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

Building a federation to support standards — working in partnership with schools in challenging circumstances.

Paul Edwards, Headteacher, Garforth Community College, and Executive Headteacher, Agnes Stewart Church of England High School, Leeds.

Early partnerships
During the last four years, Garforth Community College (GCC) has been included in a range of local and regional partnerships, some of which developed into federations. This has included:

  • highly focused curriculum support into target groups of students in the partner schools
  • the provision of videoconferencing for sixth-form lessons into schools with much smaller sixth forms
  • management and leadership support and consultation and agreed intervention into schools in challenging circumstances.

It is this last area of operation that has grown over time into formal federated arrangements with partner schools. Four years ago the first ‘collaboration’ was established. The local authority brokered a partnership to support a nearby comprehensive school in difficulty. The headteacher of that school had been encouraged to move on due to the disintegrating climate of student behaviour within the school.

The first proposal suggested that the headteacher of Garforth Community College should simply ‘parachute’ in to re-establish order and refocus the staff. However, it was soon recognised that the arrangement could go far further if a deeper partnership was formed that included other colleagues from Garforth deployed strategically in key areas. This strategic approach could build on the growing capacity at GCC and support effectively at the ‘pressure points’ in the partner school. In these early days, much of the development planning was ad hoc and reactive, dealing with issues as they arose rather than attempting to plan a strategy. However, even though this early, and largely unfunded, intervention was a loose affair, it did prove highly successful. The key milestones of improvement over the nine months of the partnership included a significant improvement in student attainment at Key Stage 4 and a successful Ofsted inspection that resulted in the school being removed from the ‘serious weaknesses’ category it had been put in under the previous Ofsted framework.

The keys to the success of this largely reactive and unplanned partnership were simple and could be seen as generic in nature.

Becoming a more formal federation This work was completed before the introduction of the Leadership Incentive Grant (LIG), but with the recognised success and the wealth of derived experience it became clear that Garforth Community College had the capacity to take this way of working further and develop the concept of even more formal partnerships with schools in challenging circumstances. With the support of LIG funding, Garforth was asked to form a close working relationship with Agnes Stewart Church of England High School, an inner-city school in the heart of Leeds. Agnes Stewart has high social deprivation indices and a multi-ethnic student population with high pupil mobility. There are also a high number of asylum seekers with little or no English within the school. Attainment had fallen to 11% of students gaining five or more A*–C grades at GCSE or equivalent and no students remained post 16. Exclusions were high and attendance low.

Initially, the work operated under the umbrella of the local LIG arrangements but it became clear that a more formal and planned intervention was required as standards in the partner school continued to fall. The school had been on special measures for three years and key issues around attainment, behaviour, leadership and management continued to be raised in Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (HMI) monitoring visits. Staffing issues were becoming increasingly prevalent and temporary staffing arrangements were exacerbating many of the HMI key issues.

In the early stages of the partnership, a joint governance group was formed from both schools. Its role was to focus on and provide support for tackling key issues of concern identified by HMI around low academic standards, behaviour and recruitment and retention of staff and also to underpin the deployment of the LIG grant within the partnership. This led to the pooling of LIG funding to support the work within Agnes Stewart. While at first this seemed to be of sole benefit to Agnes Stewart School, it became quickly apparent that this pooling of funding supported a range of staff in both schools, developing their understanding and expertise of working with students both in and out of challenging circumstances. Simply put, LIG facilitated the growth of capacity at Garforth Community College to provide effective and targeted support in highly complex situations.

Employing ‘leading learners’
An additional key priority for the early LIG partnership was to stabilise staffing and improve the quality of teaching within Agnes Stewart School. As recruitment had become very difficult it was agreed by the joint committee of governors to use part of LIG and funding from the Agnes Stewart budget to support the appointment of four high-level teachers to Garforth Community College, who would then be subsequently deployed almost full time to Agnes Stewart. These ‘learning leaders’ were offered enhanced salaries and were appointed to focus both on pedagogy and standards in Agnes Stewart while at the same time providing a key management lead around HMI monitoring issues. These colleagues in many respects were the ‘sharp edge’ of Garforth support at the chalkface.

Ongoing difficulties Over the first two years of LIG funding this strategy, coupled with other support activities within the curriculum, HMI was satisfied that the key issues around special measures were being addressed. Consequently, the added capacity from the partnership activities resulted in the removal of special measures — six months after the inception of the programme.

However, despite this success levels of attainment, student disaffection, and staff morale remained unsatisfactory and the school remained close to the bottom of the national league tables on every indicator. Value-added performance was particularly worrying with the school performing consistently below the 95th percentile. Transition arrangements for the planned closure of the school and the merger with another school into a new academy were ad hoc and unfocused, although some good work had begun.

When the headteacher of Agnes Stewart relocated to another post, the formation of a formal federation was proposed by governors and the DfES to support the school in the last 18 months leading to its closure. This ‘gear change’ presented new opportunities and challenges, but the wealth of experience from earlier partnerships enabled a clear action plan to be introduced that addressed pressing priorities within the school. This action plan quickly focused on key areas that included those set out in the box below.

The key challenges identified early on were in four areas:

  • raise standards of attainment
  • improve behaviour and attendance
  • improve climate and ethos
  • manage transition to the new academy.

Additionally, a full section five Ofsted inspection was imminent. As the executive headteacher acting on behalf of the governors, I was accountable for producing an action plan that deployed resources across the partnership focused on these clear priorities. At the same time structures were put in place to promote the development of staff in both schools and to build expertise for the future. These included a single approach to staff training and new staff appointments, the management of budgets and the deployment of support staff, including cover supervisors. The use of additional payments, such as fixed-term management allowances and honorarium payments, for all staff promoted innovation at all levels and provided a useful kick start for the new focus within both schools.

The development of a shared curriculum model supported by synchronising the two schools’ days enabled the effective sharing of staff and resources, even though the two sites were a few miles apart. Focus on literacy and numeracy and the clear identification of students to be provided with additional support was an early priority for the federation. One positive impact of this restructuring was the retention on site at lunchtime of all students at Agnes Stewart School, which led to a much improved ‘image’ for the school in the local community. It also helped to improve behaviour, especially during the afternoon sessions.

Tackling disaffection A new learning inclusion centre was established to focus on the complex needs of pupils that had previously been disaffected with the curriculum. This centre had the simple remit of supporting individual learning plans for these students with an added focus on literacy and behaviour support. The pupils’ learning programmes were put in the hands of the centre manager who worked with parents and staff in delivering these opportunities to pupils. The centre also provided a useful ‘buffer’ in the system, dramatically reducing the need for exclusion and helping to improve the climate within the school. Staffing in the centre reflected the complexity of the work and employed a significant multi-agency team with a very diverse range of experience. The success of the centre complemented the work in the curriculum broadening the range of choice for students dramatically.

In tandem, the use of multiple sites for the delivery of different curricular experience, such as Garforth Community College for science and English, a community-based hair and beauty centre, and a local Family Learning Centre for vocational courses in building, art, media, performing arts, sports science and business studies, also widened the impact on the students’ learning experiences, with the pupils being transported between the sites via contracted bus services.

Outcomes Transition to the new academy was tackled through this strategy with Year 10 students (who would be the first Year 11 in the new academy) entered on a programme that promoted the Academy focus on vocational studies. A team of staff drawn from within the federation and other partners delivered the new programme as an extension to the core curriculum on offer at Agnes Stewart Church of England High School. While the federation continues to work hard to support the complex demands of students in the inner city, early milestones point clearly to success — see the box right on page 9 for examples.

Expectations are that this rapid improvement is set to continue and it is hoped that Agnes Stewart will achieve 25% A*–C in the 2006 GCSE exams. Garforth Community College has also benefited from the federation and expects 85%+ at 5+ A*–C this summer. Both statistics will be record-breakers in both schools.

What we have learned The purpose of a school federation should be to raise standards across a group of schools. This is an opportunity to share the best leadership and develop a new impetus for school improvement. It is essential that every federation has within it the capacity for improvement. A federation is not an amalgamation of similar schools, but an organisation that plays to its strengths, working strategically to raise standards for all. This can be characterised in a number of ways, but there needs to be clear leadership at all levels including an important strategic awareness on the part of the senior management and governing body. Strong leadership, clear vision, excellent strategic awareness and a people-first philosophy are essential qualities that should underpin leadership and governance.

Generic principles that can be extracted from these experiences include those set out in the box below.

Benefits Excellence in leadership and governance provides the essential climate for raising standards and encourages schools to learn from each other. Federations can provide the structure for effective partnerships with a common organisation supporting good practice. Pupils will have the opportunity to experience a more enriched and diverse curriculum at all key stages. Progression routes should become clearer and students will have improved access to a range of opportunities that are currently unavailable to them.

The formal partnership between Garforth Community College and Agnes Stewart has proven popular with parents, as they have seen a rise in standards in both schools. The early uncertainties around a potential lack of focus in senior leaders has disappeared as the clarity of the situation has led to decisive practice in both schools. Good communication with both communities was essential in the early stages of the partnership and the exchange of governors between each governing body did much to foster trust and understanding. Teachers in good schools talk about methodology, have a clear focus on classroom standards and recognise that any obstacle to learning must be removed. Schools working together will have the capacity to support each other and generate a clear focus on teaching and learning. Federations of schools should be able to centralise support, operate more cost-effectively, reduce bureaucracy and share a clear vision for school improvement that puts the classroom at the heart of all planning.

Paul Edwards, Headteacher, Garforth Community College, and Executive Headteacher, Agnes Stewart Church of England High School, Leeds.

School context
Garforth Community College is a larger than average comprehensive school located to the east of Leeds. For many years, Garforth has been a popular and successful school and more recently has enjoyed particular success in exam performance, rising from 60% of students gaining five or more A*–C grades at GCSE level in 2001, to 82% 5+ A*–C in 2005. This is as a consequence of curriculum expansion and effective social inclusion strategies. It has led to an increase in popularity of the school in all years and a dramatic growth in the size of the sixth form from 200 students four years ago to 450 this academic year. All projections suggest this growth is set to continue as attainment at KS4 continues to improve. With the development of offsite specialist provision run by the college in business and other vocational areas, the sixth form is set to rise to around 600 in the next three years.

This expansion is a result of curriculum divergence and consequential high attainment at Key Stage 4. This in turn has fuelled further expansion and added significant capacity to us being able to provide well-qualified teaching and management staff. The range of expertise in a well-organised and successful school has enabled successful partnership activities to develop to the mutual benefit of both the partner schools and Garforth Community College.

Factors for success

  • Clear focus and vision on the key issues
  • An uncluttered and unrelenting focus on standards, including behaviour and teacher performance
  • The formation of an effective joint governance structure to underpin and challenge the actions of the partnership
  • Transparent and shared accountability
  • A belief in a ‘people-first’ ethos

Impact of intervention

  • Exam performance rose (within three months of the intervention) from a projected 7% 5+ A*–C to 18% (11% the previous year)
  • Level 5 results at Key Stage 3 showed improvement
  • Exclusions reduced by 65% within one term of the intervention
  • A full staffing complement was achieved and set to stay in place until the school closure
  • A successful Ofsted inspection

Action plan:

  • Appoint an executive head to set strategy and oversee standards across the federation and to be accountable to governors for these standards. The executive headteacher also retained the substantive post of headteacher at Garforth Community College.
  • Appoint a ‘site headteacher’ at Agnes Stewart Church of England High School from Garforth Community College to be responsible for the day-to-day operation of Agnes Stewart and to be accountable to the executive headteacher.
  • Strengthen governance by sharing of expertise between both governing bodies. Governors from both schools were given the opportunity to sit on both governing bodies.
  • Form a focus group of governors with some delegated powers to support the work of the federation.

Creating effective federations

  • Governance: set up a joint governing body with delegated powers for all schools in the federation. Good governance linked to excellent leadership produces high standards in schools. If federations are to have a chance of success there must be an effective relationship between the federation leaders and a newly-appointed governing body. Without this the focus on standards will be compromised and the potential for inappropriate political infighting between schools created.
  • Chief executives: recruit a chief executive to report to the joint board. This individual must have the powers to design the most appropriate leadership group for the whole federation and be supported in setting the standards for all the schools.
  • Teachers: these are the most important resource in any school. A federation would wish to develop a pool of excellent colleagues that could work school by school in raising standards in addition to colleagues that would be based in one school only. Specialist teachers, advanced skills teachers (ASTs), support and administrative staff can be centrally deployed to help develop a consistent focus on the raising of standards.
  • Specialist schools: these should play an important part in every federation. What would be the status of the federation in relation to a lead school’s specialism? For instance, Garforth Community College has Arts College status, so would any federation based on Garforth need to have the same commitment to performing arts? We believe not, and the capacity added through partnership should enhance the breadth of experience offered to the student.
  • Standards: the strategic board for the federation should be accountable for standards. This body will assess the effectiveness of the chief executive and monitor the strategic development plan for all schools. The drive for improvement lies within the corporate body with the strategic board setting standards and monitoring whole federation development. Ofsted inspections will become even more interesting!

This article first appeared in Curriculum Management Update – Mar 2006

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