Place and Hubs: what do we know about hubs and how they work?

Hubs are now an established feature of the educational landscape in England.  With varied geographic footprints and areas of focus, these hubs represent a key vehicle for government funded Continued Professional Development and Learning (CPDL) for teachers. In this blog post, the sixth from the EQuaLLS project, I explore what we mean by ‘Hubs’, the different types of Hubs currently in operation and some of the challenges they face. Understanding what these hubs offer, how accessible they are, and to what extent schools are engaging with them helps us to understand more about quality and equity in the current CPDL landscape.

Following the catalytic white paper of 2010, ‘The Importance of Teaching’, the education system in England has been subject to several cycles of fragmentation and reformation in pursuit of a ‘schools-led education system’. Part of this reformation has seen the introduction of what are sometimes referred to as ‘middle-tier’ networks, for example the ‘Maths Hubs’ in 2014, ‘English Hubs’ in 2018, ‘Computing Hubs’ in 2019, ‘Behaviour Hubs’ in 2020 and most recently, ‘Teaching School Hubs’ in 2021. At present there are 40 Maths Hubs, 34 English Hubs, 34 Computing Hubs, 22 Behaviour Hubs and 87 Teaching School Hubs in England. In addition to these hubs, there are 28 Research Schools and 10 Associate Research Schools that work with the Education Endowment Foundation to disseminate findings.

Understanding what these hubs offer, how accessible they are, and to what extent schools are engaging with them helps us to understand more about quality and equity in the current CPDL landscape.

The Maths, English and Computing hubs are led by one or two schools or institutions selected by the DfE based on their proven capacity to lead and track record in that subject. The hubs are regional, and it is expected that every school in the country should be able to access them with ease; hubs aim to serve the communities they are connected to by offering funded CPDL to all schools regardless of status, meaning services are available to academies and maintained schools. Maths Hubs operate across primary and secondary schools, whilst the English Hubs focus only on phonics, early reading and reading in reception and year one.

So, what are hubs and what is their purpose? Over the past decade, the concept of hubs has become increasingly popular on a global scale due to their success in Asian countries such as China and Malaysia, most commonly within Higher Education but more recently on a regional basis across educational systems (Knight, 2010). Regional hubs can have different purposes depending on who they are for, some examples could be student hubs focused on skills and training or knowledge and innovation hubs that focus on research and the generation of knowledge to be shared within the community. Within England, curriculum hubs, such as the Maths and English hubs, are led by an Ofsted graded ‘outstanding’ school or college with the view of developing and sharing good practice and raising outcomes. Maths Hubs were introduced first, coinciding with the ‘Shanghai Maths Teacher Exchange’ – an initiative between the UK Government and the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission that saw 60 teachers from UK primary schools visiting Shanghai and being trained as ‘Maths Mastery Specialists’.  Maths hubs are the most established of the hub systems in England.

The EQuaLLS research team has recently conducted interviews with leaders of Maths Hubs, exploring how they engage with other system leaders in their locality as well as the schools they serve. Maths Hubs focus on developing subject knowledge as well as how this can be applied pedagogically, and adopt approaches to professional development that involve cycles of learning and application over time, such as the ‘workgroup model’ outlined in our previous blog post. Some opportunities focus on school maths leads, who then work to improve mathematics practice in their individual schools.  The Leadership Development programmes run by Maths Hubs are designed to assist in the effective delivery of CPDL amongst colleagues. One of the challenges for Maths Hubs is in engaging the wide range of schools in their locality. Some schools have much higher levels of engagement with their local hub than others and it is difficult to pinpoint why engagement is lower for some schools.  It is possible that individual school or Trust approaches might discourage some schools whereas geographic location and school cultures for CPDL may discourage others.  

Whilst the curriculum hubs have a relatively clear focus due to their subject specific nature, teaching school hubs have a broader remit. Teaching school hubs were introduced in September 2021, in place of the teaching school network which had developed since 2010. The previous network consisted of 750 teaching schools, each of which developed its alliance and provided teacher and leadership development as well as school improvement-focussed work within a relatively non-prescriptive national framework. In contrast, there are just 87 Teaching School Hubs, all of which are expected to play a significant role in delivering the new early career framework, school-based ITT, and the new framework of NPQs. The new teaching school hubs thus have a much larger geographic footprint and a tighter remit than the former alliances – along with additional core funding to enable this. Our interviews with teaching school hub leaders and with leaders of former teaching school alliances indicate similarities as well as differences in how the new hubs are developing in each of our three localities. What seems clear is that hub leaders need to work creatively to ensure that they capitalise on the existing networks and ways of working developed by local alliances over the past decade.    

It is too soon to say how schools are interacting with the evolving hub system. Certainly, previous analyses chime with our early findings to suggest that the ever-evolving landscape can be difficult for school leaders to navigate, making it challenging for some to identify the support they need. Through the EQuaLLS research we are exploring wider questions which relate to local learning systems, including: To what extent, and how, do the various hubs in any given locality work together to identify and address shared priorities and challenges? How do hubs interact with Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), given that many MATs have their own internal subject expert capacity and approaches? Future blog posts will report on these issues further by focusing on professional learning and development, and place-based challenges in maths learning.

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