Nothing succeeds like... by Phil Revell

29 Sep 05
&another 'failing schools' initiative? The government is in a rush to shut down underachieving schools and promote collaboration with outside agencies. But several successful examples of school improvement are already staring it in the face. Phil Revell reports

30 September 2005

... another 'failing schools' initiative? The government is in a rush to shut down underachieving schools and promote collaboration with outside agencies. But several successful examples of school improvement are already staring it in the face. Phil Revell reports

As the government promises yet another radical agenda for the nation's schools, education watchers might be forgiven a moment of cynicism. Downing Street appears to have a limitless supply of radical agendas, which, on closer inspection, are not as freshly minted as the prime minister would have us believe.

The latest policy was road-tested by Education Secretary Ruth Kelly at the Local Government Association conference earlier this month. Failing schools will, she said, be given just 12 months to pull their socks up before facing closure.

'We cannot ask children in our weakest schools to be patient while their school gets a second, third or fourth chance to improve. Being in special measures for more than a year without showing adequate progress must become a thing of the past,' said Kelly.

We have been here before this is but the latest in a succession of radical solutions to the problem of failing schools. We have had name and shame, fresh start, super heads, education action zones, excellence in cities. Each has entered the education arena in a blaze of publicity only to slide off the stage a few years later, usually accompanied by a less than enthusiastic evaluation report. Meanwhile, the problem stubbornly refuses to go away. While only a couple of dozen schools fall into the category of long-term failure, the long tail of pupil underachievement across the country continues to be a concern.

A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development drew attention to the substantial number of students in the UK who leave school without 'baseline qualifications'. Last week's news added to the woe, with figures showing that truancy rates are at an all-time high while the number of working-class entrants to Britain's top 16 universities has fallen. At the heart of this problem is the government's failure to improve secondary school standards. Recent test results for 14-year-olds revealed that one in eight teenage boys could barely read.

In the conference season, the timing could not have been worse or better, if you happened to be an education spokesman for another political party. Conservative shadow schools minister Mark Hoban is sceptical about the government's ability to follow through on its promises.

'The government has been talking tough on failing schools since 1997,' he says. 'They made these same proposals last year but Ruth Kelly failed to take the opportunity of this year's Education Act to put them into practice. How many more pupils will she let down before she takes action to close failing schools?'

The Liberal Democrats focused on the achievement statistics, which show that progress has been slowest in the poorest areas of the country. 'The shocking disparity in achievement between pupils in disadvantaged and well-off areas is a matter for serious concern,' says LibDem education spokesman Ed Davey.

At the National Association of Head Teachers, newly appointed general secretary Mick Brookes bewailed the culture that focuses on the symptoms of failure without looking at the causes. 'We have to find out what the conditions are in schools that prevent teachers and schools from doing their job,' he said. 'The solution lies in empowering schools and teachers, rather than coming down on them with heavy feet all the time.'

Labour's solution relies on a form of school partnership that is neither new nor radical. Kelly told her LGA audience that she was 'interested in seeing how we can work with a variety of potential not-for-profit organisations educational charities, faith and parents' groups, perhaps mutual organisations'.

The new buzzword is collaboration, with the government envisaging a variety of partnership arrangements based on foundation schools and city academies. 'That is why I have recently moved to make it easier for schools to acquire foundation status,' says Kelly.

Foundation schools exist already. Around one-third of state schools are foundations, run by the governing body instead of the local education authority. Usually these schools own their buildings. They can buy into many of the local authority's services, but they are effectively autonomous, free to set their own admissions and manage their day-to-day affairs.

Labour's plans to develop partnerships between these schools will see some join together in a loose federation, while others collaborate on specific projects. Outside bodies would be invited to join them, either as managing agents or as sponsors.

Again, none of this is new. Britain's first federal school, Dunbury Primary, opened in the early 1990s, when Dorset County Council was faced with four neighbouring village schools that were too small to survive. Dorset's solution, truly radical at the time, was to close all four and reopen them as a single school on four sites.

Outside involvement in school management isn't new either. Five years ago, the former Kings' Manor School in Guildford, Surrey became Kings College for the Arts and Technology. Surrey County Council retained ownership, but control was handed over for ten years to 3E's Enterprises, a not-for-profit company and subsidiary of Solihull's successful Kingshurst City Technology College. 3E's went on to take on another Surrey school, France Hill School in Camberley, now Kings International College for Business and the Arts. It also runs the first city academy, the Business Academy, Bexley.

The academy, sponsored by property developer David Garrad, took over the failing Thamesmead Community College. Its results have taken a turn for the better while those at the two Surrey schools have also shown a marked improvement. The four schools under 3E's management are run as a loose federation, the Kingshurst Federation, sharing an ethos and collaborating on curriculum projects and teacher training.

Critical mass is the key for these partnerships. Federation allows the schools to share staff and resources. Leadership and management, universally acknowledged to be the most important factors in school improvement, are strengthened. The leadership team is bigger and the larger unit is able to attract capable candidates for the top job people like Chris Gerry. Gerry, who ran the successful Hugh Christie Technology College in Kent and has worked with several failing schools, has recently taken over as head of New Line Learning, a federation of three schools in Kent.

'In a market-driven model, the better teachers go to the more advantaged schools,' says Gerry. 'You can overcome that by grouping schools together and saying: We're not three different schools, we're three different sites.'

New Line Learning links the Cornwallis secondary school, Oldborough Manor community school and Senacre Community College. As of this September, the three schools have become one, with a single governing body. Oldborough was the weak link, with just 12% of its students gaining five or more A*-C grades at GCSE in 2004. This year that jumped to 31% and Gerry expects the improvement to continue. He plans to spend almost £2m on computers and associated investment. From this September, every new pupil at the federation will be given a laptop computer.

'We're finding most of that money from within the school budgets, by looking at costs critically,' he says. 'We will have a common name, a common logo and uniform, and we plan to publish a common set of results for the three schools.'

Gerry rejects the idea that parents want an identifiable local school. 'It's not about choosing a name,' he says. 'If people wanted that kind of choice, the local high streets would be full of individual stores it's about the product on offer.'

Gerry's idea of the school as a brand is several steps beyond the government's vision for school improvement, but that shouldn't come as a surprise, because, for most of the past ten years, the Department for Education and Skills has trailed in the wake of genuinely radical change. Provision for a single governing body to run several schools was written into the Education Act 2002 but the practice is still rare. Most partnerships are short term with a narrow focus, many involving little more than a commitment to work with a neighbouring school on a curriculum project.

Even where the link is more complex, practice falls far short of the completely new type of school that Gerry envisages. In Birmingham, Ninestiles School has been in a partnership with two other schools: Waverley and the International School. The Ninestiles Federation is led by Sir Dexter Hutt, fêted by ministers and knighted for services to education. The partnership began in 2001 and has been very successful, with hugely improved exam results at the two partner schools. Christine Quinn, a Ninestiles deputy head, moved to the Waverley as head, there were staff exchanges, and Hutt managed the whole process as 'executive head'.

Two years ago Hutt celebrated the success at Waverley. 'The day of the stand-alone school is over,' he said at the time.

This might have been premature, because, for reasons that neither school will discuss with Public Finance, the partnership between Ninestiles and Waverley is now over.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Waverley might now have the capacity to maintain the improvement started under Ninestiles leadership. But some education experts have their doubts. 'The problems that plunge schools into failure are usually linked to a challenging catchment area,' says one senior education officer. 'A formal partnership with another school offers a way out of that cul-de-sac, but heads and governing bodies are not keen on real federations because they are wedded to the vision of the individual school.'

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, thinks that the government should be looking at all models of partnership. 'Collaboration should not just be about failing schools,' he says. 'It should be underpinning the whole school improvement programme. We don't need the private sector coming in telling us what to do. All the expertise we need is in the public sector, but the number of governing bodies that are going to be willing to commit hara-kiri is quite small.'

City academies offer a way out of this impasse. They are created by closing the original school. But the government is running out of sponsors for them, much as the Conservatives did in the 1990s for their prototype city technology colleges.

There's no sign that ministers are prepared to force the pace by giving local authorities the power to close schools and promote permanent federations on the Kent model. The DfES federations website says simply that the department is keen to promote collaboration 'at all levels'.

The fact remains that this successful template for school improvement, which has worked in a number of disadvantaged areas, is not at the centre of the government's radical agenda possibly because it is a touch too radical.