Tags: Headteacher | Learning Partnerships | School Improvement | School Leadership & Management

Headteacher Neil Berry describes his experiences of being on both sides of the SIP process and concludes that the New Relationship has improved LA and school accountability

I have been a school improvement partner (SIP) for three years having been trained in the first group in York. Since then I have Sipped in two urban inner-city areas and a shire county and have worked in a total of six schools. During this time I have continued to be headteacher of a very large comprehensive school which is both a training school and specialist arts college. The LA that I work in was one of the very few pilot authorities at the beginning of the new relationship with schools, which began in 2005, so having been a SIP and having been Sipped since the very beginning, I feel like a veteran these days! As an Ofsted trained inspector I had hoped that being a SIP would be a different type of experience and this has proved to be the case. My expertise is with working in schools performing less well than could be expected and which may or may not be in challenging circumstances. Without exception I have been made to feel welcome in the wide range of schools that I have worked with, a mixture of high-performing single-sex schools and some schools that are performing markedly less well.

Contractual obligations

The credibility that a practising head in a school in challenging circumstances brings to the role of SIP is crucially important. In fact, I believe that it should be written into the contract of all headteachers that if they are asked to perform a SIP role that they should be obliged to do so. Not only can it be professionally enriching for the SIP but if done well the SIP can leave a tangible legacy in the schools they work in. The impact that this can have on the education system generally could be considerable. The only caveat I have to this is that I do not believe that it is good practice for a practising headteacher to work as a SIP in his/her LA unless, in the case of a large authority, they can be deployed in an area outside that in which they work. If the SIP is not currently employed as a headteacher I think that this matters less although in terms of the spirit of the new relationship, it is better that SIPs and headteachers do not know each other, although this is of course sometimes difficult in rural authorities.

Creating a working relationship

The single conversation takes place over a series of meetings. The time budget for Sipping is five days (unless a school is in serious difficulty when a longer period of time may be offered), of which usually two to two and a half are taken up by preparation, reading school and LA documentation, statistical analysis of the relevant data and report writing for the school, governors and the LA. A key feature of the success of the Sipping process is the relationship that is established between the headteacher and the SIP. Over time this relationship will develop but this can lead to an interesting situation when the agenda of the headteacher, and that of the LA, for whom the SIP works, sometimes do not totally coincide. Being a headteacher and a SIP can lead to understanding the position of both parties in this often complex relationship but remembering that the SIP has a straightforward task to perform is key. There are advantages in being a SIP over that of becoming an Ofsted inspector. Not only should the SIP interrogate a school’s data and constructively challenge the school management over any relevant issues, but it is also open to the SIP to engage in constructive dialogue to discuss resolutions to situations, both with the school and the LA where appropriate. The SIP role needs to be clearly understood by all parties concerned. Professionalism and transparency are the qualities most important in this relationship and the integrity of the SIP is paramount in order to ensure that they are not sucked into any ‘political’ situations between the headteacher and the governors, or indeed the LA.

New opportunities

An exciting part of being a SIP is having the opportunity to give advice, coaching and support to another colleague in ways that are simply impossible through the Ofsted process. There are quality control mechanisms put in place by the LA and the National Strategy so that the effectiveness of all aspects of SIP work are evaluated and so good practice is built on incrementally. Regular timetabled meetings take place between the SIP and the LA and although there are slight variations between different LAs the focus of these meetings is sharp and it is quite clear to all parties how the process should proceed. There is a problem, however, when a SIP works with different authorities, as, unbelievably, the paperwork and forms are all different and this can prove to be an additional unneeded headache. As I headteacher I have enjoyed a great professional relationship with my own SIP. He was a practising headteacher himself in a school very similar to mine and had a complete understanding of the context both my school and myself were working in. This was an enormous advantage, especially as our experiences and opinions about a wide range of issues were similar. However, this did not mean that he was a pushover. His questions were astute and probing and he had worked very hard to ensure that he had read all the relevant data about the school, including the contextualised information that I had sent him prior to our first meeting.

Involving the SLT

SIP face-to-face meetings take place with the headteacher and anyone else that the head wishes to be present. When I have been Sipped I have always involved my chair of governors and any other members of the senior leadership team that are appropriate. I find it useful to have my colleague who has responsibility for teaching and learning, which in our school includes data management, at the academic performance review simply because they have all the information immediately to hand and I would have to work at it before the meeting! This works very well as it constitutes a professional development opportunity for my colleague. The SIP may also attend an SLT meeting, which I have found useful, and of course presents a report to the governors on the overall effectiveness of the school, highlighting any issues as necessary. The presence of another head at SLT meetings adds an interesting additional dynamic and of course an opportunity for the rest of the SLT to encounter another experienced professional working in a similar role.

A more effective process

The final part of the jigsaw is completed when the SIP conducts the headteacher’s annual review. The process is similar to the past when it was done by an external reviewer/appraiser. The difference is that it is now done by someone who really knows the school well and has built up a relationship over a period of time with both the headteacher and the governors. I have found that this closer (not cosy) relationship between SIP, headteacher and governors has made the process more effective and rigorous in a way that was previously impossible. The process of being ‘appraised’ before Sipping was introduced was a negative experience for me. I annually found myself determining the agenda for the external appraiser (my last one had no headship experience), telling them what they should be asking me and then advising them of what the issues were for the governors. I resided in the comfort zone, which, although I did not mind it personally, was nevertheless professionally non-demanding.

Dealing with difficulties

I’m sure that so far this sounds fine and dandy but what happens when difficulties occur? One of the things that has surprised me working in roles other than as a SIP is how unconfident some headteachers are. It can be difficult to get a head to open up and be frank about some situations. The SIP process is of course part of LA and school accountability process and the shadow cast by the initial, often controversial, introduction of Ofsted still looms large in some schools. Intrinsic to being a headteacher is the management of difficult and often highly complex situations and this can lead to a headteacher being insecure about discussing anything if he/she is unsure as to the consequences of sharing this information. For a SIP to be as effective as they could be – and for the headteacher and the school to derive maximum benefit from the new relationship – the interpersonal skills are paramount. It is more important than anything else for the SIP to be able to build a relationship of trust with the head. My view is that, although data is of course important, it is empowering schools to utilise the data to inform practice that is the key and this will not be done if there is distrust and a lack of transparency. This is easy to say but if the relationship between the governors and LA or the headteacher is not predicated on the above, the SIP may feel like they are caught between a rock and a hard place. Such a place is uncomfortable for all parties to occupy. Resignation to the fact that this relationship may not be as fruitful as it could be may be necessary. Nevertheless, by sticking to the SIP protocol and completing a thorough professional process, it should at least be acceptable to everyone. A SIP must at all costs not compromise their position by being partisan and any issues of concern should be discussed by all parties. The ongoing professional development opportunities compulsory for all SIPs mean that opportunities exist to both refine the process and seek advice about any situations that may be causing concern.

Improved school accountability

After three years of being involved in the SIP process from both sides I consider that the new relationship has improved LA and school accountability. The process of being Sipped was far more rigorous for me than the dialogue that I had previously had with LA inspectors. Information to governors from the SIP is more detailed and correctly focuses on areas that need to be addressed, or indeed on areas that should be commended. Headteacher personal development reviews are sharper and better informed. Above all, what I have enjoyed about my roles is that as a SIP I have been told by the headteachers that I have worked with that they have valued my contribution to their schools. This has made me feel that I was contributing to education beyond my school.

As a head being Sipped, the high-quality dialogue with a peer working in similar circumstances has been a breath of fresh air. I do confess, however, that I have missed talking about the fortunes of the England cricket team with my previous inspector!

This article first appeared in Secondary Headship – Oct 2007

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