‘Doing’ Teaching Schools as a Member of SLT

Posted on June 9, 2013


This ‘doing’ post is all about the work that I have been engaged in as a Deputy Head in the last year and a half or so. It comes with a bit of a health warning in that the school I am employed by is not actually a Teaching School. Last year we received a grant for building capacity towards becoming one and, through this, we have become strategic partners in two Teaching School Alliances (TSAs from here on) and an enthusiastic and committed participant in another. That said we have really got to know our stuff in the time I have been working on this programme and this post is intended to reflect this hard-earned knowledge and understanding of what could be the most far-reaching of the Gove-era reforms.

Because Teaching Schools are still very much finding their feet in a radically altered education landscape much of what I will write in this post is predictive in nature. It is my attempt to see the trajectory of what has come to pass so far to suggest ways in which I see (and in some instances hope) the programme developing in the next five to ten years. As with all predictions much of what I say could be contested and doubtless much will be proven to be wrong, but I think any member of SLT charged with the responsibility of leading a Teaching School needs to anticipate the arc and run ahead of it. After all that’s pretty much what Teaching Schools ought to be about, isn’t it? And if you’re reading this as a member of an SLT that doesn’t have anyone designated as having responsibility for Teaching Schools then (a) you should, and (b) skip straight to my second leading statement below.

Teaching Schools are a ruddy good idea
Not an awful lot to say about this one: they just are. The links with Teaching Hospitals are sometimes overblown, but this is a really opportunity for the school system to show genuine autonomy, self-organisation and confidence in our professionalism. If the Royal College of Teaching comes to pass (and other than the Royal bit I sincerely hope it does) then Teaching Schools will have on over-arching structure for this professional identity that is notably lacking in comparison to the medical, legal, accountancy and numerous other professions. TSAs, if done well, are infinitely more preferable to the imposed command and control mechanisms by which system improvement has been led in the past, be that the DfE, local authorities, Ofsted or even the emergent academy chains. We need to embrace this system and, in spite of its inherent shortcomings and inevitable teething problems, make it work for individual schools and the system as a whole.

All schools should seek to engage in a TSA in some way
For this reason I believe that all schools should be involved with a TSA in whatever way they can best contribute. By the fourth wave of designations sometime next spring there will be 500 TSAs with a better spread across the country than was the case after the first two waves. Simply put there is no reason not to be engaged with one or more TSAs, a fact that will become more and more pressing as the impact of mass academisation comes to be felt.

Schools do not need to be geographically bound in their choice of TSA. Sometimes local politics between schools can make joining an alliance seem like capitulation and so, if you are the SLT with responsibility for Teaching Schools you may want to look beyond your traditional boundaries. As long as you can show your commitment as an alliance member or strategic partner there will be an alliance that will welcome you, particularly as many ‘sleeping’ members of TSAs are virtually comatose and the lead school has a number of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that they need to meet. My school is now co-leading on a R&D project with a TSA from another borough simply because we agreed to take part and attended every meeting. The result has been phenomenal for teachers at our school and others in our own borough.

As well as not being constrained by geography (or local authority boundaries) nor do schools need to only take a punt on one TSA. One of the things I like most about the Teaching School programme is that it brings opportunities for individual teachers in terms of their teaching: we have already had three take the Outstanding Teacher Programme (two of whom have gone on to the Outstanding Facilitator accreditation to deliver the OTP) and another two who have worked with peers in two local schools to work in triads designed to improve their practice. It also brings opportunities for leaders, with two of our staff on the Middle Leader Development Programme and another two starting their NPQSL. Within the two alliances more of these opportunities will arise, not least of all SLE accreditation. Clearly the member of SLT with responsibility will need to consider the sustainability of committing staff to these development opportunities, but once embedded within two or more alliances and recognised as a valued contributor schools can be more selective about what they choose to engage with. In the first instance though I strongly recommend taking the strain of active commitment as it enhances significantly the outward, as well as the inward, focus of your staff and this is likely to become more and more important to the Teaching School system over time.

The Big 6 will become bigger and bigger as time goes by
For the uninitiated ‘The Big 6’ are Initial Teacher Training (ITT), Continuing Professional Development (CPD), Leadership Development & Talent Management, School-to-School Support (S2SS), Specialist Leaders of Education (SLEs) and Research & Development (R&D). These are the aspects of a TSA’s work by which they will be judged and, ultimately, retain their designation and they are so important that they even have their own logo!!

Speak to any SLT member with responsibility for Teaching Schools and they will tell you that the expectations on the delivery of ‘The Big 6’ have already been ramped up significantly. This summer Charley Taylor is restructuring the inherited systems of the National College for School Leadership and Teaching Agency to create new regional structures for the new successor agency, the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL). Interestingly, Sir Michael Wilshaw has already appointed regional leaders for Ofsted and I have a deep-seated suspicion that the regionalisation of both bodies is not coincidental. Having spoken with civil servants at the NCTL recently and asked them about the likelihood of this I have yet to receive a definitive no and have sensed a nudge and a wink in their responses.

If the NCTL, as the parent agency of Teaching Schools, does align itself more closely with Ofsted then we can expect to see some very hard-edged expectations coming down the line (more of this later in this post) and ‘The Big 6’ will become hugely important indicators of the impact of a TSA, perhaps even for an Ofsted inspection schedule. After all it will make little sense to keep inspecting local authorities for education provision once the academisation of primary schools reaches the levels of secondaries: why wouldn’t TSAs become the focus for accountability and impact assessment? None of which, by the way, is a reason not to get involved but is very much a reason to get involved well and for the right reasons.

ITT: School Direct is not going away so get on board
At recent meetings about Teaching Schools it is evident that School Direct is the DfE-preferred and is going to become the most common method of entry into the teaching profession and TSAs are the focal point of this strategy. From this year the money for the salaried route (preferable for moving staff with degrees into teaching) will be going to schools and it is highly likely that, as soon as they change statutes to do so, the DfE will push funding for the non-salaried route to schools to, giving those of us engaged with Teaching Schools tremendous autonomy and control of ITT provision. It will also change significantly our relationships with university partners in teacher training, pushing them into proving their quality and competitiveness.

More importantly perhaps it gives TSAs the opportunity to shape what and how our profession’s new entrants are taught. Clearly there will be more focus on the craft of teaching whilst on the job, with the attendant concerns that there will be less academic rigour (although this could be offset by better academic provision for recently qualified and experienced teachers). The main stumbling block for School Direct comes with the recruitment of potential students onto the non-salaried route. The expectation that they will have all-but-guaranteed places after their training is making individual schools wary of this route and this is where alliances can be at their most effective, with the almost-promise of a job being shared across schools. I suspect that time and confidence in the system will ease this pressure.

Another issue with recruitment to non-salaried School Direct is that for most schools and applicants it is seen as almost identical to PGCE at this current time. This means that applicants are also applying for PGCE courses at the same time and could mean many September 2013 places offered on School Direct not being taken up. For schools it means that we are offering places to people almost two years before they will be NQTs with us, creating a good deal of uncertainty compared to the days when it was all in the control of the universities.

To my mind schools need to learn the lessons of Teach First and move away from an over-reliance on a PGCE model for School Direct (they can continue to rely on the real PGCE model which will still exist). Instead of focusing on non-salaried routes we should be offering more salaried places and committing to intensive summer schools for teachers starting as unqualified teachers in training in September. This will simultaneously tease out the differences between PGCE and School Direct candidates and shorten the time between recruitment and newly qualified status. This is not to say I agree with a move to a QTS-only approach ahead of a
PGCE approach, but that both models can work to best reflect the personal circumstances and needs of the teacher trainee.

CPD: TSAs need to work collaboratively on INSET
I’m not going to say a great deal about this element of the work of TSAs, as CPD is perhaps the best known aspect to members of SLT with responsibility for Teaching Schools. The main point to be made is that TSAs are a federation of schools, however hard or soft that federation may be on paper, and as such need to bring their CPD provision increasingly together. Most importantly in this is the need to continue to shift our perceptions about CPD being little more than SLT-led INSET plus external courses: that model is dead.

Instead we need to seek to understand the relative areas of strength and need within our school, be prepared to share these openly with our alliance partners and have a continued commitment to aligning the strengths of one school with the needs of others. Once we have done that, and only when we have done that, can we plan an effective alliance-wide CPD model that may well involve greater amounts of personalised, disaggregated, peer-to-peer and cross-school INSET. The one-size-fits-all model, so redolent of the top-down National Strategies, is obsolescent if not yet obsolete.

Talent: NCTL courses are only one strand of leadership development
The National College awarded 4-year licences for the delivery of their professional qualifications like the NPQH in 2012. This has located the teaching of these courses away from the classroom-removed consultants who had come to dominate and brought more existing teachers into the delivery mix, which is very welcome. It has also ensured that providers have greater flexibility in what is taught, how it is taught and when it is assessed, which is again all to the good.

The main problem with these newly structured NCTL-accredited courses is that they are still seen as the default provision for potential and existing leaders within schools. And the main problem with that is that they are creating a very homogeneous group of system leaders and (in my opinion) stifling the more creative, unique and even maverick leaders or leadership qualities. Teaching Schools and their alliances have it within their hands to create and accredit, through closer partnerships with well chosen university partners, their own leadership courses rooted in a local context and building upon the particular rather than generic strengths of existing leaders. They also then have the capability of marketing these courses beyond the geographical confines of their own alliance in order to put pressure on the NCTL providers to be as good as the best of them, building in more heterogeneity of experience that better reflects a healthy range of leadership styles and influences.

S2SS: Peer support will become THE key measure of TSAs success
I’ve already made this point but I genuinely believe that Ofsted and the NCTL are being deliberately aligned by Michael Gove into regional structures (the logical endgame of the assault upon local authority control started kn 1988) and that Teaching Schools are going to be drawn inexorably into this mix. Here’s my take on what it might look like.

1. An Ofsted regionally-approved team inspects a school and deems it to be in a category OR a school consistently falls below floor targets.

2. The NCTL regional office are called upon to appoint a partner to either get the school out of the category or take over the school (or both).

3. A Teaching School Alliance (or academy chain) is assigned to provide the school-to-school support necessary to get the school out of the category or train it’s new leadership team up.

4. Ofsted re-visits the school reporting both upon its improvement and the impact of the TSA upon the changed outcomes of the inspection, reporting back to the NCTL.

5. The NCTL makes decisions about re-deployment of the alliance or de-designation of the Teaching School based on ongoing effectiveness in school-to-school-support.

This is my biggest prediction about the future of Teaching Schools and, if it comes true, might be one to impact on the sleep patterns of Headteachers of designated Teaching Schools. To my mind though, however scary a concept this is for Teaching Schools and their alliances it is actually a better model for schools under notice to improve or in special measures than repeated monitoring visits by Ofsted could ever be. It is also, and as an ardent supporter of local democracy I hate to say this, a better model than many local authorities deploy particularly now in the era of vastly-shrunken school improvement departments within local authorities. It is also fundamentally what being a Teaching School ought to be about: they are not meant to be simply a business model for printing money from former local authority services. They are lead schools who should know what to do when the chips are down.

SLEs: Non-Headteacher system leaders will be the driver of TSAs
I love the concept of SLEs almost as much as I love the concept of Teaching Schools. As we emerge blinkingly and wincingly hungover from the heady brew of the Heroic Headteacher era this reform has the hallmarks of the distributive Trojan Mouse system leadership style that I promote so often in these blogposts of mine. Quite simply put the capacity of our school system leadership is only as large as our capacity to hand over the leadership of it to leaders at all levels of our schools, including those with no formal leadership roles.

The member of SLT with responsibility for Teaching Schools needs to ensure that they are shaping the structure of SLEs by contributing to the needs analysis that informs recruitment, that they are ensuring their own staff apply and are designated and are deployed and are effective in their deployment. In particular they need to ensure that TSAs don’t see SLE status simply as another badge for the school or individual but instead regard it as an opportunity to engage non-Heads and non-SLT members in genuine and genuinely meant system improvement. To do this they need to ensure that there is a driving philosophy and vision behind the process that is shared by all and that fundamentally emphasises the view that collaboration is an integral element of healthy competition. Too often system improvement is seen as a zero-sum game whereby the improvement in the provision and outcomes of a neighbouring school is felt as a threat to the provision and outcomes of the supporting school. We need to be better than that and SLEs are the people to achieve this aim with, by and through.

R&D: Research work will drive an improved ethos of professionalism
So far R&D has been a rather minor element of the Teaching School ‘Big 6’ mix, but all the signs are there that it will grow exponentially now that the structures are there to enhance it. The establishment of the Education Endowment Fund (EEF), the Sutton Trust’s work to investigate effect sizes for Pupil Premium interventions, the changed and changing funding relationships between schools and universities, the decision to engage Ben Goldacre in promoting randomised control trials (RCTs) in education, the involvement of the Teacher Development Trust in identifying the need for a Royal College of Teaching are all signs that research and development is being taken increasingly seriously by this government. Added to that is the fact that Teaching Schools are openly modelled on the Teaching Hospital system and the member of SLT in charge of Teaching Schools can safely assume that more and more opportunities to engage teachers in research are on their way.

We need to systematise research work by our teachers. At present in many schools the teacher engages with an MA by themselves or, in some instances with colleagues who are also undergoing the same MA at the same time. Occasionally there are schools who collaborate on delivery of masters courses and within that may have an element of collaboration of research aims, but all too often this research is isolated to the individual teacher, school or partnership. TSAs allow for greater collaboration on the aims of a research topic across a wider number of schools and, through the opportunities offered by the NCTL, across a wider number of TSAs. Where those of us with responsibility for ‘doing’ Teaching Schools can improve on this is to begin to be more proactive in seeking research opportunities, more thoughtful in setting research aims and more rooted in research methodology that is robust alongside our colleagues in universities and other researchers.

If we can do this we can access for ourselves funding from the EEF and other funding bodies, rather than waiting for the opportunities to come to us. As a consequence of this we can set the research agenda ourselves, rather than wait for the agenda to be set for us. And as a consequence of this we can better influence or even set the political agenda ourselves, rather than constantly being bombarded with policies driven by ill-informed ministerial peccadilloes or media-driven popularity contests. That is the outward-facing professional ethos I want for our education system and it will be concurrent with an inward-facing professional ethos of improved methodologies being deployed by ever-greater numbers of teacher-researchers. If all of that can sit alongside the establishment of a Royal College of Teaching then the local systems of TSA research can be aggregated into a national professional body that feeds back in the findings of that past research even as it coordinates the future research emerging from it. All in all a potentially virtuous circle of professionalism in research and development.

Governance: TSAs need to be utterly open and democratic
Governance is the suspiciously silent seventh element of the Teaching School system and, for me, is the most vital to get right. Already I see some TSAs getting this very wrong and it worries me immensely. As a federation every TSA needs to balance the needs to move quickly on demands made by the DfE and NCTL (which are often working to a short and medium term political agenda rather than a long-term educational one) with the need for transparency and ethics in its organisation. Governance and leadership structures within an alliance are vital to this. They need to enable all schools within the alliance (and even beyond?) to contribute and shape the agenda as befits their capacity to contribute, and they need to avoid embedded hierarchies that exclude some as they allow others to have undue influence. This mistake made by some already had already fed into the suspicion-mill and exacerbated a them-and-us mentality.

The member of SLT with responsibility for Teaching Schools needs to ensure that they influence at the very highest governance structures of their alliance and, in the first instance whilst the whole Teaching School project is in a state of flux, this is best achieved by knowing as much as you can know and doing as much as you can do. But it is not enough to find yourself and your school a seat at the table of power and then end up looking like the pigs at the end of Orwell’s Animal Farm. Instead you need to ensure that the ladder isn’t pulled up leaving others abandoned, forgotten and voiceless because that is not the path to a healthy and sustainable alliance and this model, for the reasons outlined above, is a far too precious thing to be rendered irrelevant by shabby power-grabbing.

Teaching Schools are a ruddy good idea, but…
…there are many threats on the horizon, many of which are implicit in this post. I’m afraid that we do have to accept that locally accountable mechanisms are either decaying or already defunct. We can apply electricity to the corpse all we want but it ain’t no Lazarus and there ain’t no Jesus going to stumble upon it anyway. With that very much in mind the member of SLT with responsibility for ‘doing’ Teaching Schools (and remember I said that I think all schools should have one) needs to scan the horizon and see what other ‘middle tier’ structures or systems can replace them. And they do need to be replaced. Personally I don’t have much truck with academy chains. I also don’t want to wait for a regionalised Ofsted or even NCTL to fill the void. Most of all though I don’t want to bear witness to a post-academisation world that leaves all schools alone and undefended as the vultures circle overhead: we are not carrion nor can we allow others to be so.

As I scan the terrain that sometimes appears as bleak as Death Valley, with an accountability agenda that is as unforgiving as a scorching sun, I do spy an oasis of hope in the form of the emergent Teaching School system. Whether or not it proves to be a mirage is up to us as school leaders who are also system leaders by default. I for one have already rolled up my trousers and taken off my shoes and socks for a paddle. But I want more and am looking to take the plunge. You should join me: the water’s lovely.