School improvement partner (and former headteacher) Trevor Arrowsmith explains what the role involves, how schools can benefit and what difference the initiative has made

In 2004, the Government set out its vision for a new relationship with schools, designed to give schools greater autonomy and to help them raise standards. The school improvement partner (SIP) programme was introduced as part of this new relationship and SIPs concluded their second term of work with secondary schools in England and Wales in March. This article outlines the role of the SIP in challenging and supporting the school, helping it to identify priorities for improvement and plan effective change. An accompanying case study details how one school has brought about whole-school improvement.

Aim of school improvement partners

School improvement partners’ (SIPs’) core role was recently made clear by the DfES at the national SIP briefing in March 2007. The aim of SIPs is to:

  • support and challenge the schools’ own evaluation, priority-setting and planning
  • focus on progress and attainment
  • respect the school’s autonomy
  • base everything on evidence
  • be the link between schools, local authorities and central Government.

This covers the ‘school improvement’ aspect of the acronym. As for the ‘partners’ part, in a recent survey of headteachers’ views about the early months of the relationship, heads commented that they do feel their relationship with the SIP is a real partnership. To unpack the SIP role further, SIPs:

  • may use the instruments of inspection to help schools to align their self-evaluation with Ofsted
  • challenge schools to improve self-evaluation processes
  • help schools to identify effective school improvement strategies
  • broker appropriate support
  • help schools to monitor the impact of improvement strategies
  • have a long-term partnership with a school.

Who becomes a SIP?

For SIPs to be effective, they need skills and qualities that have been formed largely through experience as headteachers, local authority advisers and education consultants. These include data interpretation; school improvement strategies; interpersonal skills and, crucially, credibility with heads in terms of adding value. It also helps if a SIP has had previous experience as an external adviser, supporting governors and heads in the annual review of the headteacher’s performance, as this is the second main aspect of the SIP role. Many SIPs were previously working as external advisers and bemoaned the fact that they only had a single annual contact with the headteacher and review governors under the previous arrangements. The external adviser programme was a national scheme, managed and delivered nationally for the DfES by Cambridge Education. The SIP scheme is crucially different in that it is delivered locally by local authorities who, to some extent, are able to customise it to serve the needs of their schools. The DfES financial recompense to local authorities ensures a constraint on the degree of freedom they enjoy with regard to their interpretation of the SIP role.

Selection and training for SIP role

Eligibility for secondary SIP training includes headship and local authority experience and education consultancy. Some SIPs are practising heads, but fewer than intended by the DfES. Given that, for each school, the SIP is allocated five days of work a year and most local authorities look to SIPs to work with three or more schools, it is unsurprising that some headteachers are uneasy about the commitment. The training consists of an online questionnaire, which is time limited and largely designed to assess the applicant’s ability to read data. If successfully completed, they are invited to a two-day residential training and assessment experience. This allows the SIP to rehearse aspects of the role, including conducting meetings with the headteacher, data analysis and report writing, before being assessed on each of these aspects. The applicant is informed of the outcome in around five weeks and, if successful, can advertise their availability to local authorities for SIP work by placing a pen portrait on the national SIP website to which local authority SIP managers also have access. Many local authorities advertise for SIP recruits and have their own selection procedures. Once registered with a local authority, the SIP’s school is added to this national database. Most local authority contracts are initially for a year but there is an advantage in a more sustained relationship being cultivated between the school and its SIP, so most contracts are expected to roll over into a second year and possibly beyond.

A ‘single conversation’

Originally, the SIP was the embodiment of the ‘single conversation,’ as it was dubbed by the DfES in its 2004 document A new relationship with schools. The intention was that school improvement and monitoring would happen pretty much exclusively via the SIP, simplifying the range and scope of conversations with other interested external parties. Reality has probably intruded on this quaint notion, since schools are places of diverse needs and initiatives. Channelling all external influences through the SIP/headteacher interface is impractical, especially as the SIP has only 2.5 days a year of direct contact with the school. The SIP has generally replaced the local authority adviser, who was the main local authority link with the school. Other local authority links remain. One of my local authorities makes a convincing case for the single conversation being a three-way affair between the headteacher, the SIP and the local authority adviser. The main justification for this, so says the local authority, is to provide real continuity between the authority and the school, given the small amount of time the SIP is allocated for each school. As an ex-secondary headteacher and current education consultant, I have experience of working with four local authorities as a SIP. The common aspects across the four interpretations of the SIP role are:

  • a focus on evaluation and support
  • brokering training
  • a five-day allocation per school
  • a termly visit to the school
  • agreeing annual statutory pupil attainment targets in the autumn term
  • advising the review governors and headteacher about the annual review of the headteacher’s performance during the autumn term
  • a paper system for recording visits
  • a system for keeping the SIP in the loop over other local authority interventions in the school
  • access to Fischer Family Trust and RaiseOnline data sources
  • two days local and two days national training per year
  • performance management and pay.

Other aspects, which each local authority may interpret differently, are outlined below.

Training role

Although SIPS are viewed as a type of Ofsted fifth column by some schools, there is scope for supportive work, in addition to challenging the school over its standards and self-evaluation views and processes. Three of my local authorities have stressed the desirability to ‘get out of the headteacher’s office’ during visits in the spring and summer terms to do supportive things, rather than just evaluation. So, a training role, for example, is a real possibility and there are others, including lesson observations and feedback to confirm the school’s standards of interpretation and to develop observers’ skills. Brokering training on behalf of schools is probably the least well-developed aspect of the SIP role so far. Local authorities want SIPs to promote the authority’s support services and, unless the SIP is clued up, this may be their only recourse when a need for school support is identified.

Use of time

The five-day allocation of SIP time is divided between time spent in school, preparation (such as scrutiny of data) and writing up notes of visits. Some local authorities require a tabulated account of an evaluation of the school self-evaluation form (SEF), whereas others require a more detailed prose response. Records of some type are important to provide the required continuity for the school, the SIP and local authority colleagues. The termly school visit of a minimum of half a day (in reality this means 2.5–3 hours) is common across all local authorities. Peak time for SIP involvement with schools is the second half of the autumn term: school progress is reviewed; statutory targets agreed; and the headteacher’s performance management review undertaken. Time allocated in school varies, but the school review and target-setting is usually three-quarters of a day minimum, with one-quarter or one half day for the headteacher’s review. In this first year of the SIP initiative, there was, in three of my local authorities, a half-day familiarisation visit to each school, which helped to set expectations on both sides and prepare for the rest of the year.

Keeping in the loop

Given the relatively light-touch presence of the SIP, how do local authorities keep respective parties up to date? One of my local authorities posts me a hard copy note of visit from each local authority consultant for each of their visits to my partner schools. This smacks of accountability fear on the part of the local authority, rather than any real desire to resolve the issue. Other local authorities are more pragmatic and selective, only forwarding significant information by email. If I need to confirm something, the headteachers I am blessed with are all happy to chat on the phone or respond to an email, as are my local authority contacts. Most local authorities want the record of the SIP visit to be agreed with the headteacher before it goes on the record – an appropriate expression of partnership.

Data access

Each local authority is keen to use RaiseOnline, the national database of attainment and achievement data for every school, compiled by the DfES and made available to SIPs, local authorities and schools. Key sources of data are the old performance and development assessment (Panda) data and now the Fischer Family Trust (FFT) statistics. The website allows processing of the data to give a vast variety of information about the progress and anticipated progress of individual students and groups of students by gender, ability and ethnicity, within a given school. Schools can only access their own data; SIPs can access their schools’ data; local authorities and Ofsted have access to all the data. This is a potentially sophisticated tool that has, unfortunately, caused much frustration among professionals this academic year as 2006 exam and other data has not been made available in line with the published timetable for RaiseOnline. FFT data is unique in providing schools with projections of student performance and, crucially, information about the context value added (CVA) for cohorts and groups of students within a year. So, it is possible to evaluate the value the school is adding to its pupils’ progress between KS2 and KS4, for example. This CVA is referred to by Ofsted as achievement data, as opposed to attainment data, which includes the percentage of A*–C grades at GCSE. Schools have their preferred evaluation databases:cognitive ability tests (Cats), Year 11 information system (Yellis) and A-level information system (Alis) among them. Some have devised their own sophisticated tracking procedures. SIPs will be sensitive to schools’ preferences, but we need to ensure that attainment data is matched by the availability of achievement data (CVA). RaiseOnline has enormous potential. However, validation of data may mean that 2007 information is not available in time for the October–December school review, target-setting meetings and essential preparatory work by senior leadership teams (SLTs) and SIPS, so paper copies of FFT data may remain the norm. The most effective data is current, relevant and readable, focusing on trends, including local and national benchmarks. My most efficient local authorities send data on disc to schools and SIPs. The key issue with all this data is the use to which the school puts it, to drive the learning forward.

Developing their role

Currently, the four-day SIP training entitlement is shared equally between local authorities and Capita, which provides the national training. Next year, this will shift in favour of local authorities, with SIPs selecting the training they feel is most useful to build their own expertise portfolios. In the context of the development of 14–19 consortia and other local initiatives, this seems appropriate.

Performance management

The SIPs’ performance management arrangements will be applied most strongly in the summer term and a number of my local authorities have notified their SIPs of the nature of the interviews and associated processes. Discrete monitoring of visit notes, headteachers’ views, and SIPs’ views have been running since the initial training sessions. As to pay, the external adviser arrangements for the national scheme were for a national daily rate; SIPs can be left twitching and smiling bleakly by stories of local authorities paying 40% more for the same work. There is an implied daily rate, which is dictated by the funding that passes from the DfES to local authorities for SIP work. Some local authorities are apparently top-skimming this funding and paying less, while others are finding additional revenues and paying more. The good news for schools is that it is not their tab.

Anatomy of a SIP visit

A typical visit in November will be to review school progress and agree statutory targets. As preparation, the SIP and headteacher will have independently scrutinised the SEF, the school improvement plan, the most recent exam results and FFT data. Most schools like to have other SLT members present for parts of the meeting and many like the governors to be represented at the target-setting stage. Discussion is about development priorities, progress and how these are reflected in the SEF/school improvement plan. These key documents should be closely linked by their foci. Discussion will bring in aspects of the data, including attainment, CVA, attendance and behaviour. The SIP may make suggestions on strengthening developments. Stage two is focused on statutory targets. For SIP visits in November 2006, there was a review of progress towards KS3 and KS4 statutory targets for 2007 – those agreed with the local authority before SIPs were in post. Discussion includes key questions, such as:

  • How does the school know how individual pupils are progressing?
  • How, and how frequently, is teaching and learning monitored in the classroom?
  • What intervention strategies are in place to support underperforming groups and individual students?
  • How effective are these interventions?

Given the realities of life in school, it is not unusual for 2007 targets to be amended by agreement – in either direction. A key touchstone of the appropriateness of targets is the predicted outcomes in the FFT data. The DfES is keen for all schools to aspire to the attainment demonstrated by the top 25% of schools nationally (there is aspirational thinking behind this mathematical impossibility). For some this is realistic, for some it is too modest and for others it is currently unrealistic but forms a longer term aspiration. In addition to agreeing challenging but attainable targets for KS3 and 4 students in 2008, there is much discussion around achievement – CVA. It is quite possible for a school to have apparently strong attainment, say, 76% A*–C at GCSE, but to have poor CVA: say, a score of 97.00, where 100 represents no additional value being added to students’ progress. Conversely, a 32% A*–C school may have a CVA of 102, which suggests it is making a real difference to students’ progress. Behind these whole-school figures lurk sub-sets of progress and attainment of different groups of students by ability, gender and ethnicity. So, the conversation can be protracted. The SIP does not enter the meeting with numbers that are to be imposed on the school, as has been the case in the past; the school’s self-assessment is an important ingredient in the debate. A programme of typical SIP visits during a year is given below.

Programme of visits

A typical annual cycle of SIP school visits will include:

  • Autumn term, November: with the headteacher and possibly chair of governors. A day reviewing progress regarding the school, as it is reflected in the SEF/school improvement plan; reviewing progress towards 2007 Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 targets; agreeing those targets; some time meeting with various staff. A further couple of hours on an adjacent day advising the headteacher and the review governors on the review of the headteacher’s performance and drafting the annual review statement.
  • Spring term, March: a half-day. Some activity to support the school, a brief meeting with the headteacher to confirm progress towards 2007 targets; other issues as the school requires.
  • Summer term, June/July: as spring term, but with a possible review of 2007 SATs results against agreed targets, depending on the timing of results.


Confidentiality is relative but follows the usual expectations appropriate to formal meetings with senior staff and governors in schools. The record of the meeting is contained in the ‘note of visit’ written by the SIP, and agreed with the school before being sent to the local authority. The school’s autonomy is respected, as Ofsted would respect it, within the SIP remit to challenge and support the school. Assessment of the school’s performance draws on the same evidence as that used by Ofsted, but there is reduced scope for direct observation of lessons and discussion with a cross-section of staff, so evidence presented by the headteacher in verbal, documentary and statistical form is key.

Systems and policies

Systems and policies are evaluated in terms of best practice in the abstract and, crucially, in terms of their impact on the school community. So, a comprehensively drafted anti-bullying policy that is not implemented effectively will result in bullying not being well managed and reduced. Pupil absence may be an indicator: parental opinion expressed through survey results certainly will be.


The autumn-term review generates a note of visit plus an agreed statement of targets at KS3 and KS4 to be met in 2007 and 2008. Some local authorities like to grade the school against the SEF headings, with a number akin to the 1–4 Ofsted gradings, where 1 is outstanding, with supporting evidence noted. Local authorities also have their internal codings, shared with schools to indicate the level of support the school requires. So, a school designated ‘A’ for support might be making very good progress across the SEF headings and require no support. A school graded ‘C’ might be a ‘cause for concern’ and require considerable support.

Curriculum manager role

As a senior manager, you will want to know how you fit into this process of review and support. Only very occasionally are subject leaders involved in meeting with the SIP and headteacher but other senior colleagues may well have a part to play. The data manager is frequently present, as are senior colleagues who have a brief for continuing professional development, teaching and learning, curriculum development and Every Child Matters. They can each provide detailed information that gives a context to the data and can themselves benefit in terms of their understanding of the expectations the school carries. As with all professional meetings, be clear about your role in the meeting with the SIP. Why have you been invited and what are you expected to speak to? On this basis, do your homework. Familiarise yourself with the relevant data and organisational arrangements in school. In particular, keep in mind the importance of self-evaluation and, ideally, have evidence to hand to support your assessment of the impact on learning of the strategies and provision you refer to. If you have to justify the likelihood of not meeting a previously agreed attainment or achievement target, be clear about the reasons for this and have a set of actions the school has, or is about to put, in place to minimise the shortfall.

Future of SIPs

The future of the SIP/school partnership is fluid. The need to roll out the 14–19 developments through consortia may have implications for the allocation of SIPs to particular schools. Currently, irrespective of their needs, each school has a five-day SIP entitlement. This is in contrast to the ‘intervention in inverse proportion to success’ principle that has guided LAs hitherto and this may change. However, the rate, scale and extent of educational development have never been greater: the role of SIP is likely to remain important to the realisation of schools’ success.

Trevor Arrowsmith, Education Consultant/Trainer and PhD Education Researcher, The Open University