The agenda of the steering group meeting provides a useful opportunity for reflection on some of the leadership issues which have emerged during the first few months of operation as a Teaching School.
The first item covered the recent Literacy conference. This went very well indeed and the feedback was excellent. There were one or two glitches – the acoustics in the conference hall were terrible, for example – but the quality of learning was first class. Organising a conference for colleagues from schools all over the region is a significant undertaking and perhaps more complex than we first thought. The planning is exciting and offers a real chance to shape the day according to your own view and the views of colleagues as to exactly what kind of event is needed. Asking what we want to learn and then providing people to answer that question is a real challenge but a fantastic opportunity.
In addition, there are hundreds of details which don’t immediately occur to you. What is the best way to contact the right people in schools across the region? Flyers and information emails never seem to get past admin@ or office@. Worst of all is head@! We now have a list of people who attended the conference, so it should be much easier next time but it is this kind of detail – essentially a management issue – which can have a powerful impact on the success or failure of an event.
The Trio discussion was excellent and there is now are real sense of enthusiasm in the group for the project. Did the carrot of £1k help? Hard to say but it does lend a certain sense of rigour to the proceedings as we will now need to ensure that there is some kind of audit trail and obviously greater accountability. Putting the trios together was much harder than we thought it would be – again, communication can be difficult across so many schools, and convincing so many people of the benefits of each ‘good idea’ can be quite demanding.
The SLE process is now all set to run and we are following NCSL guidance. Leadership here is hampered by the fact that both the National College and the DfE have done such a poor job of promoting the role. How many people have a real understanding of what an SLE actually is. There aren’t many applications – we were expecting more – but those we have are excellent. We will need to work hard to ensure that our SLEs quickly become recognised both as skilled practitioners and as role models.
Our attempts to set up an MA programme were also bedevilled by communication issues. Schools which initially seemed enthusiastic withdrew at the last minute and there were endless problems trying to sort out a financially viable route through our HE institutions. I admit to a certain naivete here: I assumed this would be really straightforward. We will now learn from our mistakes and try again next year. Schools will be able to plan ahead and give colleagues more time to think through their CPD options.
Schools Direct is another area fraught with leadership issues. Again, it has been exceptionally badly thought out by the Teaching Agency and the DfE and there is a great deal of confusion around the whole process. We have opted for the non-salaried route, as the salaried route would end up costing us too much money, and as we agree the structure and nature of the course it is looking more and more like a PGCE course everyday. We were excited to get a request for a place on the very first day, however. Managing the introduction of the new scheme will offer significant challenges but we will be well supported by our University of Exeter colleagues.
The planned directory of expertise led to a really interesting discussion about our role as a Teaching School and it was the agreement to provide mutual support which was most encouraging. This, surely, is one of the most positive features of the TS alliance – the ability to help each other. There is huge expertise available close at hand in the various schools which form the alliance and we would be mad to overlook such a powerful resource. Similarly, when we discussed further opportunities for collaboration it was very pleasing to see the degree of openness between the schools.
Issues of time arise constantly. How do we provide time for colleagues to be released from their teaching to take part in events or attend meetings? Most colleagues seem prepared to work around this and make sure that things happen. However, things are more difficult in the primary sector. We all acknowledge the difficulties of small school heads with large teaching loads who find it difficult to get out of school but is there a primary mentality which shouts ‘I’m so busy’ at every opportunity? Communication with some primary schools is also very difficult, with phones not answered and emails not returned. This may well be a feature of understaffing but it makes the leadership of large groups very difficult. These kind of thoughts are very non-NCSL but there are serious issues to be addressed here if we are to move forward as a partnership. One head has kindly agreed to coordinate a primary focus meeting to help ensure that we don’t drift towards a secondary only offer and that is a very positive move. The involvement of primary schools is vital to the success of our alliance but it is clear that we will have to work hard to make sure that the schools are fully engaged.
The issue of expanding the alliance also raises interesting questions. How big should a TS alliance be if it is to be effective and operate efficiently. At the moment we clearly need more primary involvement so we plan to invite key local primaries to join us but we must be careful not to create too many expectations. We need to make sure that we are working well as a group before we consider expansion. Let’s get things off the ground before we expand. We need to ensure that we have firm foundations and established good practice before we can offer to spread our wings.
Most encouraging of all was the attitude and enthusiasm of the steering group on this occasion. As we work more closer together, barriers are beginning to fall and opportunities grasped. Perhaps becoming a teaching school wasn’t such a bad idea after all.