Teaching Schools – The primary pioneers

Written by: HTU | Published:

Teaching Schools were trumpeted as a major step forward in CPD for teachers and leaders when launched last autumn. Eight months on, Nick Bannister talks to two primary heads who are running two of the first primary Teaching Schools

Teaching Schools were just one of many big shifts in education policy when they were proposed in the 2010 education White Paper.

Excellent schools from around England would be chosen to become Teaching Schools – putting responsibility for the professional development of leaders and teachers and system-wide improvement in the hands of schools for the first time.The first Teaching Schools were designated barely 10 months later when more than 100 heads gathered for an induction event at the National College for School Leadership’s Nottingham headquarters.

There they heard education academic Professor David Hargreaves describe the initiative as the “critical event” in the creation of a school system that improved itself.

It is still too early to say whether Teaching Schools are indeed the turning point on the road towards that “self-improving” system, but the signs are that the 45 primary schools and primary academies awarded Teaching School status in that first cohort are beginning to make significant strides.

St Mary’s and St Paul’s Primary in Knowsley was among that first cohort. Headteacher Neil Dixon said: “It’s exciting to be involved in some different things as well as a development of things that we have already been doing. Overall it has been very positive experience so far and I’m delighted that we did it.”

The one-form entry school may be small but it seems to be punching well above its weight, leading a Teaching School partnership made up of 18 schools within the local authority and beyond, with connections to many other schools, as well as strategic partners including the nearby Liverpool Hope and Edge Hill universities.Teaching School status did not mean a total change of direction for St Mary and St Paul’s and the schools it works with, Mr Dixon added.

“When we went to the induction and training event in September one of the first things that was said was that we should carry on doing the good things that we already do and keep on doing these things well.”

The school and its alliance are certainly following that advice. The school was one of last cohort of the Primary Training Schools so initial teacher training (ITT), early years and career development for NQTs remains its main area of expertise.

And it is an area that continues to be developed. Since September schools across the alliance have delivered NQT training, using the University of Manchester’s Centre for Educational Leadership to deliver the programme. This is alongside running a primary NQT programme involving dozens more teachers in schools across Knowsley and neighbouring local authorities.

The alliance is working with Liverpool Hope University to develop School Direct – school-led ITT that will allow students to get more practical schools experience before they take their PGCE.

And it has set up a project, funded by the Training and Development Agency for Schools, to look at excellent practice in phonics teaching. The project involves Birmingham Edge Hill University and seven schools across Knowsley and St Helen’s.The alliance is also starting to deliver a training programme for teaching assistants, as well as designating six SLEs (specialist leaders of education) – outstanding middle and senior leaders – and a local leader of education to support other schools.

Teaching school status was also a natural progression for Oldways Primary School in Paignton, Devon. Headteacher Peter Maunder has been instrumental in driving partnership working in the area in recent years. In 2010 he was seconded to Torbay local authority to lead school improvement across the area.

“Just the fact of all of these schools signing up to be part of that whole commitment to collaboration is superb,” he explained. “In our view it is really preferable to being in a very competitive situation.”

The Oldways-led Teaching School alliance is delivering a number of key initiatives, including running programmes for outstanding and improving teachers. Both programmes were pioneered in the hugely successful London Challenge programme and are now being offered to all alliance schools.

One of the key features of the programme – and one which seems to underline the benefits of collaboration – is the requirement for participating teachers to go on “ward rounds”, visiting schools around the alliance to watch good teaching practice in action, as well as being observed themselves.

That approach also underpins the alliance’s work to identify SLEs. “A main issue for us is to make sure that we harness talent across other schools. If we don’t focus on that then we are dead in the water,” Mr Maunder said.

“The most important thing for me is building social capital,” he continued. “Without all schools buying into this it just wouldn’t work. It’s about working with other schools.

“Heads are not interested in working with empire builders. It works because serving heads and teachers understand that day-to-day pressure and support is automatically built into any work. Our role is to harness local talent, while remaining outward-looking, and engage in joint practice development.

“The fact that nearly every ‘Bay’ school has joined the alliance shows commitment to collaborative working.”

The opportunities presented by Teaching School status are clear to Mr Maunder. But then so are the challenges. Oldways and its partner schools have, like their Knowsley counterparts, had to get used to a furious work rate.

He explained: “I am probably working harder than I have worked. It’s going well but there are a lot of us working flat out on this. It would be dishonest to claim that this isn’t a hard job. We’re doing this work as well as not taking our eye off the ball when it comes to your own school.”

The workload of leading a Teaching School alliance has also been a challenge for Mr Dixon and his colleagues, along with changing preconceptions about the purpose and motives of Teaching Schools.

“When we started we needed to make sure that everyone involved understood what a Teaching School did,” he said. “There was a perception that they would be show-off schools telling everyone what to do, but the schools we work with have approaches that we do not. It’s all about sharing. We had to break down that barrier and emphasise that we were there to broker help and support.”

Working across local authority boundaries has also taken some getting used to, but the benefits have made it worth it, he added. “It’s been a chance to draw on the strengths of local authorities and the knowledge that they have got and then share it more widely. It’s a new way of thinking. We can draw on the good parts of local authority working but at the same time have cross-local authority working.”

These first primary Teaching Schools were joined by a second cohort in April. It means there are more than 200 now operating across England – and more than 80 are primaries. The National College’s aim is to have around 500 Teaching Schools established by 2014.

By that time, according to the National College, the network of Teaching School alliances will have “driven significant improvement in the quality of professional practice, improving the attainment of every child”, provided a strong supply of high quality new teachers, significantly improved the quality of serving teachers, developed the next generation of heads, as well as helped to reduce the number of struggling schools.

And one of the results of this will be better results all round, fewer poorly performing schools and more good and outstanding schools – and that much vaunted self-improving system that Prof David Hargreaves talked about back in September 2011.

The impact of the Teaching School approach on the pupils is at the forefront of the minds of leaders like Peter Maunder and Neil Dixon. “I will be looking at this year’s results with interest but it is still early days,” added Mr Maunder. “I hope to see some impact. That’s the big question. What is the impact of all this on learning?”The second wave of Teaching Schools

The second wave of teaching schools is made up of 39 primary, 47 secondary and 16 special schools from across the country – bringing the total number of Teaching Schools nationally to well over 200.

The latest Teaching Schools were formally awarded the status at an induction event at the National College’s Learning and Conference Centre in Nottingham last month.Toby Salt, deputy chief executive of the National College, said: “These schools must be at the top of their game for this role – outstanding in their own performance and have a track record of raising standards through school-to-school support.

“They will be harnessing the finest teaching talent in the profession to drive school improvement in innovative ways and bring real benefits to pupils and staff. Trainees can learn from the best teachers in action and those who want to move up the career ladder are exposed to excellent practice within and beyond their immediate school.”

More information on eligibility and how to apply for Teaching School status is available on from the National College.

• Nick Bannister is an education writer and communications consultant.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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