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Support for school sponsors

25 May 2012

A recent survey has shown that one in four headteachers are keen to explore becoming an approved sponsor within the next twelve months and become responsible for turning around a struggling school. This is good news for the government who are actively encouraging high-performing schools to look at how they can help other schools in their community, not only by becoming sponsors but also by forming groups of academies where high-performing schools have rights of intervention in poor-performing schools.

A slow take-up

Clearly sponsoring another school should not be rushed into by schools. Ideally there should be a good existing relationship between the schools and the sponsor schools must show the DfE that they are confident they have the capacity, resource and strategy on how to raise the supported schools level of attainment.

Though the level of interest looks promising, the take-up of accredited sponsors has been slow to date. Why? The survey shows that more than half (57) of all recently converted academies feel they lack knowledge to become a sponsor and said they could benefit from more guidance and support both throughout and after the process.

A well-structured academy group can help school leaders confidently meet the three main pillars of the governments reform programme: raising standards through supporting and attracting high quality teachers, accountability and autonomy.

Group mentality

Many schools have demonstrated a reluctance to engage in sponsorship, but not because they are too busy "luxuriating in their own outstandingness". Schools looking to venture into a multi-academy group structure must acknowledge that in return for the benefits of collaboration, they have to yield some of their autonomy - and this is often the stalling point. For those schools that get it right, the blend of support and challenge at all levels throughout the schools can be empowering.

School governors need support and information to see the wider picture. Sharing resources and increased purchasing-power are obvious benefits of groups, but the real impact can be seen in schools who embrace the collaborative nature of shared governance arrangements and use this to concentrate on pedagogical benefits, relying on each others strengths and tackling each others weaknesses to raise the level of attainment across the group. School-to-school improvement, shared training, hiring staff to work across schools for pupils with SEN, shared performance management of staff, sharing curriculum initiatives across schools and looking at new ways of income generation are just some of the ways groups are working together to self-improve. There is concrete evidence that this works, illustrated by Oftsed's 2011 survey which showed that schools who join together to raise standards, see improvements across teaching and learning, behaviour and pupils achievement.

Academy status is by no means a safe harbour from outside intervention. With levels of autonomy being tapered with accountability, the importance of schools joining together in groups to support each other should not be underestimated.

Inform and support

If schools who want to become sponsors or enter into groups are given clear information, guidance and appropriate support they could make a real difference in their community. The statistics show there is a need for such support, which if given would increase the number of schools looking to become an approved sponsor to 73. It is therefore important that in furthering their flagship policy, the DfE take notice of the perceived knowledge gaps and take steps to fan the flames of interest rather than risk extinguishing them.

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