David White shares his school improvement partner (SIP) experiences from both sides, concerning the school improvement partner’s role and a hidden agenda at work within schools

I can hear the return to school playground chanting: ‘School improvement this, school improvement that. Challenging targets on this, excellence and enjoyment on that.’ Let’s not forget the mantra of that enlightened pronouncement, some time ago now, by a forgettable junior minister who profoundly stated that, ‘we, (presumably the government), will not rest until every school is above average’. C’mon! Wake up and smell the hummus, sunshine!

Isn’t this the problem, though? For over 20 years, (and probably ever thus), our education system has been used (and continues to be used) as a political football to perpetuate a propaganda to the general public that somehow educators are on the make for an easy life; that we come into work each day to do the bare minimum, passing time till the next long holiday, all at the expense of the pupils in our care for whom we give not a fig! In reality, we have had to assimilate change after reform after initiative and we are still expected in our face-to-face contacts to deliver the same benign, friendly, compassionate, consummate professional persona of the teacher as would have been recognised by our forebears, for decade after decade.

It is the same in the health service. League tables of this and that tell us that it is a failing service, dirty, disorganised and costing us more and more while becoming of less and less value with consultants being paid to undertake private practice. We (that is Joe Public) should demand our rights and complain, suggest the politicians. We read reports and hear interviews where someone says, how terrible the NHS is, for this and that element of care. They can only give praise for their own experiences, but qualify this by saying they are lucky. It’s everyone else who has had to suffer!

It is the same in education. The parents say their child has done well and enjoyed school and they are very happy with what they have experienced. However, they are lucky. It’s everyone else who has had to suffer!

The problem, I think, is that the popular rhetoric has won. It is this rhetoric that perpetuates the politician’s myth of failure and underperformance. In a lemming-like response, the public seem to accept the myth and the politicians win the electoral vote if they, like a knight in shining armour, come forward to save the day.

An attractive idea One such move to save the day was the suggestion, just those few short years ago, that schools should be supported in their improvement planning and performance by the appointment of a school improvement partner. This was one of those announcements that came in with a degree of quiet acceptance. The profession seemed to like the idea. It must be flawed, therefore! Even so, the idea developed and has now been rolled out in both primary and secondary schools across England. (The ‘lesser’ UK countries can be left alone. Some of them don’t even do end of key stage tests!)

By definition, a partnership is the relationship between people or organisations involved in a common activity or goal. There is cooperation and collaboration towards this shared purpose and a sharing of the risks.

As such, most of this definition could be accepted in terms of the SIP role, and I found it an exciting prospect that here was something at last which would allow me to work alongside someone who could offer support and help to develop and improve the work of my school. It was an opportunity to work with a colleague who understood the challenges of headship and who could help and support the decision-making process. Their brief would support performance management and help to revitalise an external perspective, once cherished by each headteacher from their link adviser, now sadly lost in a metamorphosis of becoming a standards inspector.

All boded well. I was so enthusiastic I applied to train as a SIP myself and still all boded well. The selection process was one of these crass, naïve online efforts, where you had to prove your knowledge and experience by analysing information about an anonymised data set. If we were successful (as I was) we had to go on a residential training course where we were shown how to analyse information about an anonymised data set before we were tested by analysing information about an anonymised data set. If we were shown to be successful at that (no criteria given!) we could move on to day two where, at last, we were given something different. We were shown how to write reports about our analysing information of the anonymised data set; then we wrote a report; then we were tested by writing a report. Again no criteria given! Very simplistic stuff and, yes, I passed and I am now an accredited SIP!

A ‘lever on school improvement’

Please accept my apologies for my very simplistic account of the two days. It was a very helpful experience and smashing professional learning and development, and I don’t say that in any way cynically. However, one thing causes me great concern. This whole idea started out as a proposed partnership. The alarm bells started to ring almost immediately on the first day of training. Domestic arrangements and introductions were run through by our facilitator and within a few minutes we were being introduced to one of the National Strategies Team regional coordinators. PowerPoint was launched and the title slide ‘The Role of the SIP’ appeared. This was swiftly followed by slide number two which, logically, detailed this role. Bullet point two on this list stated that, ‘For the first time we will have a real lever on school improvement, ie, the headteacher.’

What aggressive language! A real lever! I agree that any initiative is only successful if the headteacher is part of the activity, but by this very statement, the ‘powers that be’ seemed to be of the opinion that the SIP role is essential because of the intransigence of headteachers evidenced in the fact that schools have not performed well enough to meet the government’s target of Level 4’s to be attained in the Key Stage 2 tests. The SIP then was going to be the lever to make this happen – their words, not mine.

As I say I was ‘successful’ and was accredited as a SIP, (to add to my Ofsted badge and external adviser certificate) much to the consternation of my link inspector, I have to say. An inspector incidentally who hasn’t been a head, who wasn’t Ofsted trained and was still awaiting SIP accreditation. Even so, they still were able to dictate in their reports how I should run the school in order to raise standards to that all important level of ‘above average’!

I have now been working as a SIP in 20 schools. I have tried to approach it in a collegial way, coming from the perspective of being a headteacher, of understanding the continual stresses and strain of simply maintaining the practicalities of daily life in school. I have tried to be open and frank and write my reports in a way that reflects the particular emphasis and climate in which the schools are working. However, I find that this isn’t good enough! My brokerage of support hasn’t always been with my LA paymasters and my reports have sometimes detailed a lack of understanding and support by former external agencies. As a result, I have heard a comment from LA area inspectors suggesting that my partnership isn’t perhaps inspectoral enough for their liking. But perhaps my writing is as it should be. Perhaps it is a lever in another direction not considered before. I am perhaps reflecting the reality of our ‘first class, world-renown, 21st century education system’, one that truly does meet the needs of children, parents and society to a very large degree. Perhaps if the politicians took a back seat and stopped their incessant, finger-wagging accountability schemes, then excellence and enjoyment and ECM might truly flourish without the compounded stress caused to every member of the teaching profession.

The conclusions I have come to

  • The role of SIP is wonderful in principle
  • The initial idea was highjacked somewhere along the way but the situation is retrievable
  • There are conflicts of interest between LA, SIP and the schools in which the SIP works
  • The excellent idea that serving heads would work as SIPs is flawed because, while very desirable, it is almost impossible for serving heads to be actively involved without a significant compromise to their own workload and work/life balance. This has meant many jaded LA officers training but it has an added benefit of the SIP money being diverted into LA salary streams. (Only more enlightened LAs have appointed external SIPs in the entirety. Yes, they do exist!)
  • I really enjoy the confidential, professional dialogue with colleagues that takes place when working as a SIP, but I find that the conflict of interests can be very hard to keep in balance. Do I personally want to continue to be a ‘lapdog lever’, a puppet of an unwritten improvement agenda?
  • I hope the SIP role develops into a really positive series of professional working relationships akin to that of external examiner work in higher education, a role in which the true meaning of partnership is emphasised and demonstrated in practice.

I realise this article might sound like a sanguine rant from a disgruntled middle-aged cynic. It isn’t meant to. However, sometimes it does one good to get things off one’s chest. You too may feel this has touched a pressure point of understanding and, if nothing more, it is good to know you are not alone. One thing is certain, however; the role will evolve and mature. All I hope is that for once, just once, legislators take on board the professional consensus and allow this wonderful opportunity to truly flourish and not constrain it into a ‘tick-box’ accountability-framework used in evidence against both headteachers and schools.

David White is a former head of a junior school