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Working with teaching schools: challenges and opportunities

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On 28 January, we invited a group of headteachers and directors from a number of teaching schools around the country to come and talk to us about their work, the opportunities and challenges associated with becoming a teaching school, and whether The Key can help support them and their alliances. One highlight of the morning was hearing Dame Sue John talk about her experience of working at Lampton School in Hounslow which, in 2011, became one of the first 100 teaching schools in the country. By the end of the 2011-12 academic year, Lampton had begun working with 10 other schools as part of the newly-formed London West Alliance (LWA). LWA has proved highly successful; it has grown each year, and now includes 33 primary and secondary schools across London.

How knowledge  is shared and managed

Dame Sue explained that the four foundations of effective knowledge management underpin LWA’s work. Based on George Berwick’s four ‘capitals’ – moral, knowledge, social and organisational – the foundations have been instrumental in defining the work. First were movements such as London Challenge and City Challenge, followed by the LWA, other teaching school alliances, and organisations such as Challenge Partners. Dame Sue’s presentation led us to consider four key questions.

What drives your day-to-day work?

All teachers seek the best for their pupils. However, Dame Sue believes that teaching schools can take this mission a step further by supporting the achievement of pupils in other schools, as well as their own. This dual 'moral purpose' seemed to chime with delegates, who agreed that teaching schools have an important opportunity to support practitioner-led school improvement. By way of an illustration, Dame Sue explained that schools in LWA share leadership and teaching staff, reacting to the needs of other settings as these needs become apparent. She emphasised that joining LWA commits schools to working collaboratively to support the education of all pupils, not just their own.

Andrew Warren, the director of the Britannia Teaching School Alliance in Stoke, and a regional representative on the Teaching Schools Council, agreed that teaching schools should "lead from the front", creating conditions in which other members of the alliance can support one another. The second section of an article from The Key examines what it means to adopt teaching school status.

Who has the knowledge you need?

To drive school improvement across an alliance, it is necessary to embed systems that enable and support the movement of relevant knowledge. To do this effectively, Dame Sue said systems must be in place to identify both what knowledge is needed and, then, who has (and can share) that knowledge. Some of the knowledge will be available within an alliance. To facilitate knowledge sharing among practitioners from different schools, LWA hosts a number of subject- and issue-specific working groups, an LWA Heads’ Group, and a Hub Steering Group.

Delegates emphasised the importance of specialist leaders of education (SLEs), who can provide another source of expertise. If the necessary knowledge cannot be located within the alliance, it is possible to call upon the support and expertise of contacts outside LWA, including organisations such as Challenge Partners and The Key.

What social conditions are needed to embed knowledge and problem-solving?

It is not enough simply to identify where additional knowledge is needed. How effectively this knowledge is able to move around an alliance will be dictated by the quality – and type – of social relationships that exist between practitioners. Delegates were quick to acknowledge that there is no ‘magic bullet’, and that the type of relationship appropriate in any given situation will depend entirely on the nature of the problem to be solved, and on the people involved in solving it. We agreed, though, that successful relationships will always demonstrate trust, empathy and openness.

Delegates spent some time thinking about the challenges involved in deploying SLEs in schools across an alliance. While it was felt that this would vary on a case-by-case basis, there was nonetheless an agreement that it can be helpful to ‘brief’ an SLE about:

  • The nature of the challenge, and the likely support needed
  • The social and emotional context of the school in question

The more sensitive an SLE’s appreciation of a particular school’s context, the more likely it is that his/her support will be effective. This is because the support is more likely to be responsive to the specific needs of that school, and the school in question is more likely to feel its needs are being acknowledged and dealt with. Training to help an SLE develop the interpersonal skills necessary to provide constructive, balanced support may also be valuable.

Does your organisation have the capacity to improve?

Dame Sue stressed that it is difficult to sustain any kind of inter-school support without suitable organisational infrastructure in place. Building sustainable capacity takes thought, time and money, but lies at the heart of effective knowledge transfer.

LWA has in place a system of ‘trios’ to establish and encourage close, peer-to-peer collaboration and support. Schools within the alliance are grouped into threes, and the headteachers in each trio visit the other two schools during the year. The focus of the visits is defined in advance using Challenge Partner reports and school data, and each is evaluated at the LWA Heads’ Group. The use of trios has provided part of the organisational infrastructure necessary to help schools develop deep, trusting and reciprocal relationships. In addition, they provide a pathway to additional support from within the wider alliance, as and when it is required.

Thinking about how The Key can help

It was fascinating listening to Dame Sue discuss the work of LWA, and hugely valuable hearing delegates’ thoughts on the opportunities and challenges facing teaching schools.  I feel The Key is well placed to help mobilise knowledge within the sector. For example, with the support of the Britannia Teaching School Alliance in Stoke, the Candleby Lane Teaching School Alliance in Nottinghamshire, and GEP Academies in Surrey, we wrote an article examining how teaching schools might restructure their leadership teams to support the alliance. With the input of Lightwoods Primary School in Warley, we wrote an article about assessing pupils’ progress in foundation subjects. However, we could perhaps do more to help teaching schools learn from one another. This is something we’re looking into, in collaboration of our teaching school partners.

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