Achieving a ‘school-led’ system

Written by: Robert Campbell | Published:
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From curriculum approaches to collaborative networks, there are clear opportunities for schools to take back control despite the challenges we face. Ahead of the NAHT Secondary Conference, Robert Campbell considers the developing ‘school-led system'

So we are nearly a fifth of the way into the 21st century and the challenge of leading schools has never been greater.

We are functioning in an age of scrupulous accountability where punitive responses to poor performance are commonplace; we are operating with reduced financial resources at a time when we are expected to do more; we are having to provide for and attend to individuals whose needs appear more than any previous generation.

Wrestling with these challenges places leaders and their staff in a seemingly impossible position.

Increased government of schools

If you chart back over the recent decades, the direction from governments (both national and local) was increasingly obvious. You could argue that the arrival of the national curriculum in 1988 heralded the commencement of the new era of governmental intrusion in education. This intensified in the 1990s with the arrival of Ofsted and performance tables and in the 2000s with the national strategies and Michael Barber’s “deliverology” (creating the notion of a science of delivery that saw education as one of its lead projects).

One of the first pieces of legislation introduced into law by the coalition government was the Academies Act in July 2010 and it signalled the intention to focus on transforming the structures of education in England. Schools were tempted with the allure of autonomy around curriculum. However, alongside academisation has been a tightening of end of stage assessment (particularly at key stages 2 and 4) with the imposition of more challenging and focused tests and exams.

Inevitably this has seen schools adjusting their curricula in response and with Ofsted now indicating that the 2019 inspection framework will look far more closely at the “what is provided” in schools, we are clearly set for an interesting period.

Yet we will continue to find ways through. How? Primarily because that’s our nature but also because the progression to a school-led system means we have a unique opportunity to create a model for education that is formed by those who know and understand the landscape best. There are openings and opportunities that schools might be able to lead on.

Schools filling the space vacated by local authorities

With the progressive dismantling of local authorities, schools (whether maintained or academies) may be able to negotiate to deliver or provide services or functions previously offered by the local authority, ultimately to the benefit of children and young people.

For example, Cambridgeshire devolved the operation of “Education Other Than At School” (which formerly included the PRUs and Medical Needs provision) to its secondary schools in 2010. Since then, access to budgets has enabled schools to commission and develop their own provision and to take a responsibility for all learners.

One cluster of 14 secondaries has a long-standing contract with a local organisation of counsellors, Centre 33, to provide identified and targeted support for those who need it most. Similarly the schools talk to each other about placing students on a short-term or longer basis in another school, removing the need for permanent exclusion. A strong partnership also is developing with the main alternative provision organisation in the area, TBAP.

Leading school improvement

The phrase “school-led system” has been bandied out for a few years now, but with the rising number of Teaching Schools (along with the growth of MATs and decline of local authorities), it is perhaps starting to mean something significant.

In Cambridgeshire, four Teaching School alliances (two recently established and two which have been operating for a number of years) have come together to form a network (called Nucleus) to collaborate on delivery of initial teacher training, school-to-school support and CPD for staff.

As well as making budgetary sense, it also offers increased capacity and capability with the network. Representatives from Nucleus, along with the well-established Cambridge Teaching Schools Network and other alliances and Teaching Schools are collaborating with Cambridgeshire and Peterborough local authority colleagues to support delivery of the Big Three across the region.

This sees schools of all types working together for the benefit of young people, regardless of status. Indeed in some cases, schools within the same MAT are part of different Teaching School alliances.

New curricula

It is not just with the most vulnerable that schools might have the opportunity to forge their own path. Even with the caveats above regarding GCSEs and key stage 2 tests, schools are attempting to offer new and innovative curricula.

Impington Village College, which has long been well-regarded for its offer of the International Baccalaureate Diploma (post-16), has taken the successful principles and approaches of this model for its sixth form and offered a programme of Creativity, Action and Service for all its students (regardless of age or ability).

The programme sees enrichment classes open to students and whether horticulture or Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, the young people work and learn together in mixed-age, mixed-ability groups. Its impact has been very positive.

Other schools (and in other phases) locally have been developing different approaches. Cottenham Primary School, which serves a community with wide gaps in ability, has opted to give its pupils access to a knowledge-rich curriculum, particularly to promote achievement with its more disadvantaged children. As the school states: “We deliver a knowledge-rich curriculum. While we use the national curriculum as a framework, we have decided to place a much greater emphasis on exposing children to the ‘powerful knowledge’ that we feel is necessary in order to truly understand the world around us, as well as to be able to make informed and accurate observations and connections.

“In addition to increasing the children’s cultural literacy, we believe that we are equipping them with the essential foundations for the next stage of their educational journeys, and beyond.”

Alongside this, the school uses Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion teaching techniques. These enable them to apply what cognitive science tells us about how humans learn – with a focus on providing children with multiple opportunities to practise and consolidate what they are being taught, all within a supportive, inclusive and dynamic environment.

Ofsted rightly praised the school (in 2017) for its “enriching and broad curriculum” which gives “many opportunities to explore and investigate different subjects, including exciting activities, various trips and visiting speakers”.

The way ahead

So whether it is in approaches to the curriculum or in collaborative networks or finding better ways to support the most vulnerable, leading schools has never perhaps been more interesting.

School leaders also have better access to what works through organisations such as the Education Endowment Foundation and through informal networks such as those promoted through Twitter, which is widely recognised as one of the best tools for professional learning and development accessible to those in education. #SLTChat has become one of the go-to places (virtually) each Sunday evening from 8pm to 8:30pm. Anyone (with a Twitter account) can participate. There really is no excuse for not finding out interesting and better ways to lead schools.

Of course, conferences still offer formal occasions to network and hear from the best and strongest speakers. The NAHT Secondary Conference in 2019 is entitled “Leading Schools in the 21st Century” and will offer such an occasion with delegates able to hear from Dame Alison Peacock, Vic Goddard and Laura McInerney and participate in workshops delivered by school leaders and practitioners. It really can offer a great opportunity for networking and learning.

  • Robert Campbell is CEO of the Morris Education Trust, based in Cambridgeshire, and a National Leader of Education. He chairs the National Association of Head Teachers’ Secondary Council and is a founder member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable. He tweets from @robcampbe11.

The NAHT Secondary Conference

Leading Schools in the 21st Century, the NAHT’s Secondary Conference, takes place on Friday, February 8. SecEd readers can get an exclusive rate of £49.99 to attend the event. To book, follow the link and click on register before entering the promotional code SecEd19. Visit


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