid, paras 95 to 98  Back

183   Department for Education (AFS0137) page 2 Back

184   Ofsted Annual Report on Schools 2013/14, p34 Back

185   Ibid Back

186   Oral evidence taken before the taken before the Public Accounts Committee on 17 November 2014, HC (2014-15) 735, Q22 Back

187   Q9 [Dominic Herrington] Back

188   Oral evidence taken on 9 July 2014, HC (2014-15) 473, Q30 Back

189   Ibid, Q32 Back

190   Academies Commission, Unleashing greatness: getting the best from an academised system (London, 2013) Back

191   Q876 Back

192   Q815 Back

193   Q446 Back

194   Q1201 Back

195   Q743; Q695 Back

196   Q339 [Dame Sally Coates] Back

197   Education Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2013-14, School Partnerships and Cooperation, HC 269, rec 16 Back

198   Qq756, 757 Back

199   Q1056 [David Whalley; John Readman] Back

200   Q440 [John Clarke] Back

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Prepared 27 January 2015