Intelligent accountability Mr Gove? These primaries have their own answer

Fiona Aubrey-Smith, Head of Primary, SSAT writes…

One of the themes of SSAT’s respected Redesigning Schooling campaign is intelligent accountability; where schools take the lead through models of peer accountability, proving that the profession can self-regulate, challenge and support itself. As part of the Redesigning Schooling campaign, SSAT are collating research which evidences the models and impact that this approach has on raising standards across schools. This article shares one such case study.

On 1 June 2013, five Oxfordshire primary schools became the Oxfordshire Primary Education Network (OPEN) trust. All are, or are becoming academies. But as it is an umbrella trust, no one school dominates – a vital factor to the heads, staff and governors involved.

The five members of the OPEN trust
Heather Haigh, headteacher, Cholsey Primary School
David Burrows, headteacher, Ladygrove Park Primary School, Didcot (inc nursery)
John Hawkins, headteacher, Manor Primary School, Didcot
Jane Ratcliffe, headteacher, St John’s Primary School, Wallingford
Jane Hemery, headteacher, Willowcroft Community School (inc nursery: ages 2+) Didcot

The change was precipitated by Oxfordshire local authority’s decision to encourage all its schools to become academies. ‘Politically we were not that keen,’ says Jane Ratcliffe, head of St John’s primary school in Wallingford. ‘But we talked about our options, the different models available.’

John Hawkins, head of Manor Primary School in Didcot, takes up the story. ‘A core group of very proactive governors formed a working party to explore the options and invited a number of people representing different options to address them, including the head of a stand-alone academy and the head of a multi-academy trust (MAT). I was keen for the umbrella trust of primaries.’

They found an all-primary umbrella trust in Leicestershire, with 10 primary school members, and invited one of their headteachers to speak to the group and ‘get the story. The main point we gleaned from this was that in an umbrella trust we are all responsible for the other schools if they get into difficulties.’

The issues that led to this kind of partnership
Why did these heads decide they wanted to take this route? ‘It all started with the ending of the school improvement partners (SIPs) in Oxfordshire,’ says Jane Ratcliffe. ‘They went after I had been a headteacher for only a year. Schools were left to sort themselves out.’

So a group of three heads, who already knew each other through existing school partnerships in Didcot and Wallingford, met to discuss how they could progress the school improvement model. From autumn term 2011 they planned a number of sessions in each other’s schools, looking at the schools’ key performance data, undertaking joint monitoring, looking at headteacher performance and consulting governors.

The schools’ governors were concerned at first – ‘they thought we would be too cosy with each other.’ But after just one meeting, the heads and governors agreed the proposed approach was more challenging than the former SIPs process. They looked at outcomes, working plans, lesson observations, pupil progress… it was really successful,’ says Jane.

‘It worked for a number of reasons. There was absolute trust – and no spin! There was honesty on all sides, and openness to hear what colleagues had to say about your school. These people had spent time with one another over months and in some cases, years. They had genuine relationships of trust.’

Even a member of the local authority service who knew the three heads and what they were planning said they thought ‘you’re doing a better job than we could do.’ The authority then supported the trust financially, through the strategic school improvement programme. Although only two of the headteachers from that partnership went on to become part of OPEN, it is clear that the success of the partnership was an important influence on the formation of the umbrella trust.

Within OPEN there is no lead school, and there are officially no lead members of the trust, although there is an elected chair. When the proposal was discussed with the Department for Education, their position was ‘there has to be a head of accountability.’ DfE favoured some kind of hierarchy, but eventually allowed the umbrella trust, once they were assured of the formal joint accountability.

The OPEN members have no problems with the principle of accountability: ‘We do need formal responsibility – to each other,’ says Jane Ratcliffe. ‘So John (Hawkins) is detailing the annual risk assessment, using the red-amber-green traffic light system to look at performance, leadership, behaviour and attendance.’ This will be carried out in autumn 2013 for the first time for all schools in the trust.

‘A resulting action plan will be drawn up by the school concerned,’ John Hawkins explains. ‘If the overall score is red at the end of a year, the umbrella trust has the right to take control of the school’s governing body, by putting in three additional governors with five votes each.’

Trust programmes and activities are to be planned by the combined senior leadership team of all the schools, a total of 16 people.

Clearly, a situation in which the trust members collectively take responsibility for their own school assessment and improvement runs the risk of complacency. Also a lack of awareness could develop as to how you are shaping up against the real world’s success criteria. The group takes action to avoid this risk. ‘We’re aware that other groups of schools are doing similar things,’ says David Burrows of Ladygrove Park School in Didcot. ‘And it’s important to keep in touch with them, compare progress, and help each other.’

David Burrows and John Hawkins have previously trained as Ofsted inspectors, and Jane Ratcliffe is considering doing so. Willowcroft Junior School head Jane Hemery likes this idea: ‘Inside knowledge! I’d like to be in a position to practise arguing with Ofsted.’

Financial factors
Another attraction to the stand-alone trust was cost, or rather value for money. The five heads felt that belonging to another organisation or grouping, such as academy chains, a multi-academy trust (MAT) or even remaining under LA control, would top-slice their income without necessarily providing the services they needed. And under a MAT, says John Hawkins, ‘the senior trust committee holds the funds and revenue, is the employer, and exerts control. We don’t want that. We have found that if you don’t coerce people, they will volunteer’ (and usually perform better and be more fulfilled).

The issue of control was crucial. Despite some initial anxiety, all the heads were happy to commit to their joint responsibility – peer accountability. Heather Haigh of Cholsey Primary says, ‘it’s less heavy-handed but more robust than the Whitehall inspection process. It gives primary schools the confidence that they can look after each other. We don’t need big brother to look after us.’

A key factor was the high level of trust and respect between the five school’s heads, and increasingly other members of their staff with their opposite numbers. ‘Historically, schools are very insular,’ says Jane Hemery. ‘At Willowcroft, I felt I was thrown in at the deep end in my first year as a head. We opened in 2007 from the ashes of a school in serious weaknesses. We had three visits a year for three years from HMIs. I’m still fighting to make it a school of choice for parents. I thought this was a brilliant opportunity to be supported by the best schools in the area.’

How the umbrella trust is working so far
From practical and financial points of view there are immediate benefits to the umbrella trust: they have been able to rid themselves of many of the costs of external services covering premises management, health and safety, accountancy/finance, pupil information and management systems, ICT, etc.

OPEN has created a group of its business managers to work together on these issues. ‘They are really collaborative and show a group sense of ownership,’ says Heather Haigh. The five business managers now work continually as one group, emailing each other as a matter of course.

On the broader issues of developing plans for the umbrella trust, all staff and governors – nearly 100 people in total – met together. ‘We wanted to go beyond what our partnerships might have done in the past,’ says Heather. ‘They had done various things – but did it have impact?’ The OPEN meeting came up with many ideas of what the trust could offer. All ideas contributed were assessed through a dot-voting exercise. One of the most important considerations was staff development. Among the favoured ideas were shadowing and secondments: staff were enthusiastic and keen to run with it.

Since then, groups of staff with similar interests and responsibilities in the different schools have sprung up without any input from the headteachers. These include SEN coordinators, a moderators group for the early years curriculum, and forest school leaders.

Support and challenge
In between the annual risk assessments, the schools undertake ‘mini Ofsted’ inspections, working in pairs to look at episodes of learning, for example. Jane Ratcliffe recalls one occasion when her two fellow heads identified the need to differentiate lesson planning more thoroughly at St John’s. ‘This development feedback hurt me more coming from colleagues whom I trust than it would from Ofsted. But a crucial point is to know the truth. Top-down hierarchical accountability systems encourage organisations, including schools, to hide the truth. Instead, we have trust and honesty: we can research in a safe environment for the truth in our schools.’

Heather Haigh agrees: ‘I’m petrified at the thought of you lot coming to find my truths. But we owe it to our children. We’re all in this together.’

Clearly, it’s harder to reject or ignore criticism that comes from people you know and respect.

The OPEN heads believe their approach to school accountability is actually more useful than the official one. ‘Ofsted’s five-yearly visits – what good is that?’ says John. ‘We will have annual risk assessments, so we’ll always know how we’re getting on.’

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