In it together – running a Teaching School Alliance

Written by: HTU | Published:

What is it like to run a Teaching School Alliance? Marie-Claire Bretherton describes the opportunities that working as part of a 27-strong Teaching School Alliance has presented and some of the challenges they have faced.

The education profession is faced with a unique opportunity. Since the coalition government’s 2010 White Paper, hundreds of schools nationwide have been designated as Teaching Schools. 

That represents a radical shift – with schools up and down the country taking on greater responsibility for developing the quality of teaching and leadership across their localities. 

As context, my school, Mount Street Academy, was the very first Teaching School in Lincolnshire to be designated back in September 2012. Our alliance consisted of 11 schools to begin with and that has risen to 27 as of January 2014. The alliance now includes infant, junior, primary, secondary and special schools. These schools are at different stages of their development – they aren’t all outstanding or good schools – but our premise is that every school has something to give as well as to gain.

From the moment we became a Teaching School we took on responsibility for the delivery of initial teacher training (through School Direct), brokering and delivering school-to-school support, the delivery of CPD, research projects, and the succession planning of headteachers and senior leaders across all of our schools. 

All eyes were on us! Heads across Lincolnshire were watching us and so too were the National College – who we are accountable to for getting all of this right. 

In November 2012, our executive head left for another position after successfully leading Mount Street for 10 years. I took on the interim role of executive head, which included building and leading a new school (Lincoln Carlton Academy), and growing the work of the Teaching School. In fact, our status as a Teaching School was reviewed at this stage. 

Last summer, I was appointed as the permanent executive head at Mount Street and our redesignation as a Teaching School followed soon afterwards.

Despite all of that scrutiny and change, we have had a good first 18 months, and I have learnt a great deal along the way. There are three things that, as leader of a Teaching School, you need to be absolutely clear about.

First, you are still accountable for your own school – lose outstanding status and it doesn’t matter how well you are doing at developing a Teaching School, you will no longer be one! You will be “dedesignated”. 

Second, you are responsible for a wide range of Teaching School activity and delivery, yet you have no formal power to compel others to work with you – so, as leader, you have to get used to that and rethink the way you lead. 

All schools in the alliance are there voluntarily, they are partners and you need to provide a blend of support, encouragement and challenge to achieve a continuing culture of participation and a shared commitment to achieving the highest standards.

Third, you have to remember this is a unique opportunity to work with your peers to shape the wider system. For me this work encapsulates why I got into the profession – to work with other teachers and leaders, to learn from one another, to improve, to support each other and to collectively be the best professionals we possibly can be for all children. The focus is absolutely the right one and it is important to keep coming back to it.

So with those three things in mind, what has gone well and where are we still developing?

Maintaining engagement

One year in, most of our schools are very engaged and are investing in the work of the alliance. We have spent a lot of time working with schools across the group in developing our collective vision for the years ahead, so that everyone is on board and fully signed up to what we are trying to achieve as a partnership of schools and partners. 

The premise we have all agreed to, inspired by JFK, is “ask not what our alliance can do for you, but what you can do for our alliance” – with the knowledge that the more you give, the more you are likely to receive in return.

While having those fundamental conversations is crucial, as a leader, the early stages of a partnership do require you to invest significant time in building relationships, constantly communicating the aims, values and vision of the alliance, and joining people up – identifying where people need help or support or can contribute. You need to know the schools you are working with very well indeed. We are working hard at developing the way we communicate across the alliance so people can see much more clearly where they can contribute and where they can get support. 

We are keen to celebrate success and great practice where it reflects the high standards we set ourselves. Without good communication people lose sight of what the alliance is trying to achieve, why they are involved and the wider potential it has to make a difference to their school and pupils.

Distributing responsibility

I am lucky that we have some great people working within the alliance with specific experience and skills. I have been able to distribute key aspects of work to the best people. In some cases, we have seen colleagues in senior and middle leadership roles, and from across a number of schools, stepping up to lead whole strands of activity.

As leader of an alliance it is impossible to keep on top of such a wide range of activity without the help and expertise of others. Distributing leadership not only makes it much more manageable, it also gives others great professional development opportunities and ensures other schools within the alliance are engaged and contributing leadership wherever they have the skills and expertise to do so.

Change in staff culture

Probably the most exciting part of this journey has been to see the impact it is having on staff. Being a Teaching School with a wide range of development opportunities provides staff with a greater sense of professionalism. They are much more engaged in their own learning and development and working together with those in other schools to find solutions and improve practice. 

We have seen colleagues across our schools leading CPD sessions, working on joint practice development projects, leading school-to-school support, and coaching and mentoring others – including trainees and NQTs. So we have developed the basis for success – a shared vision, a culture of shared ownership and growing participation with tangible results for the quality of teaching and leadership in our schools.

Impact and evaluation

We are now capturing our impact as a Teaching School Alliance, holding ourselves to account across the various strands of our work. Colleagues are telling us that they are benefiting and there have been improvements in results, but it is essential that we are rigorous in monitoring the impact these activities are having on classroom practice.

This is not just about holding ourselves to account however, it is also about the continuous self-improvement of the alliance. We need to be able to identify which elements are having a real impact and which are not – and therefore need to be improved and refined. We are also keen to further explore the potential of peer review by another Teaching School to inform our future development. I am also clear that we need to have a much stronger link between colleagues’ CPD needs and how we prioritise activity across the alliance. This means getting even better at market research and keeping a very close eye on future changes in national policy and innovation in other parts of the system.

Long-term sustainability

Essentially, the future sustainability of our alliance will depend on whether our provision and support responds to the needs of colleagues and is of a quality that has the greatest impact possible on children’s outcomes. That requires the full participation of all schools.

The reality is that schools in most alliances will need to contribute to the financial viability of these partnerships if they are to provide the co-ordination and support required. Schools will be right to ask questions of their alliance, but they will also have to play their part in contributing the necessary financial and professional capital to sustain them.

I would always choose to be a Teaching School – it provides so much freedom and autonomy to develop our staff, to work with other schools and to shape and belong to a professional learning community like no other before it. Most importantly, it keeps us focused, as a wider group of professionals, on the ambitions we have for all children across all of our schools and how we work together to fulfil them.  

  • Marie-Claire Bretherton is executive headteacher at Mount Street Academy, Lincoln Carlton Academy and the Kyra Teaching School Alliance, part of the CfBT Schools Trust.

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