02/12/16
The announcement that the National Teaching Service is to be discontinued is deeply depressing but not surprising.

Recognising the imperative of helping schools in challenging areas to attract the best teachers and leaders I and many others welcomed the need to provide support for these schools and therefore tried hard to help shape this policy as it was being developed.
Although the intention behind it was worthy alarm bells rang from the outset.

I remember sitting at a round table discussion in the plush environment of a Number 10 round table warning about the following pitfalls:
that this was not about attaching schools with the greatest challenge to ‘outstanding schools’ with completely different contexts;
that this was not a problem that could be sorted with any quick fix or by parachuting in bright young things from another part of the country for two years;
that any initiative had to be part of a coherent multi agency approach to the complex social and economic problems that affect these schools.
That moving excellent teachers and leaders into these schools needed to be part of a carefully planned career route.
Above all many of us warned about the risk of a message to these schools that the people who were working there were all failing and needed to be shown what to do or discarded.
Unfortunately we were largely ignored.

I currently spend time in numerous schools including many in areas of high disadvantage facing enormous challenges. I am one of the few external visitors who are not there to judge or assess them Consequently staff can speak openly to me about what is and isn’t going well.

Wherever I go I meet staff who care deeply about doing everything they can for the children in their schools. They baulk at the idea that the context in which they operate should be an excuse for lowering of expectations and work incredibly hard to compensate for these things. They know that their staff need and deserve the highest quality of leadership by compassionate, caring individuals who trust and value them and will do their very best to assist them in the difficult job they do. Where schools have the capacity and skills in their teams to provide that, the schools work miracles but capacity is the key issue that needs to be written large. Often they just cannot fill vacancies with suitable staff.

In its response to the BBC report of this news the DFE recognised that there were lessons to learn.

Here are my suggestions about what needs to happen:
When one of these schools is judged to be underperforming a detailed review by experienced professionals should be commissioned in order to understand the issues. It is simply not acceptable to base strategic decisions on a brief inspection or simplistic desk analysis of data.
That review should be undertaken with and not done to the leaders and governors.
It should start from a no blame standpoint and not automatically assume that the cause of the problem is failings in leadership. If that turns out to be the case it can be addressed at the next stage.
The outcome of this review should be a detailed and resourced short, medium and long term plan to address the identified issues. This plan must be tailored to the individual needs of the school and the wider community rather than resorting to a default solution which may not be suitable.

From my experience key issues to address will be the following:
Many of these schools need an injection of additional leadership capacity at various levels. Replacing experienced people may not be the answer but they may need additional help. Staff in many of these schools are rushed off their feet. Most do not have the luxury of the levels of funding and support enjoyed in many London schools. The appointment with appropriate support of additional senior and middle leader to concentrate specifically over a significant period on a key issue can make a massive difference. Recent funding announcements might help, but I’m afraid the jury is out on that one.
The accountability system must be made fairer. It is too difficult for the strengths in these schools to be recognised within the current systems and KPIs.
There must be an acceptance that these matters are not addressed by quick fixes. The idea that a secondment for one or two years can address them is nonsense.
The school needs to be part of a supportive network with access to people working in similar circumstances who understand the issues. It does not mean that the school needs to be ‘taken over’ by a school in completely different circumstances, nor does it mean that the multi-academy trust might not be an appropriate model in some cases.

Above all however I have left the most significant issue until last. This is about a deep seated culture change in the way governments, ‘opinion formers, parts of the media and sadly some educational professionals speak about, trust and value our schools and the people who work in them.

Sir Michael Wilshaw’s annual report speech rightly highlighted the biggest issue the government has signally failed to address – namely of recruitment. We will only recruit the quantity and calibre of teachers we need when there is culture where working in an area of high deprivation is the pinnacle of the teaching profession and school leadership. It is time for the government to stop listening to those who shout loudest and work with the quiet champions at the front line to achieve this.