Lessons from Schools Challenge Cymru can still be taken forward despite no further funding being available, says Mel Ainscow.
A story is told about a tourist in West Wales looking at a newly landed bucketful of lobsters on the quayside. As the lobsters writhe around, she asks a fisherman: “Don’t you need to put a lid on the bucket? One of them could easily climb out.” “Don’t you worry about that,” comes the reply, “These are Welsh lobsters, the others will pull it back down”.
The story illustrates how collaboration can sometimes prevent progress. On the other hand, there is evidence that, under the right conditions, collaboration can be an effective means of accelerating the improvement of schools. For example, its potential was seen in the success of the City Challenge programme in England, first and foremost in London, and then later in Greater Manchester. These initiatives started from an assumption that most of the expertise needed to move the education system forward was there within the local area. Therefore, the main strategy was to strengthen networking and collaboration to make greater use of this untapped potential.
Adopting the same thinking in Wales, with its strong ethos of collaboration, Schools Challenge Cymru was set up in 2014 to accelerate progress across the education system, focusing in particular on improving outcomes for young people from low-income families.
The evidence we have after two years indicates that the initiative has already led to significant progress in the performance of almost 40 secondary schools in some of the most challenging areas of the country. Indeed, the improvements in GCSE examination results in some of the schools is quite remarkable. It is also encouraging that these developments are having a ripple effect across the education system in ways that are raising expectations as to what is possible and promoting a greater emphasis on collaborative improvement activities.
In making sense of these trends, it is important to remember that the participating schools were chosen because of the challenges they face and the fact that they had, to varying degrees, performed poorly over many years. Now we can point to many of them as striking examples of what is possible when the expertise and energy within schools are mobilised. It should be noted, however, that these gains were hard won, and may remain fragile without continuing support.
Central to the strategy is a small team of expert Advisers who help to move things forward, a factor that is often overlooked when the success of London Challenge is discussed. All members of this team have impressive track records of success as school leaders. In order to make effective use of this reservoir of knowledge, they are, to a large extent, allowed to work independently of existing arrangements in local authorities, whilst cooperating with them as necessary. This has enabled team members to work with much greater pace and intensity, in ways that are clearly appreciated by those in the schools.
In carrying out their work, the Advisers analyse particular school contexts in detail so as to identify the barriers that are preventing progress. They then get behind those within the schools in implementing changes that will overcome these barriers. Where necessary, additional resources are used to support developments in the schools, focusing particular attention on the strengthening of classroom practice, and senior and middle leadership.
Each member of the team brings different skills and experiences to this complex and demanding work. As in London Challenge, regular team meetings are an important context for the sharing of expertise and joint problem solving. Their collective knowledge has also enabled the Advisers to broker appropriate partnerships between schools, such that the best practices are made available to a wider number of learners. These partnerships – which take many forms – often involve crossing the borders between local authorities and joint projects with local primary schools.
Remembering the story of the lobsters, it is vital that this emphasis on collaboration does not promote mediocrity. With this in mind, accountability occurs through the involvement of the Advisers in each school’s Accelerated Improvement Board, where those involved share joint responsibility for carrying out agreed tasks. The notes of the monthly meetings of these boards provide an efficient means of keeping other stakeholders informed in ways that avoid time-wasting reporting arrangements.
Looking to the future, then, it is unlikely that further additional funding will be made available for Schools Challenge Cymru beyond this current financial year. This is not a surprise, however, since it was always intended that it should be a relatively short term initiative to inject greater pace into national school improvement efforts. Meanwhile, the Government intends to make sure that the lessons from the programme are used to continue its drive to improve school standards, supported with £100m of funding over this Assembly term. In this context, the four regional consortia, set up to support school improvement, will have a central role in taking the agenda forward.