This was the second meeting for The JCTSA alliance and proved to be very useful, both in terms of sharing progress and preparing for further research. The most interesting part of the day was the morning session where ideas were shared in our regional groups. Since the South West Group was so small – there were only three of us, plus Natalie Parish our research lead – this enabled us to consider many of the wider issues relating to the theme we are focussing on.
There were a number of key issues which doubtless relate to all aspects of this project:
- The difficulties of the ‘buy-in’. It is very difficult to engage partner schools in the Teaching School Project. Some schools are very keen to participate and are playing a significant part in development activities; the majority have to be lured into participation (the ‘what’s in it for me group ‘ ); and some can best be described as ‘sleeping partners’. It was encouraging to hear that this is a common problem across all teaching school alliances.
- Trust between schools is key to all TS activities. This relates to point 1 and is really stating the obvious but in practice it is a significant issue. In some alliances where competition and suspicion are less of a problem it is undoubtedly easier to build social capital; it was clear, however, that some TS schools were finding it difficult to convince their partners of the probity of their intentions.
- One of the TS schools in our group had conducted a fascinating piece of preliminary research, with leaders from different schools observing lessons and comparing judgements. The result was a general consensus but the most interesting finding related to a senior leader from a very directive school. This was an Ofsted outstanding school which had achieved outstanding status by creating a very clear structure for staff in the school to follow and lessons were judged according to this structure. When the Head of this school went to judge lessons in another school, they were often found wanting because they did not match the structure which had served him so well. There are two interesting ideas here. First, it could be that overly directive leadership can actually hinder partnership and the sharing of pedagogy; the second is the importance of context.
- The attempt to spread best practice across a number of schools depends upon careful consideration of the contexts of each school. Talking to colleagues from large federations or Academy chains rang alarm bells for me in that most seemed to have a common plan which they were seeking to impose on all the schools in their group. This may work up to a point but it seems to ignore the differing contexts of schools in their group. This is not just a question of attainment, social mix or the area in which the school is located, but a matter of culture. Schools can have very similar students and share many similarities but have totally different cultures. The building of successful relationships must therefore take into account these differing cultures and ultimately aim to build a shared culture.
- If a shared culture is to be achieved, it must be built around Teaching and Learning. Whatever the peripheral activities which serve to shape a school’s particular ethos, there must be an over-riding focus on the development of teaching and learning. It is also worth making the point that this shared learning culture may not necessarily be judged by GCSE results or Ofsted grades. TS alliances may ultimately create their own criteria for what constitutes outstanding pedagogy.
- Another very interesting discussion concerned student engagement. One colleague has been working with a children’s entertainer, looking at the way pupils engage with the ‘show’. This raises some fascinating issues relating to pedagogy and its leadership. If we are to improve and share outstanding pedagogy, student engagement must surely be at the heart of what we do. Attempting to explore what makes for strong engagement is therefore vital if we are to develop effective learning. It may be that the elements of the puppet show which pupils find so compelling are transferrable to mainstream classroom activities.
- A sad reflection on the state of the current education system was that fear of Ofsted seems to be a barrier to successful collaboration in many schools. Though not an issue in some alliances, in others it is clearly a factor. Some schools are so concerned with improving their Ofsted gradings they simple don’t come out of school for any activities not directly related to Ofsted. In attempting to create successful partnerships, it is very difficult to build relationships if schools are prepared only to consider Ofsted related activities. It could be said, however, that the reasons many schools remain ‘requiring improvement’ could be their reluctance to engage in these activities.
- One of the jobs of the leaders of Teaching Schools is to mediate the bureaucratic Tsunami engulfing schools nowadays and allow leaders to focus on Teaching and Learning.
The key issue arising out of the morning’s discussion was the importance of context and culture.