Researching Local Learning Systems during a period of Fragmentation and Reformation

A decade ago, Stephen Ball described England’s school system as “messy, patchy and diverse”, reflecting the roll back of Local Authorities (LAs) and the rapid increase in independent academies underway at that time. Since then we have seen a shift in policy, away from promoting single academies and towards Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), which now oversee more than a third of all schools in the country. This has led to the emergence of what Megan Crawford and her colleagues describe as a “multi-dimensional middle”, with multiple MATs, a reduced LA and various other hubs, networks, providers and bodies all operating alongside each other to support and oversee schools and academies. Inevitably, there is significant variation between how this plays out in different areas, leading some to characterize the system as fragmented and incoherent. The government’s new White Paper, expected sometime this spring, will reinvigorate the push towards a fully MAT-run system, with every school located in a ‘strong’ trust, operating within – it is hoped – a more aligned and coherent system. 

Rob Higham and I studied these developments in our research into the ‘self-improving, school-led system’, published in 2018. A key finding was how the fragmented nature of the system had created multiple, increasingly marketised models for knowledge exchange. For example, we visited three ‘outstanding’ primary schools in one locality. All three were members of the same local partnership, but they took quite different approaches to how they accessed and shared knowledge and expertise, reflecting the different values and dispositions of the schools’ senior leaders:

  • The first worked to protect its knowledge, by organizing almost all its Continuous Professional Development and Learning (CPDL) internally, and only buying in consultant support or collaborating with other schools in specific areas. This collaboration rarely involved the school’s teachers, given a concern they might be poached.
  • The second school worked to sell, particularly its expertise around leadership and achieving an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted inspection, and sought to make ‘serious money’ from doing so.
  • The third school worked to jointly develop and share knowledge. It attached high priority to collaboration and was committed to the progress of partners, but faced clear tensions in how to fund its approach given its reluctance to run neatly packaged courses.

These three schools arguably represent – in microcosm – the challenges we face across the wider school system. The fragmented nature of the system presents a clear risk that knowledge, expertise and innovation could get ‘locked up’ within particular schools, MATs and networks. The result could be that local CPDL provision becomes too variable in terms of quality, equity of access, and impact – creating a system of ‘winners and losers’. This would clearly be in contrast with all that is known about improvement and professional learning in the highest performing school systems globally, which have coherent and well-embedded frameworks for developing and sharing evidence-informed knowledge and expertise.

Since our research was published, in 2018, the government has worked to establish more coherent national frameworks for teacher and leadership development, for example through the Early Career Framework and revised National Professional Qualifications. The delivery of these frameworks is also being coordinated more tightly at national and local levels, with 750 separate Teaching School Alliances replaced by 87 Teaching School Hubs.

These recent developments can be seen as part of a process of ‘reformation’, as the government seeks to reimpose a level of order on the fragmented system. The forthcoming White Paper and the further development of a MAT-led system represents the next step in this process, although there will no doubt be fierce debates around whether the government’s ambition is either desirable or realistic.

Understanding how England’s systemic process of fragmentation and re-formation is impacting on CPDL for schools and teachers across local areas is a pressing concern

For now, let’s focus solely on the question of whether the new model has the potential to enable knowledge and expertise to be generated and shared in systematic ways, so that all schools and teachers can benefit. At one level, it seems plausible that a MAT-led system could integrate with the new place-based Teaching School Hubs – and our initial research project interviews across three localities do provide some examples of this happening. However, we have also heard about challenges and barriers, some of which appear to reflect local historic relationships and competitive cultures, while others are more systemic. What seems clear is that MAT leaders must focus, first and foremost, on developing their CPDL internally, across the schools they are directly accountable for. As yet, there is limited evidence on whether all MATs will then be willing or able to collaborate and share with other MATs, across local schooling systems.

For all these reasons, understanding how England’s systemic process of fragmentation and re-formation is impacting on CPDL for schools and teachers across local areas is a pressing concern. The EQuaLLS research project aims to contribute to this priority by studying the development of Local Learning Systems (LLS). Since autumn 2021 our team has begun researching three case studies of LLSs across different parts of England, with a focus on CPDL in primary mathematics. In this infographic we set out what we see as the main elements of an LLS, based on our interpretation of the organisational and system learning literatures.

In future blog posts we will explore these literatures in more depth and we will continue to share our emerging thinking and findings via fortnightly blogs as we progress through the project. The final research report is due for publication in December this year.  Please do leave a comment and stay in touch.   

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