No school is an island…Director’s Commentary

Well. There’s always a fear that what you chuck up on a blog will upset and offend. I personally do not do this intentionally but in a particular post on partnerships I appear to have done just that. What with Wilshaw spitting blood and a group of Heads spitting feathers over my thoughts on partnerships, all I need to do is start spitting beaks and we’ll have ourselves a whole chicken.

I never like to go to bed on an argument so I thought I would revisit my post and hopefully offer some clear insights into its content with the sole intention of reassuring my fellow Heads that no offense or particular focus on any one partnership was intended. What follows is a Director’s commentary: I hope it is read in the spirit it is intended.

Partnerships

This friendly sounding word is fast becoming a synonym for ‘quality assured school improvement’. It really isn’t. It’s actually symbolic of crumbling local authority power and conquering egos and downright laziness. In the confusing landscape of academies and free schools, locally maintained schools were drawn into a panic – even the local authority was clambering around all over the place desperately asking Head Teachers to write down on post-it notes their ideas for ‘what should a local authority do?’ Surprisingly the common answer of PROVIDE A SERVICE AND A DIRECTION FOR SCHOOLS YOU SCHMUCKS didn’t seem to resonate. And as their power crumbled and their money ran out and their capacity for ideas vanished there was suddenly a new expectation for schools: become a partnership.

I WAS AT THAT MEETING AND IT WAS GENUINELY SAD. THE LOCAL AUTHORITY WAS ASKING FOR HELP AS IT HAD LOST ITSELF. IT WAS AS IF THEY FELT UNABLE TO OFFER A STRONG CASE FOR BEING A LOCALLY MAINTAINED SCHOOL. THIS HAD BEEN FELT BY SOME SCHOOLS WHO HAD STARTED WORKING TOGETHER VERY SUCCESSFULLY. THEY WERE A TRUE SUCCESS STORY AND I GUESS THE LA WERE HOPING IT WAS THE ANSWER: SOMETHING THEY COULD SUGGEST THAT RELIED ON SCHOOLS PROVIDING AND LEADING THEIR OWN IMPROVEMENT JOURNEYS.

The logic is simple: the local authority cannot offer any significant ideas or support schools in any sustained capacity (three visits a year if you’re doing ok, sack the head and put in a temporary ‘superhead’ replacement until you become an academy if you’re not) so why not join up with other schools and work together to improve each other. On paper it sounds like ‘The Waltons’ but in reality it’s more ‘The Apprentice’. A bunch of self-serving Heads who use the partnership process to artificially validate their development plan whilst smugly identifying the weaknesses in other schools. When together they fawn over each other and regale people with how the partnership is the only thing that allowed them to improve: ‘It’s so much more robust than an Ofsted inspection and we really challenge each other.’ No you don’t: you say you do so when Ofsted arrives you can say: ‘well if you disagree with me you disagree with four other schools – and you gave two of them outstanding six months ago so…’

THE PARTNERSHIPS THAT HAVE EVOLVED HAVE DONE JUST THAT: EVOLVED, BASED ON THE NEEDS AND INTERESTS OF THE SCHOOLS. BUT SURELY ANYONE CAN SEE A REAL DANGER IN EXPECTING THIS TO BE ‘THE MODEL’. THERE ARE SO MANY POTENTIAL DANGERS. ONE OF THEM COULD BE HEADS WHO HAVE GONE ABOUT THE PARTNERSHIP IN A SUPERFICIAL MANNER– HORRIBLE TO CONSIDER BUT IT IS A POSSIBILITY. UNLESS THERE WERE SOME PRETTY ROBUST GROUND RULES IN PLACE TO PREVENT THIS FROM HAPPENING WITH CLEAR REGULATIONS BUT NO ONE SUGGESTED THAT.

But these partnerships are fast becoming the expected model for all schools and lauded by the local authority. We are all told to learn from them because it’s a fool proof solution isn’t it: ‘Just gather a group of schools together and get improving’. Hmm, call me old fashioned but I prefer, oh, what’s it called…oh yes, substance. These partnerships are like Shell Suits: fashionable for a time but sooner or later they’re going to become yesterday’s fad or go up in flames.

THIS IS MY BIGGEST FEAR. THE LACK OF REGULATION DUE TO DECREASED CENTRALISED POWER FROM THE LOCAL AUTHORITY WOULD MEAN THAT THERE WOULD BE AN INFINITE NUMBER OF PARTNERSHIPS ALL WORKING SEPARATELY FROM EACH OTHER. THIS SOUNDS LIKE A DISASTER WAITING TO HAPPEN.

I mean, what happens when one of them fails – how are the other schools responsible? They’re not. Will they help pick up the pieces? Or will they suddenly be too busy running their own schools? And when that failing school gets converted will they want to be part of the partnership? I doubt it. What happens when one of the Heads leave? Will the incoming Head want to automatically be part of this magical partnership? Possibly not, so what then? Does the partnership just gradually die? Do the Heads still meet up each Christmas and remind themselves of what a dynamic team they made and reminisce about the good old days they spent together furthering their own careers?

THIS BIT IS ABOUT LONGEVITY AND CONTINGENCY PLANS THAT NEED SERIOUS CONSIDERATION IF THE IDEA OF SCHOOL PARTNERSHIPS IS GOING TO WORK. SOMEWHERE AMONGST MY QUESTIONS OFFER A PARADOXICAL DILEMMA: IF THEY ARE SCHOOL TO SCHOOL PARTNERSHIPS WITH MINIMAL CENTRALISED DIRECTION WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE STRUCTURE OF THE SCHOOL CHANGES-WHO HAS RESPONSIBILITY? WILL THERE BE A POOR SCHOOL LEFT OUT IN THE COLD?

What about the schools that aren’t in partnerships? I mean we all have our cluster groups but should these partnerships be dictated by geography? If so will they all be equally effective? And there’s the main point of the epipha-not: there’s no logic, strategy, plan behind the idea of partnerships. It’s just something that some schools have done and some have been successful so therefore it is now seen as ‘the’ successful model of school improvement for our age. It’s also a sentence Ofsted can happily cut and paste into their report: ‘the school forges effective links with a local school partnership that has played an integral part of the school’s self-improvement plan’.  At which point the local authority officer will pipe up and say ‘I told him to join a partnership’ and all the other schools in the partnership will quickly add a self-congratulatory line in their own SEF.

THIS IS ABOUT HOW WE CREATE THESE PARTNERSHIPS. THE SUCCESSFUL ONES (AND THEY ARE MIGHTILY SUCCESSFUL) ARE SO BECAUSE IT HAS HAPPENED NATURALLY. THEY ARE (AND PLEASE DON’T TAKE THIS THE WRONG WAY) FREAKS. THERE MUST BE SOME JOINED UP CENTRALISED THINKING OTHERWISE SCHOOLS UP AND DOWN THE LAND ARE AT THE MERCY OF NATURAL SELECTION. SURELY THAT IS THE POINT OF A LOCAL AUTHORITY: THEY MAKE SURE EVERYONE HAS A FAIR CHANCE OF DOING WELL FOR THE CHILDREN AND FAMILIES WE SERVE.

So forgive me if I’m not inspired to forge a partnership with other schools. Forgive me that I want something better for my school and all the other schools in the city I work bloody hard for.  And forgive me that the more I hear about these superficial partnerships the more I feel that they are nothing more than a cheap piece of smoke and mirrors that help the movers and shakers of education sleep better an night. And please, please, please forgive me for thinking that there’s got to be something better around the corner. Maybe Bristol’s new Director of schools (or Director for people and houses (or something)) can provide us with something better. I hope so – otherwise what’s the bloody point?

THE MEETING THAT INSPIRED THIS BLOG HAPPENED LAST SUMMER WHERE IT FELT LIKE THE LAST DAYS OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE. NOW WE HAVE A MAYOR’S VISION (UM, MAYBE I’LL COME TO THAT LATER) AND A NEW DIRECTOR. I MET HIM. HE SEEMS NICE. HE SEEMS SINCERE AND I HOPE AND EXPECT HIM TO BRING BACK THE VISION AND STRUCTURE TO THE LOCAL AUTHORITY AND I HOPE HE KNOWS THAT HE WILL BE SUPPORTED AS HE DOES IT BY ISLANDS AND ARCHIPELAGOS IN EQUAL MEASURE.

Hey that’s it. I Did it make anything clearer? Who knows? But I wouldn’t want to upset people (unnecessarily). No personal attack was ever intended, that’s just your paranoia. Now I’ve got blood, feathers and beaks to clear up. 

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