Stuart Lester: An experienced chair of governors’ view about what makes an effective governor

Good governance is at the heart of effective schools. To find out more about what is essential for a governor to know and act upon, I asked Stuart, one of the most effective and experienced governors I’ve met. Stuart first served as a parent governor in 1993 working with a head teacher he described as:

 ‘Massively supportive of my time as a governor, (and) remains the most inspirational person I have ever worked with. I think that above all is what hooked me into being a governor and gave me confidence to realize it was something I could do well and make a positive contribution.’

He has been chair of governors of four schools and is currently chair at two schools in Barnet, London. They are The Hyde, an Elliot Foundation academy, and Summerside, a Community Primary School.

What makes an effective governor?

Stuart began by suggesting some characteristics of an effective governor.

‘They should have ‘an open minded enthusiasm and a commitment to the education of other people’s children.’

He believes it is very important as a parent governor to be able to:

‘Distinguish between the interests of your own children and the other 400-500 children in the school’

This involves understanding that governors are part of a team with collective responsibility.

Tact and honesty are important, especially for chairs of governors

‘You have to be prepared to say what you think or believe, but you have to be careful not to offend other’s sensibilities particularly other professionals and the head.’

Governors have to be:

‘Inquisitive and willing to learn because, unless you are from an education background, working in a governing body is, from the outset, a completely different world from anything else in business. There’s a new language to learn and people relate to each other in a less competitive and more mutually co-operative way.’

Governors need:

Integrity and judgement, particularly as they find themselves dealing with some very awkward situations’

Governors have to be ‘highly visible but not obtrusive. Governors have to be seen and they have to be heard.’ Being known in the community fosters the building of trust over time.

Making ‘education speak’ accessible to all is a role for governors in their community. Stuart is critical of the use of ‘Ofstedese’ in the language used to describe education.

‘It’s a limiting language with very few adjectives and simplistic judgements. Governors mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking that way. I find it quite dispiriting at times that people think in terms of OFSTED. ‘The school has to fit at least ‘good’ to tick a box for Ofsted. I don’t want schools to be just ‘good’. I want the schools to be exciting and stimulating places where children learn and ideally the place of choice for parents. ‘It is a joy and source of satisfaction when you realize how much our schools do achieve in challenging circumstances, despite the little credit they sometimes get for the contribution they make to the lives of children and young people.’

While noting that ‘governors have enormous influence’ Stuart uses a phrase to describe the position experienced chairs enjoy. They are ‘partners in leadership’, a phrase he cites as being used first by the ‘Department’ (DfE).

I definitely know Stuart to be a ‘partner in leadership’ and he exemplifies Lord Nash’s recent observation: ‘voluntary does not mean amateur’.[i]

[i] The Role of School Governing Bodies Second Report of Session 2013–14 Volume II (July, 2013) accessed online 18th March 2015

The implications for professional development of using middle leaders as system leaders

The role of middle leadership is becoming increasingly important as education moves towards becoming a school-led system. There is also a greater use of system leadership – commonly defined as school leaders working outside their own institutions to support improvement in other schools. Operating in this way has had an impact on the role and development of middle leaders.

What is middle leadership?

There’s a lot of discussion in current educational discourse about the importance of middle leadership, but less about defining what it is. In primary schools there isn’t an obvious answer to what the role of middle leaders is because of the considerable differences between schools in terms of their size and context.

One definition of middle leadership is to identify those teachers who are beginning to exercise leadership in their role, often as curriculum or pastoral leaders. It is perhaps more important to consider how they are developed for leadership as a role, rather than just what areas that role might cover.

School leaders delegating responsibility to middle leaders isn’t the same as distributing leadership. Leadership includes an element of distributing to those who lead, a degree of accountability for that leadership. If so, the question remains; accountability for what and to whom and how will people, in this case middle leaders, be held accountable?

Accountability increases when middle leaders take on or are affected by system leadership. Therefore, development to understand the role and to equip middle leaders to work more effectively in their own schools is essential and fair. A consequence of having a greater understanding of middle leadership in their own schools is that they develop the skill and confidence to lead in other schools.

The role of middle leaders in a school-led system

Giving leadership opportunities and developing middle leaders matters increasingly in a school-led system because:

  • they are used as senior leaders in their own institution when stepping up to allow those in substantive senior positions to work in other schools
  • they are part of effective succession management; middle leaders are the school leaders of tomorrow
  • they may also be working outside their own institution in other schools and need development to understand the role and implications of working as system leaders.

Using middle leaders for system leadership

I am a devotee of system leadership, based on experience. As a former headteacher and National Leader of Education, I worked as a system leader for over ten years brokered by two local authorities and the then National College for School Leadership. I worked with middle and senior leaders to support colleagues in other schools. Now, working as the Development Director for The Elliot Foundation (TEF) and with several local authorities and school groups, I am convinced that working across schools provides enhanced leadership opportunities for all leaders in the partnership.

Case study: The Elliot Foundation

The Elliot Foundation Multi Academy Trust  was set up by Professor Caroline Whalley CBE as a place for primary schools to thrive. It is now a successful community of 17 converter and sponsored academies located in the West Midlands, London and East Anglia with sizes varying from one to five form entry schools. It recently celebrated its fifth ‘outstanding leadership’ judgement from Ofsted in nine months.

Using system leadership to enhance the skills of all staff and to build capacity within and across schools for school improvement, is an integral part of TEF’s school improvement strategies. Sometimes leaders are also brokered to support other local schools and school groups. Middle leaders are an essential aspect of this support. Not only do they work when needed across schools, they also ‘step up’ in their own institutions to enable senior leaders to support colleagues.

Not only do middle leaders work when needed across schools, they also ‘step up’ in their own institutions to enable senior leaders to support colleagues.

School-led support has to be brokered, resourced, led and evaluated. Therefore there has to be some means by which we know who is able to support, when and how. To enable this to happen and as part of a determination to be a collaborative rather than competitive organisation, TEF has developed a directory of system leadership.

Each academy principal has nominated staff who could provide expertise in any given area to support another academy. Whilst many principals and senior leaders offered leadership support and coaching, it was perceived to be good development for middle leaders as they would frequently lead the curriculum offers for early years and the range of the National Curriculum subjects, assessment without levels and so on.

The directory can be accessed by the regional and education directors to build support programmes and individual academies also have access as they feel appropriate.

As system leadership is integral to the work of TEF it is only possible here to provide a few examples of how middle leaders support across the organisation. The schools highlighted are a mixture of sponsored and converter schools which have worked together as a network to provide support for each other according to need and capacity.

Shirestone Academy is an outstanding school in Birmingham under the leadership of Principal Clare Lucas and her Vice Principal Claire Sarginson. Shirestone staff worked in schools in two different local authorities. They shared both middle and senior leaders.

Claire describes the experience as a great motivator for staff at Shirestone:

“Being able to gain experience in other schools and sharing expertise with them means we can benefit from the experience of others and learn from different contexts.”

Support for professional development

Providing opportunities to undertake senior leadership roles or to work as system leaders is an important part of development for middle leaders in TEF academies.
It builds capacity in their own schools and aids staff retention. As identified earlier, it allows middle leaders to have the confidence to share that practice elsewhere. However, it wouldn’t be fair to expect middle leaders to ‘step up’ without support.

Claire suggests that:

“Increased strategic responsibility is one of the biggest issues which makes middle leaders nervous when headteachers and other senior leaders are out of school. There can be implications for the children and the school, such as organising cover for staff absence due to sudden illness and you can’t wait for senior leaders to return to make the decision.”

Work shadowing and providing scenarios and discussions have been helpful at Shirestone for middle leaders asking ‘what would you do if’ and ‘what is your reason for thinking’. Triads are also a way of offering scenarios as Louise Noonan, Principal of Kings Rise, has found:

“We have developed middle leaders by working in triads with two other staff who might be another teacher and/or teaching assistant and senior staff.”

Gemma Down, Principal of Rough Hay, highlights the key issue of preparing middle leaders for senior roles:

“Middle leaders don’t always have the opportunity to have leadership time and are often class based. If they are going to work in other schools then preparation time for them to undertake workshops or in-service training is essential.”

Some middle leaders are lead practitioners and are used as system leaders as highlighted by Louise and also Jo Clifton, Principal of Billesley Primary, another school with outstanding leadership (Ofsted: 2014).

“Experience of mentoring staff in another school was a useful experience and our staff had to learn quickly. We use lead practitioners for core subjects and as teacher coaches. What is different when it is in another school,
is that supporting middle leaders had to walk away from the supported school for a week and it was harder to lead from a distance when they weren’t there.”

Jo emphasised that an important part of the development was ‘The chance to reflect with SLT afterwards.’

More formal ways of developing middle leaders in TEF are though development pathways and the entitlement they have as part of a national pathway. This includes ITT, NQT, RQT, middle and senior leadership including principals and links with the University of Warwick and University College London (IOE) for masters credits.

We are pleased to have secured places on the Teaching Leaders Primary programme. This one to two year differentiated course offers opportunities for staff to link theory and practice. A beneficial impact is described by Ruth Leask, Principal of Shireland Hall:

“Teaching Leaders has presented opportunities for our middle leaders that we could not have easily provided ourselves. Being able to meet with others, at the same stage in their career, to share good practice and reflect on what really works in a variety of settings has been a useful part of their development as middle leaders.”


Schools in the Foundation across the regions have benefitted from being able to retain middle leaders. Allan Shephard is Principal of George Betts Academy, part of a federation with Shireland Hall under the Executive Principal, Travis Latham. Allan uses his ‘outstanding leadership team’ (Ofsted, 2015) and suggests that middle leaders benefit from learning how to lead when supporting colleagues in other schools, and that this in turn benefits retention in his school. Some of his middle leaders who have supported English and maths both across the federation and in a local Free School were subsequently promoted to senior leadership within their federation.

Paul Edgerton was originally appointed as principal of Kings Rise when it was in special measures. Under his leadership the school gained an outstanding judgement (Ofsted, 2014) and he is now the executive principal of Kings Rise, Croft and Rough Hay academies. He argues the benefits of developing a system leadership approach for middle leaders are ‘huge’ with:

“improvements directly from receiving support, obviously financial rewards for resources but beyond that professional rewards; staff are able to reflect on their own and others’ practice, development of a shared ethos and professional ‘duty’ and self-development for those involved in supporting others.”

The advantages of TEF’s development of middle leaders are:

  • building sustainable networks and cohesion in a cluster of schools through trust and sharing good practice
  • high retention rates because of a wide variety of opportunities for staff within, between and across school
  • improved standardised data, which has shown that school-to-school support has had a positive impact on end of Key Stage 2 attainment levels, in those schools where it has been used.

Middle leadership development is essential, as they are the school leaders of the future.

Article first published in The Teaching Leaders Quarterly, spring 2015’.  

An election, education policy – all change?

I had an interesting discussion recently with someone about long term government planning and whether it was more likely to be successful within a benevolent dictatorship or a democracy.

This had nothing to do with any particular policy but the likelihood of a government policy, any policy, being designed for the long term over decades rather than the short term between elections, which is the situation we seem to have now.

This conversation led me to consider and not for the first time, the issues around the short termism of English education policy.

I’m sure no government introduces policy that they don’t think will work and don’t try to improve education. Although I think there are degrees of difference in terms of the extent to which policy is introduced to fulfill a particular philosophy, or is just a matter of pragmatism.

Either way, constant changes and patched up education policy have caused tensions and consequences sometimes unintended. Obvious examples are the changes to the examination system and frequent changes to the Ofsted framework. Arguably one of the biggest changes during the last 5 years has been structural with the introduction of converter academies, primary academies and free schools.

As we approach the election I am left wondering, when a different government is in power, what changes will it introduce and what will be the impact of those changes?

Remember Labour’s Every Child Matters? A very expensive policy to implement and much was lost with a change of government that subsequently decided every child might matter but in a different way.

The Coalition’s flagship free school programme is controversial. It has cost the taxpayer a fortune and many will argue with a negative cost – benefit. Will they survive? Conservatives say yes, but it’s a no more from Labour’s Tristram Hunt.

I want to live in a democracy for all its faults and certainly don’t want to live in a dictatorship, benevolent or otherwise. However I do think we should consider the advantages of long term planning outside the life of individual governments.

A way of adopting a longer-term approach would be to have education policy designed by a cross party group of politicians and educationalists. Then we would rely less on the need for schools to subvert, rationalise and adapt policies in order to make them work for the benefit of their pupils.

Why mandating collaboration won’t work

It was proposed recently that effective collaboration should be an element of Ofsted

‘School-to-school collaboration is an effective means of challenge and improvement. Ofsted should expect and inspect schools’ and local authorities’ success in this regard.’

Association of Directors of Children’s services, Policy Position Paper, March 2015[1]

If collaboration becomes part of the overall judgement Ofsted makes of schools, will this lead to a flood of eager collaborators? Hopefully, but not if it’s just used as another box to tick to achieve a good or better Ofsted.

Collaboration between schools has been a part of school life for years. The difference in the last few years is that it’s being used as a tool to improve schools as a main part of England’s educational policy. Particularly through using school leaders to work to improve outcomes for children in schools other than their own, commonly referred to as system leadership.

I can understand why there is a strong steer by government for heads to collaborate for school to school support. It is difficult to see how an education system that uses its schools to help self improve can succeed without heads being prepared to be system leaders.

It’s possible to trace many of the careers of heads deemed outstanding by Ofsted and often via N/LLE, to executive headship of federations, leaders of MATs, teaching schools and large collaborative groups. There are variations to this scenario but it makes the point that while heads may be acting out of moral purpose, it’s also a good career move and has proven to be popular.

If we accept that heads should engage in collaboration it should be acknowledged that it is a complicated process and so a bit risky in practice. It’s about more than just choosing to collaborate.

It’s up to system leaders to decide whether they undertake this work or not, and a risk is that they won’t take up the work or, if they do because it’s pushed through Ofsted, it might not be advantageous to the schools they support. That system leaders understand both the wider policy context and how schools work, doesn’t automatically mean they understand or will collaborate benignly to bring about system improvement.

Collaboration is about knowledge, understanding and good relationships based on trust and shared goals. It’s also about sustainability. It works when those who collaborate are well matched in terms of skills and needs. System leaders should have an understanding not just of school improvement in their own schools but also be able to drive and recognise it in other contexts.

There’s little doubt that system leadership can improve leadership capacity and outcomes for children. I agree that effective school leaders should be used to support vulnerable colleagues and that this country is in danger of developing a two – tier system.

Nevertheless schools are about raising quality of learning and outcomes for children and if a head wishes to do this in their own school that should be enough and they shouldn’t risk a good or better judgement because they don’t lead outside and so don’t fulfil the expectations of government policy. I’m all for encouraging schools to collaborate but not sure Ofsted is the best way to do it.

[1] Accessed online 11.03.15 via twitter @SchoolsImprove should-inspect-how-well-schools-collaborate-report-says

Federation: Building a whole school culture

An interview with Karen Crawley Executive Principal of the Nene and Ramnoth Federation in Wisbech

Ask any educationalist about their impression of a school and they will say that they know immediately by the ‘feel’ of it, the ethos and atmosphere as soon as they walk in. You know a great school as soon as you meet the welcoming staff, view the learning focused displays and meet the children.

There is a definite buzz about the Nene and Ramnoth Federation of schools. This is especially pertinent to Ramnoth Junior School which has seen impressive improvements in standards and children’s well – being as part of its federation with Nene Infant School and under the expert leadership of Karen Crawley and her team

How did they do it? I recently spoke to Karen who steered the schools’ journey from joining the Elliot Foundation and federating on October 1st 2013

I started by asking Karen about the context of Nene and Ramnoth

‘Nene and Ramnoth are schools in high areas of deprivation in a diverse community which isn’t well established with a lot of Eastern European children who are new to the area and country. It has been a time of great change.

When I look back what I’m most proud of is how far we’ve come as a federation from being two schools to being a family of schools. Before October 2013 we were two schools which were geographically close but in terms of practice and being close to each other, with the only real contact being the annual visit made between year 2 and year3, they may as well have been in different continents.’

Karen described how the decision to federate brought with it a worry about a loss of identity.

‘Even when we first started and it was muted we might federate the majority of staff were worried I would either ‘Neneify’ Ramnoth or ‘Ramnothise’ Nene. There were two schools which were fighting to maintain their identity without recognising the strength of union. The challenge was moving from being two parts which didn’t want to meet to being one unit which exists for our families.’

How did you overcome the challenges of forming an identity for the two separate schools?

‘The reason it worked, is I went against all advice and instead of having heads of each of the two schools and me as executive, everything became focused on the federation. Everything came from the mission statement and ethos: I can, you can and together we can.

That was the challenge and it was saying it to everyone and every audience on every occasion! In everything I did, I had to keep pulling it back to federation. The idea of a head of school wasn’t going to work for this situation. The schools and staff were too far apart and were always going to end up being two schools in different places. I had to unify it and we had to look at what we needed to do as a team. I have to emphasise that. What did we need for these children from 2-11 and their families but as one unit and not two schools’

Were there changes to the staffing structures in the schools?

‘We started by restructuring the Senior Leadership Team. We restructured across both schools. We had two existing deputies. We could have just made them heads of school but when you have some of the lowest SATs scores in the country we would have had people at Ramnoth with a mountain to climb and people at Nene sitting on top of the mountain and looking down. That wouldn’t build with shared values

Both deputies had worked with me but they had to go through an interview. The task I set them was ‘The journey and where do they want the federation to go?’ They had to see us as a federation. While the presentations were different they both showed how they saw the federation as a strength whereas before conversion they wouldn’t have seen the value in one another’s settings. Once appointed we had a team to create change.

Once that was complete then I could look at staff teams. I wanted to ensure we gave people strength and power. We thought about getting a key stage 1 and a key stage 2 leader but that didn’t flow for us and so I put that on one side because we needed to maintain self –esteem and get people who wanted to be on the journey rather than force the journey on anyone. Not everyone saw the benefits of federation and thought we would lose the identity and resources from Nene and not all staff in positions were necessarily in the right places to move across the federation.

I tried to break down barriers through working together and staff development.

We had a Vice Principal for inclusion because you cannot fight for vulnerable children if you aren’t in school and working with the families. We had a Vice Principal for teaching and learning and it’s important to look at each child’s learning journey from the start and how they develop and progress. It’s recognising the steps they need to make and so the teaching and learning moves with them across the schools. I wanted someone to lead on achievement so we were looking at challenging and data and making sure we hadn’t got anyone slipping through the net.

There are curriculum teams such as a maths team with people working from Early Years through to KS2 and who have an understanding and overview of the needs of the children from all the phases. They are looking at policy and practice for all children. When children start there will be consistency of policy and practice and especially marking across the federation.

We set up the subject leader roles which also helped with retention. I was able to make a role for someone who I knew had leadership and coaching skills and expertise to be a KS2 leader. We also had a KS1 leader who had bought into the federation as she began to see it work. We developed the roles through moderation and there grew a strong relationship as the person I wanted for KS2 leader came and worked in partnership at Nene. The KS1 leader wanted to work together with him and so it was natural then to create a KS1 and 2 leadership structure whereas it wouldn’t have been at the beginning. Joint working across the federation in teams has enabled us to raise standards across the federation and created and build capacity making a sustainable system. The staff in these teams feel empowered and supported while enabling challenge.’

Karen likes to take time to develop organically and use systems which are contextually suited to her schools and not just buy in a system and bolt it on to her practice. While the schools were interested in assertive mentoring they wanted to do it ‘their way’ and set out to see what they needed to do to make it ‘work for us as a federation’

Karen described how:

‘Colleagues worked together, trialled and refined the system which can be used for assessment, gap analysis and inform teaching and learning. We can use it with a more able year 2 and year 5. It was better for them to shape their own but I had to create the circumstances for it to be set up in the first place as a system they wanted rather than impose a solution which might not work. I felt if it was going to work it would have to grow from us. We’d had a situation at Ramnoth where everything had been imposed by the LA and people felt things were being done to them and I didn’t want that.’

Karen is describing elements of an organic, bespoke, contextually defined system which is being refined constantly to suit its circumstances and is reflective and responsive to change rather than rely on a form of imposed or bought in solution. That takes time and trust but what did she need to think about?

‘We couldn’t do everything simultaneously and I wanted to begin by giving them one thing to focus on which was marking and feedback and making sure feedback impacted on next steps. They had success by focussing on one thing and that then bred further success rather than trying to do too much too soon and failing.

I think the key to success was because we started and took one step at a time. We recognised every small step to success we made and built upon it.

Karen, is there anything you would like to highlight about the way you have brought together two schools?

‘The main point for me was that I knew this was a community and everything we did we brought back to the school with the idea that every child matters and everything we do must impact on the children. They have one chance and in this community they only have one chance, that’s the vision. Everything I talk about to the staff is that if they don’t love the children and believe passionately in their success then you shouldn’t be on this journey with us. It’s not about getting it done and moving on.

I wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. I bring it all back to, this is what these children deserve.

It’s also the network you have as well that’s important. I had a chair of governors who believed this was right for children. If you’ve people around you who believe in the same vision it helps for those times when you have a wobble. People can say look at where we are and where we’ve come from. We have parents who trust us and happy children. Also with the Elliot Foundation I had sponsors who had the same values and all want the same for these children.

I left Karen feeling uplifted and inspired.

This interview was first published on

It Isn’t About Making Clones

A version of this article first appeared in Teach Primary Magazine on 28th February

It’s easy to be an advocate for continuing professional development (CPD). After all, who wouldn’t be in favour of an educated and well-trained workforce? However, putting this into practice is more complicated and raises difficult questions – what is the purpose of the development, who should provide it and when should it be offered? More importantly, how do we determine both the effectiveness and sustainability of any gains?

            To me, one thing is clear: the aim of professional development should not be to mould every teacher, teaching assistant or school business manager in the same image. It isn’t about making clones, but about creating reflective, questioning and analytical practitioners who can adapt their practice to different roles and contexts.

            Apart from the difference in scale, I have approached professional development in the same way both as a headteacher and now as Development Director of the Elliot Foundation – a successful multi academy trust. In my view, all staff are entitled to be developed professionally for their own benefit, and for the sake of the children, who have the right to work with adults who are well-motivated and highly skilled.

            As a national organisation, we ask two questions that determine our development pathways:

  • What professional development should be a national entitlement?
  • Which aspects of professional development should be specific to individual academies or regional clusters?

What professional development should be a national entitlement?

We begin by considering what development is appropriate for different roles and levels of experience – initial teacher trainees, newly qualified teachers (NQTs), post-NQTs, middle leaders, senior leaders, aspirant principals, principals, and executive principals all have different entitlements.

            These roles are not meant to represent a linear pathway of progression through to school leadership, they are merely markers for development at specific times. We fully acknowledge that talented post-NQTs will be working as middle leaders, or that senior leaders – such as assistant headteachers – may move directly to headship.

            Nevertheless, we wish to ensure there is an entitlement pathway at every level of leadership. For example, NQTs embark on a training programme delivered in the West Midlands by the Colmore Partnership Teaching School Alliance, and senior leaders can work with a local provider to gain the National Professional Qualification for Senior Leadership. In addition, some opportunities for development are available across all roles – we offer a post-graduate MA through the University of Warwick, for example.

            Collectively, these opportunities form a multi-layered approach to leadership development. The important point being that it’s difficult for staff to be effective leaders if they don’t know what high quality leadership look like, or haven’t debated its characteristics.

            ‘System leadership’ – or working in other schools for the benefit of the children and staff – is also integral to the Elliot Foundation’s approach to school improvement. To achieve this, we have devised a learning pathway that is essentially a menu of support and advice (it includes areas such as school leadership, assessment, and school business management).

            All academies can offer to either provide or receive support from this menu. The advantages of this collaborative approach are that it develops the skills and knowledge of both parties. This illustrates a key advantage of partnership networks: it doesn’t always have to be about supporting vulnerable schools.

Which aspects of professional development should be specific to individual academies or regional clusters?

The Elliot Foundation operates inter-dependent clusters of schools in the West Midlands, East Anglia and London, and much of the national entitlement outlined above is delivered locally – particularly in collaboration with Teaching School Alliances or university partners. Some aspects of development are, however, determined by the requirements of each academy or region.

            Cluster curriculum groups, where curriculum leaders from each academy in a particular region meet to support each other and share ideas, also drive professional development. A recent meeting was held at the National College where maths leaders from schools and academies across the regions met to discuss the developing maths curriculum; resources; opportunities and barriers to learning; assessment and recording progress; and so on. Such networking opportunities lead to informal learning and are successful in forging professional partnerships.

            There are clearly budgetary implications to organising CPD in this fashion and a decision has to be made about who pays for different aspects of education and training. However, my view has always been that no organisation can afford not to invest in developing its staff; they are the key to ensuring the excellent education for our children.

Responding to need: Free Schools in a Church of England Diocese

It’s been reported over the last few years that a key issue facing the education system is succession planning to replace headteachers in small primary schools, rural schools and faith schools. So the pressure to do so when all those factors are combined is considerable. This is the situation facing one Diocese which embraces Church schools in Herefordshire, the Church schools in the southern part of Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin and one in Worcestershire, a total of 81 schools and its Education Director, Philip Sell.

I went to see him to find out how they are finding innovative solutions to issues facing them and discovered that they have embraced the opportunities being offered through the academisation of schools and adopted new structures including Free Schools in response to concerns regarding headteacher succession and the sustainability of some of their schools. Philip Sell described the vulnerability of the schools in the Diocese:

An issue for us regarding schools is the number of small schools with rolls of under 50 children and there are very few schools which are over 100. There are a large number of very small isolated schools with sparse populations. Schools, that if they were to shut it would make a profound difference to their communities where the next one might be 7 or 12 miles away… The challenge all small schools have inherently because of their size is the expertise they can offer.’

Finding solutions has meant dialogue with all parties including staff in the schools, the local authority, members of the Diocese; governors and the community. One solution has been for the Diocese to actively encourage and find ways for schools to collaborate and share expertise. Another was to ‘work with local authorities who have plans to save money by getting rid of them’. The response from local authorities over viability of small schools has been closure but this has been resisted both by the community and the Diocese.

‘We argue the case why it [closure] shouldn’t happen (although in a couple of cases it has) and also helping schools which have been closed to re-emerge as a response to the needs of today. The biggest challenge is to bring some rationalisation and response to local authority plans and having a regard of the community impact and the quality of education that can be offered in those settings.’

Some of the vulnerable rural schools have been proactive and federated themselves. Philip points to the success of these partnerships and where they have been inspected and moved from satisfactory to good which he attributes to ‘the governance and leadership arrangements which have been strengthened through the process.’ Communities have also been proactive in their response to finding solutions to the viability of schools. This has included the support for two free schools, Barrow 1618 in Shropshire and Dilwyn in Herefordshire

‘In two cases particularly, a governor led community action group made a huge difference. Two schools were shut: one in Herefordshire and one in Shropshire and have both reopened as Church of England free schools… We had to have a discussion with the Department for Education about what was meant and how the Church could be involved in a free school when a free school was meant for parents to set it up and be independent of all.’

What support has the Diocese offered to schools vulnerable to closure?

The Diocese invited schools to a meeting to discuss solutions. Support has been encouraging schools to ‘dare to be different’ in terms of structure, leadership and the curriculum. It was suggested to them by Philip that:

‘If you are to survive you’ve got to put yourselves on the map for being extraordinary. The whole notion of free schools is I think about alternative provision offering something unique and exciting; outside the norm. …What they’ve constructed at Barrow, for example, is a school of agriculture and horticulture and they equip children who come to that school to be able to engage in work in that community into adulthood.’

The Diocese has also been generous in supporting the Free School proposal, as have local farmers, example by giving land by benefaction including a forest which will allow them to offer a ‘forest school’s’ curriculum ‘every day of the week’. Although it’s early days Philip highlights the opportunities to take the curriculum outside to enable children to learn from their environment ‘so they do maths outside and measure the trees by estimating their height or writing poetry about the environment and so on.’

Dilwyn in Herefordshire is another example of using the Free School alternative. It was the intention of the local authority to close the school which it did despite a massive campaign by the community and in particular the chair of governors. However the school didn’t ‘roll over and die’ but following a further campaign and fundraising by the community it raised enough money to ‘pay the utility bills’ was granted the building ‘free of charge by the Diocese’ and re-opened as a Free School. This still left some difficulties as to how the school would run. However the community overcame these and in the first year:

They ran the school with volunteer teachers and they did a good job and volunteer teachers came in from other schools to help with Spanish, cookery, yoga and the curriculum experience of the children was greatly enriched at no cost to the school… The caretaking was done by a builder who lived in the village and all the work and materials and labour were given free of charge. All the dinner ladies came from the village and worked free of charge. All people were police checked of course. It lasted a whole year. After two terms Ofsted came to inspect and gave it good with outstanding features.’

I asked, ‘Are these new ways of working as Free Schools successful?’ Admissions are rising. Barrow has increased numbers from 28 to 52. ‘Their business plan was to grow to 70 over 5 years and they are at 52 after only 9 months with waiting lists of 4 for this year and next year they have 18 requests for 10 places.’ Dilwyn, while still vulnerable regarding numbers, nevertheless has 6 wishing to be admitted next year and numbers have grown from 16 on opening to 21. If success is measured by parental response they are, initially at least, more successful than before conversion. Another factor in the success of Free Schools remaining viable is the increased funding they receive and of course the generosity of the Diocese in offering land and buildings.

Is becoming a Free School the answer to any school facing closure? Philip doesn’t think so necessarily or that it’s always the right solution:

‘I think there are other factors in terms of viability as well as standards in a school and it can’t always be the case that every school that is shut by the local authority automatically has the right to become a free school. It has to be based on need and potential and the vision held by that community.’

In addition to supporting Free Schools the Diocese also sponsors schools which are either ‘forced’ or have chosen to become an academy. Apart from the point that Diocesan schools may prefer to remain within the family of schools it would be difficult for another group to sponsor them. The trust deed of Church schools stipulates that the buildings are provided for them while undertaking education within the teaching of the Church of England. If this is no longer the case the buildings cease to be available. Sponsoring primary schools is a new venture for the Diocese and a relatively recent one as it is a response to the new landscape of sponsorship resulting from Coalition policy. The Diocese is now registered as an academy sponsor which has had implications for its structure and staffing including the appointment of a new assistant director for business and premises:

We have a business plan to show how we will look after these schools and we made a bid for funding to grow our staffing structure in the first year so we can grow our schools on that journey from being a failing school to being an academy.’ It is the intention that once the sponsors of a school in special measures, the Diocese will ‘manage through governance every aspect of that school’s development.’

Evidence that the Diocese is having success with its strategy is that schools are considering voluntary conversion within their umbrella organisation. One advantage of doing so is seen by Philip Sell as ‘overcoming the vulnerability’ of becoming a stand-alone converter’.

‘If a stand-alone school fails who do they go to? They’ve no one, but if they are in the Multi Academy Trust (MAT) they’ve the additional level of governance above them… Each of the sponsored academies would have a local governing body which would be responsible for the local day to day management of that school but answerable to the MAT. How much delegation they get depends on how far along the journey to improvement they are.’

What is striking is that the Diocese ‘welcomes’ the ‘gift of autonomy’ and is offering help through conversion, and business planning, consultancy and supporting school to school support. In facilitating Free Schools or other academy conversions they are operating in the same way as other sponsors. However all actions are located within the values and practices of the Church of England. This is only the beginning for the Diocese. What of the future? In Philip Sell’s view:

‘The Diocese is going to become more like a local authority which will become more like an irrelevant Diocese in the past. Schools will not only look to the Diocese in the future for leadership and in times of crisis, as they have always done but for support in all areas of school development and management.

This article first appeared in the resources/publications section on the National College website in September 2013 here: