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Working together: raising standards

1 July 2013

One aspect of the current education reforms which has been somewhat overshadowed by the spotlight being placed on academies and free schools is the new emphasis on school to school support. Whilst this has often taken place on an informal basis, there are structures available to support such activities on a longer term and sustainable basis and which may not require schools to become academies.

We hope to provide an overview of structured collaboration which may become more relevant as local authority support services roll back from the education sector. As with many things on the education reform agenda, this is an issue which governors cannot shy away from and should proactively explore options. However, whether collaborative opportunities can be harnessed will depend on the ethos and mindset of the schools involved.

School Companies and Collaborative Partnership

With the diminished role of the local authorities, schools are forced to look elsewhere for support and services. All across the country schools belonging to tentative local partnerships are coming together to formalise their arrangements, often through the use of a company. Members of a school company (being the governing bodies of the member schools and academy trusts) are not involved in the general running of the companys affairs, but retain control by being able to appoint and remove directors from the board. The flexibility of the company models governance arrangements means that the directors can make decisions quickly and risks are ring-fenced through limited liability (thereby protecting the member schools from the risk of any financial loss).

A collaborative agreement can sit behind the company to be entered into between the company and the member schools. This agreement sets out the aims and objectives of the company and includes important protections for the member schools, in particular, restrictions on the activities the company may carry out without member schools consent, effectively a right of veto over certain key decisions.

A company can be used to help member schools benefit from economies of scale by bulk-buying services, employing staff across schools to work with children with SEN or behaviour problems, sharing CPD and training opportunities and self-evaluating and monitoring each other. This will only work in a culture where collaboration triumphs over competition. By supporting each other and helping each other raise standards by addressing weaknesses in schools, David Hargreaves vision of a self-improving school system is well on its way to being realised.

Impact of federations and academy chains on local collaboration

Federations in the maintained sector and Academy chains are the best placed organisations to fill the role of system leaders to work beyond individual schools and support the wider system. Collaborative arrangements between organisations have limits. This point was well made by Lord Adonis who stated that when a governor of a school supporting other schools at arms length through collaborative arrangements wakes up, his first thoughts will be about the issues and challenges at the school he is a governor of. If you compare this to a governor of a group or chain who has responsibility for all the schools, when they wake he will worry about the issues and challenges at all the schools he is responsible for. Whilst this may be a subtle distinction it is a very important distinction, particularly in the context of system leadership.

Recently, Ofsted published a report which demonstrated the positive impact federations had in improving standards in schools. The report clearly showed the importance of shared governance in delivering school improvement and effective collaboration between schools. School leaders are having to ensure the effective operation of their school(s), deal with smaller budgets with little access to capital funding and increasing formal accountability and keep abreast of the changing educational landscape, particularly the changing role of local authorities and their budgets. They cannot do this alone. The use of a federated governing body or an academy group structure across a number of schools is becoming an increasingly popular choice, building on this idea of shared governance to raise standards.

There will always be competition in the education sector as schools try to maximise funding through increased school rolls and a better public perception through improved Ofsted grading. However, where good practice and expenditure can be shared between schools a more collaborative system will allow a greater focus on raising standards and better education for the pupils within the education system.

This article was first published in Governing Matters

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