In the education world at present there is a tangible feeling of togetherness. As is often the way, when faced with opposition from an outside force, communities stick together and often that solidarity is what drives them to survive. Such is the way in the school community in the UK.
With government involvement continuing to cause problems for teachers and school staff and the education landscape being shaken to its core, those on the frontline have demonstrated an admirable sense of cohesion and unity.
But this showing of support between schools is not just something that has evolved as a result of the current tensions. School-to-school support as a concept has been around for many years.
The nature of the Teaching School programme of course is to provide support and advice to a school which, for one reason or another, needs assistance. However, the benefits for the school providing that support are very often overlooked. Indeed, both schools can gain considerably from the sharing of ideas and resources.
One of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal in the education sector is the ability to collaborate. In the current climate, where there is an on-going question about who really understands the needs of the education sector in the UK, one thing is certain: as schools we understand each other.
As such, by working together we can make improvements not just in areas where failings have been recognised, but across the board – for both schools involved.
Understanding school-to-school support
One common misconception about school-to-school support – whereby a Teaching School will work with another school to offer guidance – is that schools that require support are always struggling or must have been deemed unsatisfactory by Ofsted.
This is not always the case. While an Ofsted rating of “outstanding” is required in order for a school to become a Teaching School, the regulatory body’s ratings do not always influence which schools will receive support. Indeed, a school may be excelling in one subject area but may feel it needs support in another, or in developing its leadership skills for example.
Another misinformed idea is that the schools receiving support do so reluctantly, again tied to this notion that it is only poorly performing schools who access this support and they do so begrudgingly.
This is very far off the mark. Indeed, in our experience schools are very open to support and it is certainly an area that seems to be growing. We have been a Teaching School for just over a year and in that time alone we have seen demand for support and indeed results from it grow substantially.
What we have found is that school-to-school support covers a wide variety of situations and development areas, something which makes being a Teaching School so rewarding.
Addressing the issue
In situations where the school seeking support is an underperforming school, perhaps because it is below the floor standards, or pupil attainment is on a downward trajectory we will employ a number of techniques.
In the first instance we will address the weaknesses which have been identified by Ofsted or indeed other agencies by providing additional leadership capacity to improve the quality of teaching and learning in specific subjects, year groups or with individual teachers if need be.
We will also assist the school in not just developing but also implementing policies designed to bring about school improvement. We will help the schools to measure their performance more effectively by bringing about improvements in the data analysis they undertake.
In extreme situations and for particularly challenging schools we will provide an acting headteacher for a period.
In order to deliver the best assistance, it is important to have a clear understanding of where that assistance should be aimed. We spend a considerable amount of time analysing the school’s performance to diagnose where the input is needed. We are always sensitive to the supported school and staff to ensure that maximum progress happens.
Improving teaching and learning
Often, we will work with a school that is not necessarily deemed to be underachieving but that requires support to improve teaching and learning in specific subject areas.
While observation of the school seeking support is the first step to developing a beneficial programme, often observation at the school offering that support becomes a key part of that programme.
There have been many occasions where we have invited staff in to our school to observe lessons. This opens the conversation. The visiting teachers can spot differences in teaching techniques and highlight these disparities. It starts a healthy and useful dialogue between the schools and starting that dialogue is key.
Once we have begun to identify discrepancies in the teaching methods we have a starting point from which to move forward. We are able to design a bespoke programme in order to address the concerns that have been highlighted and deliver this either to key members of staff or larger groups.
Very often we will offer support to a school to help it to achieve its CPD targets. For example we are hosting the National Professional Qualification for Middle Leaders and the National Professional Qualification for Senior Leaders at our school. Several schools send their staff onto these CPD courses to develop leadership skills and to ensure career development.
Alternatively, we will visit a school and deliver a teaching and learning programme for a number of staff to ensure that teaching and learning is cutting edge.
Where support is requested in terms of developing behavioural management we work with our partners including local authorities, the Archdiocese and other schools to ensure the collaboration has maximum impact.
The first step is to understand how behavioural problems in the school develop. Often an outside perspective can pick up on the root of the problem as their view of it is unobscured. Next we will design a whole-school behaviour management strategy with a focus on developing a positive behaviour policy. This customised programme will include new processes for employing corrective measures and training for staff as well as advice on managing the school’s expectations of pupils.
We like to provide a “tool-kit” of strategies for staff to employ in the classroom, helping them to devise new approaches to disruptive behaviour.
In our 15 months of providing support to other schools, I am pleased to say the methods we use have been effective thus far.
However, we are well aware that in order to help other schools to grow and develop we need to do the same.
As such we are constantly assessing our strategies and methods and the way in which we operate as school to ensure we can continue to offer the right kind of assistance.
Anne Pontifex is headteacher of St John Bosco Arts College in Liverpool, a national Teaching School.