We welcome city-wide collaboration, but we say don’t restrict it to headteachers
This post is also available to download as a BCASE Briefing document here.
On November 6th 2013 the new Birmingham Education Partnership was launched at a conference of 265 headteachers in the new Library. Its aim is to bring together all Birmingham state-funded schools, including academies and free schools, for mutual collaboration and support, in partnership with the local authority, to raise standards. As the BEP brochure says, ‘The BEP will partner with the city council to ensure challenge and ‘school to school’ support is coordinated for all schools’. (The brochure is available on the BEP website)
A rejection of Gove’s fragmented market
For those headteachers it represents a rejection of Mr Gove’s vision of a fragmented market-place of competing schools and a commitment to the idea that Birmingham needs a coordinated system of schools linked to elected local government.
Labour first proposed a new ‘umbrella trust’ when it took over the Council in May last year, but it was never able to convince the schools and it began to seem that, with the local education authority rapidly shrinking, the Birmingham school system was doomed to disintegrate. But earlier this year a number of headteachers, led by primary head Sarah Smith and secondary head Tim Boyes, took hold of the initiative and got the support of the vast majority of heads to go ahead.
Tim Boyes and Sarah Smith have now been elected chair and vice chair of the BEP. It will be run by a Board comprising an elected primary and secondary head from each of the 10 constituencies (now called Districts) together with representatives of nurseries, special schools, teaching schools and the King Edwards schools. The local authority will have a seat but no vote. The new structure will be in addition to, not replace, existing networks and consortia. Schools will pay an annual subscription of £1 per pupil.
School collaboration is the most effective school improvement
We welcome the BEP. Collaboration between schools has been shown to be the most effective way of raising standards (as the London Challenge demonstrated), we have seen the growth of effective collaboration in Birmingham but it has been uneven, patchy. The BEP has the potential to ensure a city-wide coordinated approach, mobilising and making full use of the expertise across our schools. This is in the best interests of our children and young people. It should also reduce the temptation for schools to join academy clusters and prevent them from becoming vulnerable to forced academisation.
However, we recognise that the BEP is in an embryonic stage and its future development is uncertain. It will only achieve its potential for ‘school improvement’ if the large majority of schools commit themselves not just to signing up but to putting their resources into building the Partnership and its activities.
The BEP must have a developmental role for all schools
That means going beyond ‘school improvement’ in the sense of meeting the government’s and Ofsted’s performance targets. The BEP has to have more than a remedial role as a lifeboat for vulnerable schools. It should have a developmental role for all schools, because all schools can develop. Similar Partnerships in other authorities have shown the way, setting up cross-school working groups on specific issues to meet the developmental needs of their local school systems.
Towards a Birmingham vision for education beyond meeting the targets
And this raises a question. Will the BEP, while supporting schools to meet their performance targets, limit itself to initiating developments within the agenda Mr Gove has set down, or will it challenge and go beyond it? In other words, will it develop a vision for education which really meets the needs of young people in Birmingham – a vision which is committed to tackling the equality gaps, which stimulates a love of learning, which embodies cooperative values, and which develops a critical understanding of the world and the desire to change it for the better?
Who should decide what the vision is for education in Birmingham?
Which raises another question, the most fundamental one that the BEP faces. Who should decide what the vision is for education in Birmingham? The BEP brochure says:
‘The vision for the Birmingham Education Partnership (BEP) is that headteachers, from all types of schools, take on collective leadership of education in our city. As head teachers we believe that together we have the closest working knowledge of the needs of schools and that, united, we are best placed to meet these needs.’
‘This is a unique chance to effect a step change in Birmingham with headteachers taking on the effective leadership of the educational agenda in our city.’
It needs to be emphasised what a radical move this is. It means that the leadership of education in the city will be handed over into the sole hands of headteachers. They will control not just their own individual schools but, collectively, the agenda for the aims, purposes and strategies of the whole Birmingham school system. The role of the local authority in the Partnership will be marginal – just a set on the Board with no vote. The role of school governors? None, they are not represented on the Partnership. The role of parents? None – they aren’t represented either . Teachers and other school workers? Nor are they. And neither is there any representation of local communities.
Heads must open up the BEP to representatives of all stakeholders
At school level we have a stakeholder model, with all these interests represented. At city-wide Partnership level we have a managerial model, with all these other stakeholders excluded and the local authority – elected local government – marginalised.
The mistake the headteachers are making is to conflate strategic leadership and operational leadership. It is true that the ‘closest working knowledge of the needs of schools’ lies in the schools themselves – though with all the teachers, not just the headteachers. They have the principal expertise to support other schools.
But that operational leadership is a different matter from strategic leadership – setting the aims and main strategies for the city’s school system. All stakeholders have a right to contribute to that, with a particular importance for the role of the local authority as the elected representative of the interests of the citizens of Birmingham.
As we said, we recognise that the BEP is at an embryonic stage and its future development has not yet been mapped out. During the next months it will be establishing the structures and procedures for its ‘school improvement’ role. But we think it vital that at the same time it begins the process of enabling the participation of the full range of stakeholders. As a matter of principle governors, teachers, parents, communities must have a voice, alongside headteachers, in the strategic leadership of education in the city. The reasons are two-fold: it is a democratic right, and it is a practical necessity if we are to build the active involvement of the whole community in raising standards, tackling inequality, and making Birmingham a ‘learning city’.
We note that the section on a vision for education in the ‘Strengthening the Birmingham Family of Schools – the role of the City Council’ Scrutiny report states that:
4.2.2 Clearly this vision needs to be agreed and shared by key stakeholder representatives covering all aspects of education hence our suggestion of a time-limited Strategic Board. We have recommended groups from whom leaders should be drawn but do not see this as definitive.
This statement seems to recognise the need, as the BCASE Briefing also does, that key stakeholder representatives including those of school governors, parents, teachers and local communities should be involved in the development of a collective vision for education in the city.