School systems: doing it for themselves?


  • Education
  • Schools


Two months late, and in anticipation of tomorrow’s launch of our Academies Commission report, here are some reflections from a very valuable National College for School Leadership seminar on self-improving school systems. The college is dealing well with both reduced budgets and; the risks that come through conversion to an ‘executive agency’ of the Department of Education. In truth, even as an NDPB the relationship between Department and College was usually less arms length and more Venus De Milo. But school leaders are rightly asking the College to exploit its privileged position within government without going totally native. It’s a space that the interim Chief Executive Maggie Farrar is occupying with astuteness and panache.

At the seminar, David Hargreaves discussed his fourth think piece on the development of a self-improving school system in England, and offered views on progress made since 2010. Nearly three years since the white paper on the Importance of Teaching stated that “our aim should be to create a school system which is more effectively self-improving “, my own 3-point progress report reads as follows: 

1.       The system as a whole is up for the self-improvement challenge.

Education leaders, whether in schools, local authorities or academy providers, largely ‘get’ that this government is serious about a self-improving system, and that self improvement will only happen through collaboration. If there is recalcitrance to collaborate, it is probably down more to the prevailing uncertainties in policy direction than to the decisions that have actually been made.

 2.       Converter academies, despite government hopes and the fantastic work of some headteachers and chains, are insufficiently committed to and involved in school to school support and system leadership.

Whether this is due to genuine under-commitment, or the within-school capacity issues that come with conversion, it may be too early to say. But it is clear that conversion comes with very weak collaborative strings attached. If individual academies want to go for splendid isolation, there’s not much stopping them, and too many are taking the money and freedoms and running.

3.       Teaching schools and especially teaching school alliances are positioning themselves to go beyond leadership of ITT and CPD towards full system leadership.

Teaching Schools appear to have a confused, multiplying set of expectations placed upon them, for very little funding. Despite or possibly because of this predicament, many are poised to grow their remit and influence. This is less mission creep and more mission clarification.


So overall, in response to Ben Levin’s question about whether we are ‘creating an institutional context that promotes or prevents collaboration’ I am generally optimistic about our education system’s collaborative potential. New drivers are coming into play. Austerity, which has barely touched school budgets (although is deeply affecting the budgets of the families they serve) could force the pace, catalysing the creation of harder federations, especially between small, otherwise-unviable primary schools. There is also the succession planning opportunity of a large number of retiring headteachers to exploit, possibly replacing them with a smaller number of executive heads. Emerging new technologies could support progress on all four of Hargreaves' ‘criteria for deep partnerships’.

However, I would also agree with Hargreaves’ prediction that the next few years will see the growth of a scattered and weakly connected self-improving sub-systems of school....but not yet a self improving school system”.  I suggest four additional foundations that need to be considered if we really are going to move towards a self-improving system.

First, sustainable self-improvement will need policies that encourage genuine self-determination, so that schools have authorship and ownership over ends as well as means. To avoid the risk expressed in the DfE White Paper that “the attempt to secure automatic compliance with central government initiatives reduces the capacity of the school system to improve itself”, schools need what one seminar participant described as  ‘the authority to determine the values of an education system.’ The new curriculum is a key opportunity and battleground here.

Second (and if Gove favours it for the press, why not for schools?) schools need to move to a culture of collective self-regulation - self and peer evaluation of their own performance against nationally and locally agreed goals. Challenge Partners has led the way here. Government should commit to a declining role for external inspection, in proportion to educational success, so that OFSTED gradually becomes an external moderator of collective self-regulation.

Third, schools should have a broader conception of ‘self’, and look to other people and organisations to support system improvement. Kevan Collins talked recently about a local mosque that had been successfully commissioned by Tower Hamlets Council to help reduce truancy, especially those caused by in-term visits to Bangladesh. Schools, if delegated budgets for collective approaches to school improvement, should sometimes look beyond schools for the best solutions.

Finally, system leaders need to learn the art of self-deprecation. From various off-record conversations, there is a feeling that headteachers as a tribe are developing a reputation for being self-satisfying, self-aggrandising, and self-serving, even when in the act of system improvement. This, of course, is a caricature - headteachers are as heterogeneous as any other group of leaders. One leader of a teaching school alliance talked at the seminar about the subtle differences between leadership language and partnership language, to keep the values and egos of all participating schools on board.

At its deepest level, the transformation towards a self-improving school system is a behaviour change issue, one that requires adaptive rather than technical solutions. As part of a new project on ‘re-minding education’, we are working with the RSA’s social brain centre to understand how research from neuroscience and behavioural economics might contribute to our understanding about how schools and teachers can best collaborate for improvement. Please get in touch with your insights and ideas. The project is not even half-formed yet, so this is a perfect time to shape our thinking.

Thanks to Shipa Nessa for her support with this blog. Shipa in on a short placement at RSA through Ladies Who Learn, a project developed by RSA Fellow Asma Shah with the support of Catalyst funding.

Criteria for a deep partnership (in ascending order of difficulty)


  • Joint practice development is well established within and between schools in the partnership.

  • Social capital is high within and between schools in the partnership.

  • Collective moral purpose is a value shared and enacted by all stakeholders, including students, within the partnership.

  • Evaluation and challenge are practiced at every level within and between schools. 

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