Lessons learned from creating a Teaching School Alliance: Part 2

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In March, we asked a headteacher, writing anonymously, to describe the process their school has been through in becoming a Teaching School and in leading a Teaching School Alliance. Our writer continues their account now, focusing on the ‘lessons learned’ so far...

In the second part of this article, I want to focus very much on the lessons we have learned in these early years of forming our Teaching School Alliance (TSA) so that perhaps headteachers who are considering embarking on this exciting journey can avoid some of the pitfalls. I would like to think that we are getting some things right, but there are definitely things that we would do differently.

The government produced a document evaluating the effectiveness of Teaching Schools in April 2013, it was called First Among Equals? In it the importance of partnership working is stressed. I particularly like the section below and I use this when talking to other schools and other headteachers about working with us in our alliance:

“The collective expertise of strategic partners and other members of each Teaching School exceeds the capacity of any individual school, however great that is. These partnerships and their wider school alliances are what makes Teaching Schools different from their ancestors ... The success of the Teaching Schools policy is likely to rest as much on the quality of the partnerships and the trust, co-operation and communication that are as essential to buy-in from other schools as on the quality of the Teaching Schools themselves.”

Engaging with local schools

One of the things that I feel we got right in the early days was the way in which we “launched” our TSA. We realised that, in the first instance, winning hearts and minds of teachers and headteachers in local schools was the priority and thought that this would be best achieved through face-to-face contact.

I asked the headteachers of local schools if I could come into their staff meetings to do a short presentation about the alliance. The message that I was delivering was that we wanted to very much serve the needs of local schools, but we wanted to also know what teachers wanted and needed from a Teaching School.

We asked teachers to complete a questionnaire outlining what they would want from the alliance and we built up a database of teachers who we now contact to promote all our events and courses. The intention was to collate information on a bank of people who receive our regular emails and newsletters, keeping them informed of the latest TSA news.

While the response that I had in the 20 or more schools that I visited was varied, generally the information was well received. I would like to think this was partly down to the fact that the presentation was delivered with humility rather than any arrogance – it was as much about informing teachers what they could contribute to the TSA as it was about letting them know what they could receive.

I thought it would be prudent to visit the schools that we thought may be most positive first, in order to obtain buy-in. We were hoping that word would spread and that other schools may be reluctant to be left out. This is in fact the way it worked out.

Visiting schools was also a chance to promote the opportunities that a TSA offers, including nationally recognised positions such as Specialist Leaders of Education (SLE) roles. I took the chance to talk to teachers about the SLEs’ mentoring and observation roles with School Direct trainees. Ultimately, attending these staff meetings enabled me to share our over-arching TSA aim: “To work together to improve educational experiences and outcomes for children across the town.”

The Strategic Board

Having visited nearly 20 schools, we needed to start thinking about who would make up the Strategic Board of our alliance. I was looking for 10 or 12 people representing different schools who we felt would step up to the plate and deliver aspects of the six responsibilities of a Teaching School that I outlined in the first part of this article (see further information).

With hindsight, I am pleased with the make-up of the Strategic Board, it was good to have representation from secondary schools and infant schools considering we are a junior school. It has also been of great benefit to have attracted a former headteacher who has incredible knowledge and a passion for educational research and development; he has been worth his weight in gold. We have added additional people along the way and this has been good as it has re-energised our work.

Staff capacity

Without doubt, the most important thing we have learned and that I would want therefore to flag up to any headteachers considering applying for Teaching School status, is the need to continually consider how you can increase capacity right from the outset. This has been tricky, because initially we didn’t have the funding to employ additional staff in order to increase the capacity of our team, so we have had to do it as we have gone along. I am guessing this is how other TSAs have also coped, because you are recruiting for new staff in response to, and alongside, the growth of the alliance.

Our current position after almost three years, is that one of my assistant heads has the Teaching School and SCITT as pretty much her only responsibility – she works on this full-time. She has a part-time teacher working with her three days a week, assisting her on issues around Initial Teacher Training. In addition, we have added a fourth full-time person to our admin team to cope with the financial implications of running a Teaching School/SCITT.

Many of my teachers are SLEs so work on school-to-school support projects and also as mentors to our trainee teachers. Other teachers deliver training in our various courses that we run throughout the year. My literacy co-ordinator also delivers six days of training face-to-face to the SCITT cohort. It would have been impossible to anticipate the level of all this three years ago and that is why we have had to respond to the needs and demands of the TSA as we have gone along.

My role has changed beyond all recognition and you do need to be ready for this. I am sure there are headteachers who are far less involved with the TSA/SCITT than I am and equally I am sure that in time my direct involvement will decrease. From the outset though, to show my support to my assistant head who is running the show, I wanted to be very hands-on so that I could share the responsibility and workload with her. Looking back, if I hadn’t done this, I think I would have lost her because, even with my support, she was working 24/7 in order to establish our alliance.

Finance

While income from ITT and school-to-school support is less easy to predict, because clearly it depends on the success of applications, what Teaching Schools can be clear on is the government funding that they will receive in those early years. This is crucial, as this is what you can use to build your capacity from day one. Teaching Schools receive an annual grant known as core funding. This is paid directly to us. It enabled us to build the leadership and administrative capacity and infrastructure to lead and run our alliance. Funding is allocated as follows:

  • £60,000 for the first year.
  • £50,000 in year 2.
  • £40,000 in years 3 and 4.

In addition, because of my role as an National Leader of Education we receive a £6,000 capacity-building grant each year. Additional support grants are available to Teaching Schools from the National College on application (these range from £5,000 up to £20,000 depending on the scale of the work to be undertaken). This funding is available via the School to School Support Fund and this can only be accessed by Teaching Schools.

The first few times we completed these applications we found the process quite difficult, but like everything experience is key. Clearly additional funding can be attracted by running ITT programmes, though I think schools often underestimate the costs involved in planning, delivering and evaluating these.

School-to-school support

Something else that we found challenging early on was the notion of providing school-to-school support for schools that needed it. This is obviously one of the key responsibilities of a Teaching School and I would suggest that you give it some in-depth thought from the outset.

You need to know where your strengths are and what your physical capacity is to release colleagues to support, and understand the cost of this. When I say cost, clearly there are financial implications for teachers to be working in support of other schools, but there is also the less tangible “cost” to the Teaching School whose pupils are losing that teacher for a time.

When you get down to the nitty gritty of supporting a specific school in need, you need to be able to establish the ways of working, you need to understand how to share with the “client school” what your offer and role would be, as well as understanding how you will gain the trust and confidence of the school.

In our most recent work, we feel we have done better with this than in some of our earlier school-to-school support projects. We had a couple of meetings at the beginning of this latest support when we listened to the host headteacher while they provided pen portraits of their staff. We allowed the head to articulate the strengths and areas of development of the teachers who needed support. We then used this information to match these teachers to SLEs in our alliance who we felt had the appropriate skill-sets and importantly the personality traits to successfully work with these individuals. This has undoubtedly been key to the success of this work.

Other lessons

I am conscious of my word count and for that reason I would like to quickly list a number of other lessons we have learnt from the process so far and some pieces of advice.

First, start small but think big – this has been our mantra from the start and one that we have repeated to governors and to our Strategic Board on many occasions. It is also one that they have repeated back to us!

Second, prepare your staff and governors (and parents) for the inevitable changes that will occur, these include:
Teachers will be out of class more and governors/parents may need a little reassurance about this. Remind governors that you are intending on using teachers across your alliance and not just from your school.

Teachers will also be observed teaching more. We made it clear to teachers that if they are going to take on the role of SLEs, then they had to be prepared to be observed teaching whenever we asked them to – sometimes at the drop of a hat!

I made it clear to the staff right from the start that there was a likelihood that I would be around less. We have ensured that staff always know where I am and regularly keep them up-to-date with the developments of the Teaching School so that they feel fully involved.
Another lesson to learn is that it is imperative that you master the ability to say no. As a Teaching School you will definitely have to be careful not to take on too much, it comes back to the mantra of starting small but thinking big.

And marketing is key. Efficient and effective marketing for a TSA is highly important. I would strongly urge you to hand this over to a marketing company that has been recommended to you – we have used an excellent one and they have done a super job with websites, banners, prospectuses, posters, etc

Elsewhere, in our TSA we have had a strong focus on 12-month developmental programmes for teaching assistants, teachers and middle leaders. All of these programmes are free to participants and all of them are delivered by outstanding current practitioners within our alliance. They have all been very well received by participants.

Another obviously but easily missed issue is that you need to consider where all your Teaching School activities are going to take place. You will be amazed how quickly you need additional space as a venue for training and so on. I would strongly encourage you to give this serious thought before you even begin the application process. We didn’t and we regretted it. For 12 months all our Teaching School activities took place in dedicated school space and it caused us problems. For the last couple of years we have had a dedicated Teaching School building and life has been much better as a result.

Finally, engage with school-led ITT. Obviously ITT is one of the big six responsibilities of a TSA and we therefore all have to engage with it. However, I would say that our SCITT is the single most significant reason why other schools want to work with us, so from that point of view it has been hugely important. Don’t underestimate how difficult attracting, retaining and developing outstanding practitioners is; it is a huge challenge for all schools involved, but there is nothing more important than growing your own excellent staff.

Conclusion

I would like to conclude by saying that schools working collaboratively is definitely the future – it is without doubt very much the government’s view and it is without doubt their preferred method for school improvement. I believe that our TSA can be a support network for school improvement for schools in our geographical area, working alongside other support networks including the local authority, multi-academy trusts and other TSAs.

  • The author of this article is a school leader in a primary school in England.

Further information

  • The first part of this article was published in the March 2017 edition of Headteacher Update. Find this article, entitled Creating and leading a Teaching School Alliance, at http://bit.ly/2p9AmLw
  • First Among Equals? National College for Teaching and Leadership, 2013: http://bit.ly/2psrqUg


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