Setting the scene for Challenge Partners

In this post we look at the educational landscape that provided a context for the emergence of Challenge Partners and the challenges that presented themselves, from time constraints to resistance among staff towards new processes. 

Those of us who had worked for eight years on the Teaching School programme felt a sense of pride that our work had been so formally recognised. Having started with not much more than conviction in our belief, we now had evidence to show these types of schools could with the right supporting infrastructure make a major contribution to improving the quality of the education in a region. There was, however, also a feeling amongst a number of us pioneers that we still had much to learn in order to maximise the effectiveness of Teaching Schools.  This view was also shared by Sir Jon Coles, who when he led the London Challenge for the Department of Education had been a sponsor of the original work.  

We now had evidence to show these types of schools could with the right supporting infrastructure make a major contribution to improving the quality of the education in a region

Our specific concerns were:  

Limited time to develop the approach

We had witnessed first hand from the development of the Academies programme that the chains that thrived, such as Harris and ARK had spent many years building a robust school model and the capacity to support it. For example, the first Harris school was founded in 1990.  It had been strategic in its approach, which included only expanding in a small geographical area, and critically garnered influence and additional resources to ensure it flourished in a continually evolving political landscape. 

On the other hand a number of the Academy chains which had expanded rapidly without the time to create a robust replicable model with a holistic infra-structure had been less successful.  All these potential weaknesses could be applied to Teaching Schools – which we saw as a semi-tried and tested model, with no additional resources or political support to fall back on and facing a national roll-out. 

No permanency in funding or provision of a physical entity

The core work of Teaching Schools in turning around underperforming schools was often funded on a year-to-year basis. As a result long-term planning for the work was problematic. 

Potential issues at a school level

At the Teaching Schools themselves there was still disquiet amongst some teachers, parents and students about this initiative. Their concern was that it was not in their own school’s interest to let their best staff work in other schools. It took many governors of these schools a considerable leap of faith to sanction the work in the first place.  

Often the work only involved a few key staff including the headteacher and through the experience and skills they gained from the work they often became a recruitment target for other schools and if they did leave, were hard to replace. 

Potential issues with Local Authorities

In the broader local context, Teaching Schools were a leading manifestation of the burgeoning school-to-school approach to school improvement. It marked a departure from the approach which had been previously predominantly provided by Local Authority Advisers.  When this approach was linked to the development of MATs, which took ownership of the schools from the Local Authority, they had the potential to challenge a number of the key roles undertaken by Local Authorities. In practice, as with any major change, some Local Authorities embraced this whilst others saw it as a threat and acted accordingly. 

Merger with Training Schools

In the creation of Teaching Schools, the DFE proposed to merge Teaching Schools with Training Schools. These types of schools had different remits, geographical distributions and selection criteria. 

Whilst Training Schools had a national spread so they could contribute to teacher training across the country, Teaching Schools were part of the Challenge approach we had used for regional school improvement in London, Manchester and the West Midlands.  Thus, they had a narrower geographical spread and this was based upon the need for these schools to contribute to turning around under-performing schools. We considered that the integration of Teaching Schools within a Challenge approach to school improvement was a key factor in their success. In particular the commissioning of their work by the Challenge Advisers. 

The selection criteria for Teaching Schools required the school to be rated ‘outstanding’  by OFSTED whilst Training Schools could be ‘good’. 

For all of this, none of us thought these concerns insurmountable.  After all, we had already come a long way and with the announcement in the White Paper we had established official recognition for the concept.  We also expected that the next stage in their development, like our journey so far, was likely to be a little bumpy. However, we believed that by working collaboratively we could make it work.