News support feature: Sharing leaders to improve schools

24 Oct 2011

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An Ofsted survey of federated schools has confirmed that effective leadership by headteachers and senior leadership teams is the most critical feature in helping to generate and sustain improvement, particularly in teaching and learning, behaviour and pupils’ achievement.

Federation schools remain separate schools but share leadership arrangements. They have their own Ofsted inspections and report their results individually. Some share members of staff, particularly specialists. While the schools may have separate budget allocations the federation budget is overseen by the senior leadership team.

There are two main types of federation: hard federations have a single governing body amd soft federations typically retain separate governing bodies in each school but have committees with delegated powers which provide joint governance.

According to Ofsted’s report Leadership of more than one school, the biggest potential barrier to federation resulted from concerns from parents, pupils and staff about what the changes would mean to them. Nearly all the federations visited had avoided or overcome this difficulty by effective communication and consultation in the early stages of federation.

Making leadership count

In the best federations visited for the survey, the governing bodies were very effective at holding headteachers to account for the strategic development of the federation. There was a clear vision and good communication of the benefits that federation can bring to pupils, driven by the headteacher but shared by others. Leaders used a single system of assessing and tracking pupil progress and rigorous procedures were in place for monitoring and evaluating the federation and holding staff to account.

Inspectors found that, rather than a particular leadership model being more successful, the most important factor was how well the leadership structure and, crucially, training and development were tailored to meet the individual circumstances and needs of the schools in each federation. This was also a key finding in another Ofsted report Developing leadership.

Working jointly to improve

One headteacher of a federation who has worked hard to develop his staff’s leadership skills is Peter Beaven. Peter has been head of Norton Hill School in Midsomer Norton, Bath and North East Somerset, since 1994. He recalls, ‘I was asked to work with neighbouring Somervale School in 2003 to help it come out of special measures – which it did in record time. However, the school had never fully recovered and by 2009 the head and governors felt unable to turn things around.’

‘The school was suffering from falling pupil numbers, a huge budget deficit and poor outcomes,’ explains Peter. ‘After consultation with the local community, a decision was made in June 2009 to form a federation of the two schools. To the credit of governors, staff, parents and pupils at Norton Hill – everyone saw the need to work together to ensure secondary education in our town was equitable for all.’

However, the journey was not easy. Six weeks after the federation was formed, an Ofsted inspection in November 2009 gave Somervale School a notice to improve. Almost 25% of teaching staff left the school as a result of redundancy or disciplinary procedures, and high levels of fixed term exclusions were made in the first year.

The schools have one governing body and Peter divides his time between both. The bursar, site manager and ICT director from Norton Hill all do the same. Leaders at Norton Hill shared good practice to revamp the pastoral system at Somervale and, as a result, behaviour improved. Peter appointed the heads of core subjects onto the Somervale leadership team and gave staff opportunities to apply for posts with additional responsibility. The team concentrated on improving teaching and learning, and the partnership with Norton Hill and a number of other local schools and colleges gave students access to a good range of courses and opportunities. ‘We reduced the deficit,’ Peter explains, ‘and made imaginative use of external sources of funds that we found. Somervale also benefited from major refurbishment and the decline in numbers has been staunched.’

Introducing systems for improvement

Leadership development needs are identified accurately through the school’s performance management process. Peter has made sure there are systems securely in place to help senior leaders spot leadership skills and talent at an early stage in a teacher’s career

Norton Hill has a Lead Teacher scheme that gives young teachers in the first five years of their career the chance to lead an aspect of the school’s work, such as gifted and talented provision, international education, boys’ achievement, student voice or coaching. They carry out research, lead teacher training sessions and develop practice for which they receive support and a bursary, as well as being given the opportunity to gain a credit as part of a Master’s degree. The well-structured support they receive helps them to develop leadership skills quickly and effectively. This opportunity has now been extended to Somervale staff too.

Middle leaders are provided with very effective mentoring and support, which helps new middle leaders to prioritise actions and balance the demands of the job very well. Support staff and students are also provided with an impressive range of opportunities to develop their own leadership skills.

There has been movement of staff between the schools to provide staff development, to enhance career progression and to retain good teachers.

Exceeding expectations

Somervale’s outcomes in 2010 were ‘the best ever’, yet even these were exceeded in 2011. Peter attributes this to the ‘awesome’ governing body and his staff at both schools who have ‘worked very hard’. The school’s Ofsted report in November 2010 praised the senior leaders ‘for having a clear understanding of what has been achieved and what remains to be done’. The inspector also wrote, ‘The school’s rapid improvement is largely due to the headteacher’s intelligent and determined leadership. He has successfully undertaken considerable and fundamental change while securing and maintaining very good staff morale – a significant achievement.’

In October 2010, the Department for Education allowed Norton Hill School and Somervale School to become one of the first academies, under the new rules, in federation with each other. This means there is a master funding agreement with a sub-agreement for each school.

The reports are available on the Ofsted website.

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