For the last ten years, researchers in the Centre for Equity in Education have been asking why, despite continuous reforms, the most vulnerable children and young people in the English school system are typically still doing least well. Working in some of the country’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and with schools, local authorities and their partners, we have sought to understand what is actually happening in these places that leads to poor outcomes, and what can be done about it.
Our research has shown that in these contexts, no school can meet the challenges they face alone: to improve children’s outcomes, they must work with other schools, and with wider partners to address issues lying beyond the school gates. And yet policy is moving against this. Our major concern is that the English school system – already suffering from fragmentation – is now at risk of splintering irrevocably, at greatest cost to the most disadvantaged.
Neither of the two main political parties seem truly to grasp what is at stake – Labour seeking stasis, while the Conservatives pledge more academy sponsors, free and grammar schools. Our research shows both positions are dangerous. Already:
- Schools are losing connections with their established partners and the communities they serve.
- Services are being reduced, as child poverty and its related challenges increase.
- Schools are increasingly having to step into the breach, while lacking the resources and expertise to do so.
- ‘Rogue players’ are entering the system, as academy leads, and through opening-up services to the market place.
- High stakes accountability is encouraging a narrow view of what schools and their pupils need to do to ensure ‘success’.
Even if neither main party is willing to engage with these thorny issues, the local practitioners and policy makers we currently work with are actively doing so. They are exploring how, within current constraints, they might (re)shape the system to protect the most disadvantaged and improve their outcomes. This is leading to new forms of collaborative arrangements, with varied leadership, emerging at a range of local levels. Often, these combine thinking holistically about children’s needs – individually, and in their school, family and community contexts – with thinking about how to ensure the best educational outcomes for all the children in an area.
Together, these examples suggest that the co-ordination and leadership needed to move England’s diverse and fragmented school system in more equitable directions, is likely to require some combination of:
- School-led approaches, including many types of more-or-less formal local area-based alliances.
- Local authority-led approaches, which are effectively working to change local systems by creating new kinds of partnership arrangements.
- Third sector involvement, for instance, charities or voluntary and community organisations bringing specialist expertise to schools, or acting as ‘anchor points’ to connect children’s school and neighbourhood experiences, when the link between these is broken.
Our examples are indicative of what can happen when what schools do is aligned within a coherent strategy with the efforts of other local players, e.g. families, employers, universities and public services, and the third sector. This does not necessarily mean schools doing more, or even that schools must always lead, but it does imply partnerships beyond the school, where partners multiply the impacts of each other’s efforts. And it requires alternative forms of accountability which can facilitate these ways of working.
All of this has major implications for key stakeholders within local education systems:
Teachers – especially those in senior positions – have to see themselves as having a wider responsibility for all children, not just those that attend their own schools. They also have to develop patterns of internal organisation that enable them to cooperate with other schools and wider partners.
Local authorities have to create some form of local co-ordination to offset the dangers of school isolation. They could be given the role of monitoring and challenging schools, including academies, whilst school leaders could share responsibility for the overall management of improvement. LA staff could position themselves as protectors of a more collegiate approach, and as providers of quality assurance in a growing market place – but not as the custodians of day-to-day activities.
National policy makers must make use of the power of local collaboration and co-ordination. Key to this, they need to recognise that the details of policy implementation are not amenable to central regulation, but have to be dealt with by those who are close to and, therefore, in a better position to understand local contexts, and the challenges, priorities and possibilities these present.