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Insight 03/03/2017

Place-based school improvement: three simple suggestions for the Opportunity Areas

By Matt Davis

Having been a teacher, manager, researcher and trainer working in primary, secondary, further and higher education as well as a special school and pupil referral units, Matt Davis is now regional director for the UK at Education Development Trust.

If it's not a contradiction in terms to say so, place-based school improvement is everywhere at the moment. The successes of initiatives such as the London Challenge and Cincinnati's Strive programme have proven what is possible when all the resources of a local system are aligned on a common goal. There is growing recognition that the causes of poor educational attainment and social mobility vary significantly – even at either end of the hour's drive from Blackpool to Oldham; it makes sense then that the solutions to these issues should be created with and by local schools and their communities.

In England, the DfE have recognised this and are proposing to focus significant additional school improvement funding to schools in 12 identified 'opportunity areas' and other local authority areas with the weakest standards and capacity to improve. So what next? What exactly should happen in these opportunity areas? We have some ideas about how to greatly increase the chances of this investment delivering the impact children in these areas deserve. Our ideas are borne out of nearly 50 years of working in education around the world and carrying out extensive research looking at what works and what doesn’t. None of them would cost the earth, but they are ideas with the potential to really make these types of initiatives thrive.

A quick win

The first one is a really quick win: let's make sure all schools are engaged in a formal school-to-school partnership. This is a non-denominational proposal – a MAT, Teaching School Alliance or a formal cluster would all work – with an increasingly convincing evidence base. For example, the emerging evidence from our own Schools Partnership Programme – a framework for peer review and school-to-school support – shows us that schools working in this way are more likely to improve their overall effectiveness by one or more grade when inspected than the national average. By adopting a systematic approach to collaboration, schools can become highly skilled at reviewing and validating one another's self-assessment, bringing the same rigour as external agencies and a real sense of responsibility for their collective performance. The result? A sustainable locally-owned and pro-active model of school improvement.

A revolutionary role for MATs

Our second idea is a bit more radical. However strong the culture of collaboration, some schools will need intensive or specialist resource to help them improve quickly. The most common – and politically preferred – option is for schools which need significant levels of support to be sponsored by a highly effective multi-academy trust. Fine in theory, but in reality, we are seeing that it is unrealistic for the limited numbers of proven MATs to take on high volumes of weak schools due to fears that this will compromise their educational or financial performance.  But what if there was a mutually beneficial, low-risk way for MATs to offer their services to more schools? Allowing MATs to use their proven school improvement interventions to turn around weaker schools through a contracting relationship for a fixed period would let MATs work intensively with schools in need using their proven school improvement methods. If the schools' results were not formally counted as part of the MAT's performance by the DfE, Ofsted or the Regional Schools Commissioner, reputational and financial risks would be minimised. MATs could be contracted to deliver agreed improvement outcomes and held to account as a supplier by the RSC or another local body. Where this contract relationship was successful and performance improves, the transition to formal membership of the MAT can be made from a position of strength. Of course this isn't the only way to help schools improve, but by giving MATs alternative ways to work with schools which need support, we would be adding more options into the mix.

Getting governance right

The third one is superficially simple, but in reality, harder to achieve: getting local governance right. This is crucial to the success of place-based school improvement; we are pretty ambivalent on what this means for structures and entities, but very certain that how local systems go about planning, monitoring and evaluating their work is the difference between success and failure.  Local systems need to set some common objectives to allow schools and partnerships to feel as if they are committed to a common agenda. There needs to be a measuring system which encourages the behaviours and culture they require to succeed – for example, judging the quality and impact of collaboration – and which checks progress against the agreed local objectives. This system must create rich data to help target support from within and outside the local system, and communications and knowledge sharing has to be taken seriously or the initiative risks becoming disjointed and inefficient. Establishing these ways of working is time-consuming and requires specialist skills, but in relation to the benefits it brings the investment, should be a no-brainer.

Three relatively efficient and – we think – highly effective ways to deliver lasting success in place-based school improvement initiatives. This is what we would do – how about you?

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