Tags: Headteacher | School Improvement | School Leadership & Management

Former headteacher Roger Smith analyses the role of school improvement partners (SIPs) and concludes that they should be welcomed with open arms.

Here is another innovation to add to your teetering pile of new initiatives – school improvement partners (SIPs). One may already be attached to your school because some authorities introduced them from September 2005. Others will be starting from this September. Unlike some initiatives, SIPs should be something we are all able to welcome. One of the key features of SIPs is that they will be people with headship experience who, because of their knowledge, are in a position to challenge and support schools across a whole range of issues that, together, add up to how effectively the school functions. This will almost – but not quite – mean that you will only need one ‘conversation’ with one person rather than having to deal with a wide range of different individuals.

Well that is the theory anyway. However, my cynical side still says that as well as your friendly neighbourhood SIP – your favourite critical friend – you will still have to meet and discuss standards in all kinds of different areas with Ofsted inspectors, LEA advisers and health and safety inspectors etc.

The New Relationships with Schools Of course, SIPs don’t come without their packaging and all the peripherals, whether good or bad, that seem to be attached to any new initiative. They are part of the New Relationship with Schools (NRwS) programme, which, according to the initiative’s own publicity, is ‘breaking new ground in working to help school’s raise standards, with clearer priorities, less bureaucracy for schools (yes – it really does say that) and more information for parents.’ The SIP or critical friend will act as the conduit between central government, the LEA and the school. The partner will help set the school’s targets and priorities as well as identify the kind of support the school might need. They will also be in a position to advise governors on headteachers’ performance management and replace the external adviser who used to do this.

The idea of ‘one conversation’ with one person must be a better way forward than having to build up positive relationships with several people all hellbent on offering similar advice that is all designed to raise standards. The ‘single conversation’ simply means the ongoing interaction between the headteacher and SIP. It is this interaction, this ‘conversation’ and these meetings with the SIP that will determine the school’s single plan. By using the school’s self-evaluation and all its published data, and by relating this to local and national priorities, the single plan will be precise enough clearly to spell out what the school needs to do to continue to raise standards.

Basic assumptions The initiative will only succeed if headteachers think that they can learn from the experience of others and if SIPs are really experienced and effective. They have to be able to help during their ‘conversations’ with headteachers. We all recognise that if we just continue to do what we have always done, pupils will only continue to achieve at the same level.

The improvement cycle includes identifying priorities, planning, action and monitoring and evaluation. More specifically:

  • deciding through self-evaluation where we are now and how well we are doing
  • understanding what are the most important areas to focus on
  • devising a plan that will move the process of improvement forward
  • working out strategies that will let us know when we have got there.

We all know that to monitor raised standards, we must have systems in place to assess progress and to evaluate how well pupils are achieving through successful and regular self-evaluation. One of the first tasks that a SIP should do during their ‘conversations’ is to discuss the school’s approach to six key tests of its effectiveness:

  • Is the school’s self-evaluation based on a good range of telling evidence?
  • Does the self-evaluation identify the most important questions about how well the school serves its pupils?
  • How does the school compare with other comparable schools – especially the best comparable school?
  • Does the school involve key stakeholders, including teachers, parents and pupils, in its planning and self-evaluation?
  • Is the self-evaluation one of the key processes in the school’s management?
  • Does self-evaluation lead to action to achieve identified long-term goals rather than just more navel-gazing?

The first ‘conversation’ The first meeting with the SIP needs to be productive if the partnership is going to work at all. To make this happen, SIPs and headteachers will be issued with an exceptions report [ER]. Many of you might know it and love it already! The ER will highlight the current statistically significant strengths and weaknesses of the school and relate them to those of the last three years. It is being produced as the first tool to help SIPs and headteachers have a professional and informed dialogue because it will help the ‘conversation’ move towards precisely identifying the school’s targets for improvement.

At the same time, the SIP will need to be satisfied that the school can tailor its support to pupils’ individual needs and, where necessary, demonstrate that they are making a valid and appropriate contribution to meeting the challenges of the five Every Child Matters outcomes which are:

  • be healthy
  • stay safe
  • enjoy and achieve
  • make a positive contribution
  • achieve economic wellbeing.

Joined-up support
It seems that the DfES may have recognised that, for headteachers to be able to both self-evaluate and then plan the kinds of actions that will raise standards, there has to be one distinct link between all the initiatives, trivia and detailed minutiae of their daily lives. The SIP might be just the person to help tie everything up into a neat bundle that actually works. As well as looking at data and statistics with the head, they will also be reviewing and analysing all the following areas:

  • attendance levels, patterns of truancy and the best ways of dealing with any problems
  • the effectiveness of pastoral systems to identify and provide support
  • what systems are in place to identify pupils with SEN and how best to provide behavioural, teaching and curriculum support
  • what kind of target setting for pupils will be the most effective for monitoring their progress
  • behaviour management in all its complexities, and developing systems that are the most effective in preventing problems that reduce the impact of teaching and learning on progress
  • links with parents should help them recognise the potential of their children and should also suggest ways that they can support the school
  • links with support agencies should be in place to provide integrated support structures for all pupils.

An important relationship A SIP has a huge task but the right person could make a real and positive difference. Both the head and the SIP will have to challenge each other’s assumptions as well as being mutually supportive and realistic. It will mean two people coming to grips with the wealth of data and being able to interpret it in a way that will help the school improve.

Unlike Ofsted inspectors who assess your school as it is now, SIPs are there to help you plan for the future. They can be the wall that you bounce ideas off until you have a structure in place that will make raising standards easier.

Contact: [email protected]

This article first appeared in Secondary Headship – Apr 2006

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