Dr Nicholas Capstick
CEO, The White Horse Federation
Shared vision, shared ambition, shared responsibility
– the road to thriving rather than just surviving in today’s educational landscape as a MAT.
Well, it’s started! After the gentle rumblings or ramblings of pre-election protestation by any number of political parties the race for number 10 Downing Street has started in earnest and we await to hear what each party has to offer the world of education. One thing is clear, that in times of austerity and budget deficit we are unlikely to see an unprecedented rise in funding or resources and given the state of public finances that’s not necessarily unreasonable.
We are already being told by some of the political savants, those possessed both of rare oratorical gifts and granular insight of the electoral arts that our money will not be reduced, funding will remain as it has done for the last number of years fixed and capped as tightly as an old lady’s bonnet on a blustery day.
Truth or smoke and mirrors? A little of both I fear because while it is true the income coming into schools has been capped the expenditure that schools necessarily need to make has not been equally capped. Inflation although at an all-time low is still pushing prices up, staff increments and pay rises similarly narrow the amount of available cash to enable us to engage in meaningful school improvement at any level.
The pessimists among us, the dwellers of Pity City, will now happily go about their business dressed in sackcloth and ashes and bemoan the fact “that things just aren’t what they used to be”. They are right, they never will be again but recently I have been buoyed by a new phenomenon in education, that of collective sharing, reciprocation and a shared ambition among schools, teaching communities, regional structures and key individuals who look beyond their own parochial barriers and extend the welcoming arm of support to all who need it.
The reason why this is uppermost in my mind and why I think it’s the way to go is predicated on a recent request from our local RSC, Regional School’s Commissioner, Sir David Carter to undertake a short three day deployment in a vulnerable school with a team of other more highly qualified professionals than I to ensure the school could remain open and begin to flourish again under another, new Academy Trust. Not a hard gig, done it a few times, quite like it in fact BUT the deployment was due to start the next day.
Like most senior leaders in most organisations my diary was completely blank for the next couple of days, as it often feel right and proper to just keep a majority of the week free to enable me to do things on such an ad hoc basis. Basically I just wait around for work to come to me, doesn’t any CEO? Of course not, my diary is as “chock-a-block” as anyone else’s but the most compelling part of the request was that if someone didn’t do it we could have hundreds of children in a town in the South West for whom the half term holiday had come 10 days early. No learning, no continuity of provision and given that it was a school in need of support anyway a situation likely to get far worse than better by its imminent closure.
It was a “no brainer” as my youthful son would say, not because I am benevolent in any way, (he’d say that too), but out of the sheer understanding that there but for the grace of god, any god, could go any one of us, we can all be vulnerable at times. And if we can all be vulnerable then where we can we should all be supportive, we should all share the responsibility of developing a local, regional and eventually a nationally shared offer of responsibility, vision and ambition which suggests that we have a shared duty to ensure that every child not just those with whom we come into immediate contact with, have at least a good but better still an outstanding education.
But it’s the idea of reciprocation which most interests me, the idea that none of us can possibility have all of the answers, provide all of the solutions or be all things to all people to bring about continual school improvement in our own schools and those of others. It’s the basis after all of the long muted “self-improving school to school system” first voiced by Michael Gove in his 2010 speech “The Importance of Teaching”.
But it’s not all about the commissioned stuff, the deployment from those on high it’s already happening in many of our schools by design but in a far more subtle way. This is never more evident or exemplified than when I look at what’s happening in our schools within the WHF.
Our Principals meet every six weeks without any other senior leaders being present to review, discuss and investigate collegiately what’s going well, what’s not and where they could maybe do with peer support. On very many occasions’ difficulties, stresses and pinch points, which entered the room with individual Principals, are dissipated through the discussion, offers of support, advice and guidance offered by peer colleagues. They have already without even knowing it developed a shared sense of responsibility and challenge for every child in the WHF. They share the vision that their remit goes well beyond the boundaries of their own school and the realisation that to give selflessly while never degrading the offer on one’s own school is the norm, not expected but an unwritten, unspoken given.
It’s a shared vision where individual egos should be redundant and that can be a big problem for some wishing to join the federation, especially for Headteachers/Principals because we are a funny breed. We are used to autonomy, freedom, being masters or mistresses of our own dominion. The all-Seeing Eye, the omnipresent focus of the entire school. That mind-set needs to shift considerably when you join the collegiate group of a MAT. At best the MAT will operate an “Eyes on, Hands Off” approach to its good and outstanding schools which are seen to be improving but there will always be the collective drive to keep improving by being part of a closer and often more gently intrusive team than we are used to.
Further evidence of reciprocation is also evident when we look at how we cope with new initiatives that frequently loom over the horizon. Take “Life without Levels” for example. Had I been a standalone Headteacher when this was announced my options would have been clear:
- Retire; it must be soon isn’t it?
- Bury my head in the sand hoping it would disappear.
- Retire; this is one trick this old dog can’t do!
- Delegate it to someone in my team hoping they would be the wunderkind or daft enough or better still inspired enough to take the lead for me.
- Retire, because haven’t I done enough already?
- Get a consultant in but didn’t we do that last time.
- Retire; haven’t I tried that once before?
- Get a different consultant in but from where and for “HOW MUCH!”
But within our Trust through collective brainpower and a shared endeavour combined with clear leadership from our Primary Director and our Head of Teaching and Learning we have nailed it. As a collegiate group of colleagues, teachers, Principals, assessment coordinators and other practitioners we have come up with a solution which not only works but which has been recognised for its worth by a leading assessment software developer with a view of bench testing it with others schools and then maybe helping us to create a commercial enterprise from it.
The opportunities are endless. Remember the good old days when staff rooms were for having a break, eating lunch and delighting in the teaching faux pas, (literally “False step” in French), of the last session? A place where we had time to sit, think and talk about pedagogy without fear of judgement or performance management, where on sharing our unmitigated disasters of lessons someone would share what they have done or would do in your shoes. Where has that time to talk education gone? Well I believe it’s coming back! By working in families of schools whether they are federations, MATs, clusters whatever you want to call them it’s far easier to talk about curriculum, phase or SEND issues. It’s so much easier to facilitate shared understanding of current or future pinch points and to debate them to resolution.
But stretching beyond one’s own family and collaborating with schools outside of your own grouping is becoming increasingly the norm. Collaborative projects across Teaching School Alliances and by working across regions or sub regions has got to be the way forward to widen professional dialogue and to use resource more effectively.
The recently announced £11 million to fund around 30 Maths Hubs to support schools and colleges to achieve excellence in maths education from primary school onwards is a great example of this. The DfE have called for inspirational and exceptional schools that have a strong vision for sustained and transformational improvement in maths education to apply to lead the Maths Hubs and these have now been identified. These schools, from across England, will have ambition and drive, and experience of improving the quality of maths education in their school and beyond. The aim is to enable every school and college in England, from early years to the post-16 sector, to access locally tailored and quality support in all areas of maths teaching and learning.
An outstanding school with a track record of leading innovation and improvement will lead each hub. They will partner with, and draw on, expertise from teaching school alliances, schools and colleges in the area, universities, other organisations, maths experts and employers.
The type of support provided through these partnerships will cover:
- Leading on national innovation projects such as the Shanghai Teacher Exchange Programme.
- Recruitment of maths specialists into teaching.
- Initial training of maths teachers and supporting existing teachers of other subjects wanting to change to maths teaching.
- Co-ordinating and delivering a wide range of maths continuing professional development (CPD) and school-to-school support.
- Ensuring maths leadership is developed, for example by coordinating programmes for aspiring and new heads of maths departments.
- Helping maths enrichment programmes to reach a large number of pupils from primary school onwards Each Maths Hub will operate at a sub-regional or city regional level. The hubs will work with any group of schools or colleges in the area that request support, or who are referred to the hub for support.
What a great way to bring about collegiate change in a self-improving system. For me the capital currency in schools has become less reliant on cash and the impact it might bring and more on the social capital of sharing, exchanging and supporting each other to bring about school improvement. We still need money don’t get me wrong but there’s something more fundamentally more honest in us all sharing the vision but more importantly the responsibility for school improvement in our schools, but more importantly across our regions.