Tags: Curriculum Manager | School Leadership & Management | Teaching & Learning Coordinator | Teaching and Learning

Federations are already in the second year of existence — so what has been learned so far about how to create a successful alliance that brings about sizeable improvements in teaching and learning among all the partners? We learn from DfES guidance and NCSL research about what factors contribute to success.

Diversity and collaboration are continually being thrust forward by recent reform as the two main ways to raise standards in the nation’s schools. They are the foundation of the transforming secondary education agenda, flagged as the main driver for improving teaching and learning. Federations are one innovative way of achieving this in practice by providing the means to transform leadership to focus on network learning across a number of schools.

But what do they involve and how can they work best to achieve this in practice?

Federations — what are they? Federation schools formally came into being under the Education Act 2002. Their aim is to bring schools together in a collaborative arrangement to raise standards, promote inclusion, and find new ways of approaching teaching and learning. From September 2003, schools were given the power to create a single or joint governing body across two or more schools to work together in this way. The federation can involve a mix of primary and secondary schools. The schools involved are run on their own separate sites – so this is not an amalgamation. Each school continues to run its own budget, admissions policy and has its own performance tables.

They have been marked out as being a key way to help schools struggling to improve pupil achievement. But benefits accrue to all schools involved, not just the ‘weaker’ partners – see the box at the bottom of page 3. As stressed by the DfES booklet, An introduction to school federations (downloadable via: www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/federations), all schools have their own strengths and advantages, and it is sharing these assets within the federation network that can help each school improve the education it offers its students. Being part of a federation provides an opportunity to share resources, teaching staff, facilities and ideas to benefit from these in each school’s attempt to raise standards. It also provides an effective way to learn from the strengths of excellent teaching from colleagues in other schools.

Executive headship: flagship for success The key way federations are designed to make this transformation in achievement a reality is via changing the leadership and management structures in the schools. In a lot of federations, this is achieved by creating an executive headship role – where the head of a successful school spreads their expertise across the schools involved in the federation by effectively becoming a headteacher on each site. Recently, the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) has researched what makes for a good executive head (EH) to point up lessons for all school leaders considering taking on this role.

The EH role is often, but not wholly, associated with federations, says the report Executive headship: a study of heads who are leading two or more secondary or special schools. A number of the eight executive heads involved in the study were within ‘hard’ DfES federations, while the others worked within federated school systems outside the DfES scheme. The DfES defines ‘hard federations’ as those that are formally set up, have agreement on common goals and are run by a single governing body, with one executive head or many heads involved in their running. ‘Soft’ federations are informal, but still with agreement on common goals. They are run by joint committees set up, for example, on particular aspects of teaching and learning or leadership, but each member school retains a degree of autonomy.

The NCSL report sets out the key ways an executive headship can be structured. All of the executive heads involved in their study were involved in one of these types of support federations, mostly within the last category on the list. All but one were approached to take on the role to help out a school with significant weakness or loss of confidence.

Deciding to become an EH All in the study spent time considering carefully the proposal to become an executive head. One had taken his existing leadership team to look at the school before considering and agreeing. Several pointed out the need to have the capacity in their own school for dispersed leadership, with staff who were ready to take on a new challenge, either in their own school or one of the partner schools to help with leadership tasks. Most saw the role as an opportunity to help others to achieve their potential, which gave them personal fulfilment, and motivation to do this work.

Setting ground rules All of the executive heads taking part in the NCSL research spent time negotiating what their involvement would be, setting very specific conditions for this from the outset. This includes such factors as which staff they want involved, what resources they would need, what the accountability processes would be for the federation and so on. They were also explicit from the start about certain things they would, or would not accept. Several wanted the head of the partner school, a member of the leadership team of the partner school, or the chair of governors of the partner school to leave before they would agree to take on the role.

All were upfront at the outset about the resources they would need to do the job properly. All also expressed the need for freedom to act. All made sure that they agreed with the partner school(s) the timescale for their involvement and an exit strategy so that the arrangement was clear from day one.

Purpose The executive heads involved in the study saw their role as capacity building – developing in the other school a leadership team that was capable of transforming practice and outcomes. As well as problem-solving, they also saw it as crucial to develop the capacity of the staff to problem solve as well, often using coaching as the means of achieving this.

Leadership style The researchers found that while all of the eight executive heads taking part in the research rejected the notion of ‘hero leadership’, most showed qualities of drive, determination, self-confidence and strength of personality that are often associated with such leadership. The executive heads saw the role as one of ‘adoption’. As one of them stressed, it was not about taking the school over but moving it forward. All of them also saw the task as a team or school responsibility and were not prepared to work alone. All wanted a well-known and trusted colleague or team working alongside them. Some of the benefits of developing a team-based approach to leadership are set out in the box below right. Examples of ways in which the executive heads made use of lead staff to achieve their objectives are set out in the box at the top of page 7. This provided lead staff with a good professional development opportunity, allowing them to develop their own skills through supporting others.

In many cases, the executive heads employed an associate head to help carry out the more day-to-day operational tasks. This role was essentially as an apprentice, with the executive offering tutelage and coaching, providing the associate with the chance to draw on their skills and expertise while experiencing a diversity and intensity of leadership experience that leaders in other contexts may take years to accumulate. Merging two leadership teams can be rife with difficulties if not handled sensitively. As a result, some of the executive heads brought in a completely new team. Those that did not take this route needed to give time and attention to building productive, forward-looking working relationships within the senior management teams. They did this by personally coaching and mentoring members of the leadership team to build capacity, and by bringing the leaders together early on for a meeting to set out their approach.

All were acutely conscious of the sensitive nature of the role, in particular in relation to ‘usurping’ others’ powers. They needed to concentrate on building positive relationships with all staff to avoid resistance and to secure commitment to achieving common goals. Many executive heads found themselves viewed with a degree of mistrust and concern, with staff in the adopted school fearful of what action they were going to take, seeing them as ‘chief executioner’. Other staff saw the potential of the executive head role to bring about improvements and ‘save’ their school. To ensure it was the latter view that predominated, the executive heads were quick to establish a culture of openness and trust, including others within the decision-making process and taking steps to create a blame-free culture where the mistakes of the past were recognised but seen as a basis for learning and moving forward.

Getting started On arrival, assessing the quality of the school’s teaching and learning was considered essential. From there, the executive heads would be able to identify weaknesses and decide on a course of action to address them. To identify ways to best improve the partner school, the executive heads considered:

  • how to use school-to-school links
  • intuitive versus structured auditing
  • establishing the climate for learning
  • effective ways of improving standards in learning and teaching
  • what would be appropriate support provision to introduce.

To achieve improvements in practice, they focused on the following key action:

  • modelling desired behaviours/practice and challenging unacceptable practice and attitudes
  • embedding positive and purposeful relationships across and beyond the schools involved
  • having vision
  • restructuring school systems, such as staffing, and the curriculum
  • resource-chasingl
  • creating networks.

One of the executive heads used the continuous school improvement model to identify key tasks. This involved staff in the school assessing the issues at a departmental and school level and comparing the outcomes with those from other schools. This meant they took ownership of the issues and were committed to making the necessary changes in practice. Another executive head used the improving the quality of education for all (IQEA) principles, and focused on the five elements of the change process: curriculum, teaching and learning, parental involvement, financial management, and staff development. The role of the leadership team in achieving objectives was crucial. Most of the executive heads’ time was taken up with setting these objectives and then ensuring commitment to achieving them. This was particularly the case early on in the federation’s life, when resistance and dissent from staff was highest, says the NCSL report.

Each of the executive heads used staff resourcefully so that they could focus on the areas most needing their skills. One executive head made a conscious decision to undertake some teaching to model his expectations to the school’s existing senior managers that their role was not confined to an office. He also delegated financial matters to a business manager from industry to provide time for teaching, so that he did not have to deal with financial tasks in detail. Another executive head arranged it so that he had a lot less paperwork, which freed up time for working on more strategic issues.

Raising standards In most cases, the executive heads identified the need to create robust, rigorous and consistently applied systems to turn around pupil behaviour. Ways they went about this included ‘stalking the corridors’ to send out the message that walking out of class was not acceptable behaviour, and making it clear in their initial school assembly how they expected the students to behave. Establishing a positive attitude to behaviour was vital to improving standards of learning and teaching. This often involved modelling to staff what such a school culture was about, in particular for younger members of staff who had little or no prior experience of what such a climate looked like. The executive heads used a range of innovative strategies to bring about improvements in teaching and learning. As for day-to-day management, the majority of the executive heads taking part in the research focused on short-term improvements and capacity-building. They saw their role as working at the strategic level, rather than being involved in the daily running of the school. Most focused their attention on teaching and learning and staff development (or staff changes). Factors for becoming a successful executive head are set out in the box below.

Download the report Executive headship: a study of heads who are leading two or more secondary or special schools via: www.ncsl.org.uk/research/research_activities/new_models_of_headship

For DfES guidance on federations, see: www.standards.dfes. gov.uk/federations.

Examples of federation activity

  • Providing more flexible 14–19 options to address identified skills shortages in the area
  • Teachers visiting each other’s schools to benefit from peer observation and mentoring
  • Exchanging staff skills between special and mainstream schools on such issues as behaviour management
  • Increasing access to ICT and e-learning and using this to increase viability of minority subject offerings
  • Three community colleges working together on such issues as joint planning including timetabling, continuing professional development, and curriculum development
  • Focusing on creating subject expertise, broadening and improving 14–19 provision, and developing effective use of information and communications technology (ICT) and learning technologies
  • Six specialist schools, one special school, two training colleges and one leading edge school working together to broaden and enrich experiences for their students
  • Improving the achievement of specific pupil groups, broadening 14–19 provision, challenging the comfort zones of ‘coasting’ students and enhancing support and guidance through learning mentors, resulting in greater awareness of and access to vocational courses, improved teacher confidence and use of ICT, the sharing of materials and expertise through subject networking, joint planning of learning projectsl
  • Enhancing professional skills and creating a robust quality framework to improve learning opportunities and outcomes, in particular for groups at risk of underachievement and disaffection

Benefits of being part of a federation

  • Stronger senior and middle management team
  • Stronger teaching team through the appointment of shared staff including specialist teachers, better training, wider career opportunities
  • Better support and development opportunities for school governors
  • Savings in planning and administration time
  • A structured way for schools to collaborate, learn from each other and share best practice
  • Joint staffing opportunities including specialist teachers and wider career opportunities across the federation
  • A cost-effective and coherent curriculum, increasing the opportunity to fulfil individual students’ needs, extending their curriculum entitlement
  • Cost-effectiveness through economies of scale
  • A basis for further partnerships, including cross-phase and with other providers (such as 14–19, and community services)
  • Strategic planning, for example through the sharing of complementary specialisms

For the ‘adopted’ school, other benefits include:

  • the chance to be coached by high-calibre staff
  • improved distributed leadership
  • improved management structures
  • the development of a ‘can do’ culture
  • rigorous focus on learning and achievement:
  • high expectations
  • curriculum focus
  • professional development
  • improved behaviour and attendance
  • enhanced school community confidence in the potential for the school to secure improvement.

For the lead school, other benefits include:

  • opportunities for professional development and career development at a range of levels
  • heightened lead school capacity
  • extended reputation of the school
  • the chance to learn from the partner school experience and reflect on implications for their own school.

Strategies for improving teaching and learning

  • Using external agents, such as local education authority literacy consultants and advanced skills teachers, to model excellent practice
  • Using lead school staff to teach classes, both within and outside standard school hours, as well as to model excellent practice to adopted schools’ teachers
  • Importing a whole lead school team into the adopted school to to run a department
  • Using lead school learning support assistants (LSAs) to work with adopted school LSAs, as well as with pupils directly
  • Restructuring the curriculum to ensure greater focus on core areas
  • Staff training, for example on effective lesson planning
  • Coaching, which helped to dispel fear and build mutual trust

Forms of executive headship

  • Running two schools as one under a single head, which may or may not be a permanent arrangement
  • Developing a family of schools, a brand, each with its own headteacher, under the oversight of an executive head, which is a permanent arrangement
  • Cloning excellent schools, which is a permanent arrangement
  • Working as satellite schools with extensive support provided by the lead partner for a limited period, including from other key staff as well as the executive head; the partner school retains autonomy

Benefits of a team approach

  • Reduces the time needed to establish working relationships — by working in already proven and trusted combinations, it enables swifter progress
  • Makes school-to-school partnering more possible by securing commitment to success in both schools
  • Makes the task more enjoyable and rewarding
  • Helps to share the workload

Making good use of lead staff — case examples

  • A team of learning support assistants (LSAs) worked on a one-to-one basis with Year 11 pupils to change a culture of non-achievement to one of potential achievement
  • Lead teaching staff were tasked with operating an after-school ‘catch-up’ programme for Year 11 pupils — 30% of students opted in to this opportunity
  • Using members of the lead school’s subject team to support teaching and learning in the adopted school
  • Arranging for a range of non-teaching staff to spend time in the adopted school to support the development of effective systems

Factors for successful executive headship

  • Be clear about necessary pre-conditions at the outset and invest time in negotiating the specific terms of the arrangement at that stage
  • Have a broader vision, an ability to see a bigger picture and a sense of contributing to the good of young people generally
  • Have local knowledge, networks, or connections that could be put to good use to ensure improvements are sustained
  • Possess a sense of shared identity between the schools involved
  • Have a sense of common purpose — having a shared understanding of what needs to be done and how it is to be done, and a joint vision for improving the attainment, achievement and progression of students
  • Be able to provide strong cohesive leadership, developed across all levels of the schools
  • Create a strong management infrastructure, showing the capacity to deliver
  • Engender trust between the schools involved and build it into every level of management — schools need to share a sense of openness and a willingness to operate in a joined-up and united way
  • Put in place systems for reviewing progress, and monitoring and evaluation action to assess effectiveness
  • Be committed to providing time and resources to ensure that the federation is effective and sustainable; to raising standards and achievement in all of the schools in the federation; and to continually improving progression for all of the students involved l Introduce first-class methods of communication — many federations are developing intranets and various other e-forums as a means of communicating well with each other
  • Establish a clear sustainability strategy to ensure the collaboration will go the distance and to cope with times of change, such as in the leadership, if additional schools wish to join in or existing schools wish to leave
  • This article first appeared in Curriculum Management Update – Mar 2006

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