Tags: Headteacher | School Improvement | School Leadership & Management

Headteacher Marcia Twelftree describes her SIP training and looks forward to a visit from her own SIP.

As part of the government’s New Relationship with Schools (NRwS), the School Improvement Partner (SIP) programme has been developed to help school leaders to map out their future priorities and give them the capacity to evaluate performance and implement change. The appointment of SIPs allows schools to have a single conversation with an experienced practitioner, rather than the multiple conversations currently being required. Local authorities (LAs) are required to use their best endeavours to ensure that three out of four SIPs have secondary headship experience and include some individuals with substantial experience of work outside the LA and its schools.

Most of the heads I have dealt with during this programme have welcomed the emphasis on secondary headship experience and evaluations show that they appreciate the opportunity to have a rigorous dialogue with someone with significant relevant experience.

Gaining accreditation The accreditation of school improvement partners is a thorough and testing process. As part of the pilot SIP accreditation, I took part in a three-day residential programme, which was meant to secure both training in various aspects of the role and an assessment of my capability to carry out the role. This programme has now been replaced with an on-line test, followed by a two-day residential. I found the whole process interesting and challenging, which it needs to be if SIPs are to have a national standard of professionalism. After the pilot, the subsequent accreditation processes have included provision of greater support, which I think will be welcomed by aspiring SIPs. SIPs are normally allocated five days with each school. The calendar for my first year as a SIP has included three days in the autumn term for a familiarisation visit and for target setting and the headteacher’s performance management, followed by one day in the spring term and one day in the summer term, for termly progress evaluation visits. During the visits, the school’s improvement plan and self-evaluation form (SEF) is reviewed and its progress during the year in meeting its targets evaluated. In addition, the visits can focus on any area of school improvement which the head and SIP agree would be useful. Also during the consultation we discuss whether the school needs any additional support which the SIP can broker. This can include support from the LA, from commercial providers, independent consultants, the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, Youth Sport Trust or other schools. In addition, as an experienced practitioner, the SIP can advise on developments they have tried in their own school.

Background knowledge

I was appointed as a SIP by Buckinghamshire in September 2005 and was allocated three schools. The preparation work done by the LA was impressive. All SIPs were given a comprehensive file of information about all the Buckinghamshire systems, and relevant data on each school was also provided. This allowed us to be well prepared for our familiarisation visit. When the SIP’s own school is within another LA, it is especially important to grasp any differences in systems, particularly in the presentation of data, so that it can be assimilated quickly. If the relationship with the headteacher is going to work, the professionalism of the SIP must be respected by school leaders. The SIP must be credible and well informed, as well as highly perceptive and sensitive to schools’ needs and priorities. They need to create the right balance between challenge and support and sometimes guide schools, despite occasional opposition. In order to do that, they must demonstrate sharp clarity of judgement and the ability to provide high-quality analysis of evidence. As the time for each visit is always very short, efficient preparation is key. Relevant documentation has to be scrutinised so that any ambiguities and inconsistencies in data can be discussed. The SIP has to respect the individual autonomy of the headteacher and be prepared to be a good listener. If strong challenge is needed, it needs to come from a well-informed bank of knowledge. So far, I feel that the introduction of the SIP has been a big improvement on the mixed economy we were all dealing with before. I have enjoyed the professional dialogue with three other heads and would recommend all experienced heads to consider taking up this role. I feel it has provided me with significant benefits professionally and has also allowed me to ‘bring back to the ranch’ several examples of good practice.

In total I am absent from my school for 15 days per year and headteachers will need to make a judgement as to whether their school has the capacity to cope with this absence. However, the money paid to the school for the head’s absence does allow measures to be put in place to support the school and I really believe that the benefits to your school can be significant and worthwhile.

Keeping the role manageable

There are several issues which I feel still need further discussion. Currently, the DfES and LAs appear to be adding constantly to the number of monitoring issues that they wish the SIP to oversee. For example, SIPs now need to comment on the five Every Child Matters objectives and the school’s position as an extended school.

I am concerned that if we are not careful the role will become unmanageable and the very positive start which we have made will be lost. I further suggest that we may have to move to a differentiated system of the number of allocated days per SIP, because some schools clearly need a higher degree of support than others. We also need to ensure that at least 75% of SIPs are experienced heads in order to maintain the credibility of the role.

In addition, the role of the report from SIPs needs to be carefully thought out. In order to maintain good relationships with the school, confidentiality is key, but the position of the Freedom of Information Act and the use of the report for possible national management information systems could create conflict.

A valued system I am looking forward to receiving the first visit from my own SIP in a month’s time. I feel that the professional dialogue is developing well and that the new system is highly valued by heads, even if some of them may feel that they are moving out of their ‘comfort zone’.

To ensure the continued effectiveness of the SIP’s role, LAs must manage the process judiciously to make sure that we really do get the ‘intelligent accountability’ mixed with support that will ensure the continued improvement in the education of the children in our care.

Contact: twelm001@rbwm.org

This article first appeared in Secondary Headship – May 2006

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