The era of the stand-alone school is over.
by Russell Hobby
The constant change in schools makes it hard to plan ahead. What new wheeze will come down the line from Whitehall next? How will the inspection framework change? Who will even be in charge in six months’ time?
Policies and politicians come and go, but schools remain and so do their students. There is every possibility that no one will have a clear majority in Westminster in six months’ time. Schools can fill the vacuum and establish the sort of system they want to see, or they can leave it open and face another round of micromanagement. Let’s make some predictions:
There will be no more money. In fact, there are more cuts to come. A fair national funding formula is receding into the distance and few people are talking honestly about the nature of funding for small schools. There is a minimum cost to running a school, regardless of its size. Pretending that the solution is to amalgamate small schools into hundred-strong chains to make them cost-effective is a fantasy.
It will become harder to recruit as the economy picks up. The risk of working in a challenging school is high and will remain so. It deters many people from bringing their talents to the places they are most needed or from stepping up to headship.
The old local authority is never coming back. Some have weathered the storm well and continue to offer valued support to their schools. But they have done this only by reinventing themselves.
Increases in autonomy will not be reversed. We will not see an end to academies and free schools even if we do see a deceleration; we will not see many school powers returned to the state.
We will place even greater demands on governors. Our structures of governance are ill-designed to bear this load. It is increasingly a professional non-executive director role in terms of expectations but not in terms of resources and support.
The three As that underpin major changes in education are austerity, autonomy and accountability. If you assume that there will be more of all three, you probably won’t go far wrong. This is not a full list, but I wanted to highlight these trends because they point to an inevitable conclusion: the era of the stand-alone school is coming to an end. And we should not mourn it.
Collaboration, not conversion
I believe it will be a central task of every school leader in the next five years to create a tight local network of schools, with strong mutual accountability, shared support services and the regular exchange of staff for professional development. Many have already begun this task but all will need to complete it.
I am talking about more than mutual support. This will need to be a federation or trust with enduring structures and, often, shared governance. You’ll note that I have not yet mentioned the word “academy”.
We should start this project now, seeking fellow leaders with shared values and visions, joining together voluntarily rather than being forced into unwilling collaborations developed in pursuit of cost-efficiency.
This is not a counsel of despair. Leading within a trust of like-minded leaders is an inspiring way to work. Headship is a lonely job; this makes it less so. Trusts create job opportunities and, although we may still struggle to get people to take the risk of headship, offering senior roles with support will encourage people towards the top. A wider canvas opens up opportunities for specialisation, too; it is easier to justify a science or sports specialist across half a dozen primary schools, for example.
I think these groups should be small – half a dozen to a dozen schools, ideally. This is not an argument for an authority-wide community trust, which sounds like old wine in new bottles.
So what about academies? I’ve nothing against them but I do not believe that the groups I’ve described above need to begin as academy trusts. That puts the cart before the horse. The academy movement, as it developed, has come to mean three things: accountability, autonomy and collaboration. The government got the last two the wrong way round. It offered (and imposed) autonomy while hoping for collaboration. It should have offered collaboration while hoping for autonomy. The beauty of the trust model is that it also provides a healthy form of accountability, as a mutual professional obligation to your partners rather than to government.
What can be done to ease this vision into reality? Much lies in the hands of individual headteachers: they can do this now without waiting for a national programme. The government could help by switching incentives away from academy conversion and towards building trusts. There are various approaches out there – the cooperative trust model is well-used and liked, for example. Perhaps Ofsted could offer a shared judgement for management and leadership for schools in trusts, at the same time as providing separate judgements for achievement in the individual institutions. It could license or accredit peer reviews to replace some inspection in high-performing trusts.
Whatever the national manoeuvres, this is a decision for the profession. We have paused for breath between waves of intervention. Let’s shape the future rather than react to it.
Russell Hobby is general secretary of the NAHT, and a NET Leading Thinker.