The EQuaLLS three localities: What does ‘local’ mean in these school systems?

Having discussed some of the key aspects of the shifting schooling landscape, teacher professional learning for primary maths and our research design, this post (number 7) introduces our three ‘locals’.  We highlight some key features of each locality, consider whether they are on the same change trajectory and highlight the complexity of the notion of ‘local’.

In an earlier post, we discussed the fragmentation of education in England.  Previously there were nested systems (like Russian dolls) of feeder primaries and secondaries, within boroughs, within counties/unitary authorities, within government office regions.  These nested hierarchies are a thing of the past, at least as a single organising principle. The bricolage that is the new educational landscape overlays the previous nested geography with new networks, hubs, trusts, regions, clusters and the like. Only some of these are bounded geographically.  Each hub system, for example, has a different geography which divides up areas along different lines.  In this context ‘local’ needs reimagining. This is a theme that runs through our team discussions, and these blogs.

In terms of scale, ‘local’ can be considered in three ways:

1) from the ground up (i.e. for individuals or schools and their communities)

2) from the top down (e.g. hubs, DfE regional directors)

3) from the middle in/out (e.g. MATs, LAs, Headteacher networks etc.)

It is clear that one educator’s local is not the same as another’s (discussed in our second blog post), even when they are colleagues in the same school or year group.  Indeed, each person thinks within multiple locals, based on their particular activities, roles, histories and locations.  A Headteacher might think themselves as working within the head teacher group in the local town, the MAT (Multi-Academy Trust) of which they are a part and the wider city/shire from which they draw support including for CPDL (Continued Professional Development and Learning). Here, the Headteacher’s local is actually three different ‘locals’ which occupy different geographic areas and contain different schools. MATs, with their varied sizes, centring, reach and ‘flavour’ (e.g. more or less standardising), have quite distinctive ‘locals’ which have stronger or looser boundaries and can have extensive geographic reach for the largest MATs. These labyrinthine ‘locals’ are further complicated as that head teacher works within the ‘local’ footprints of multiple hubs, each with its peculiar size, intensity and centre of gravity. At present there are 40 Maths Hubs, 34 English Hubs, 34 Computing Hubs, 22 Behaviour Hubs and 87 Teaching School Hubs in England. Each hub system draws different geographic boundaries, distributing the nation’s schools differently in each hub system. In addition, there are 28 Research Schools operating with their own footprints. Our Headteacher has a designated Maths, English, Computing, Behaviour and Teaching School Hub as well as a Research School. These may or may not reflect one or more of the multiple locals that they identify with. All of this makes for a heady mix of foci, demands, sources of support, provision of advice and offers of CPDL opportunities.  This is the central area of concern to the EQuaLLs team, in particular because this landscape has important implications for equity and quality in professional learning for schools.

Three cases

Our three localities have been selected assuming that they are distinctive cases of reforming local learning systems. Whether they are broadly representative of the range of local learning systems, we cannot say but there is sufficient difference – as well as similarity – to be rich and interesting cases.

The three localities are based in large part on ‘old’ educational geographies, on city, town and shire boundaries. We aimed for areas that included around 60-90 primary schools which resulted in us sampling part of a large city, an entire town and a half of a shire. In addition to interviewing a range of system leaders in each locality (such as those discussed in our fourth blog post), we worked with 6/7 primary schools, interviewing the head teachers, maths leads and a classroom teacher in each. So in each locality we have spoken with around 30 people, from those with the broadest ‘helicopter view’ to those very rooted in classrooms. The schools were sampled on a principle of maximal variation, considering size, attainment, FSM, EAL, school type and Ofsted grading. 

If, as is suggested in the 2022 government white paper, the future of the education system is large MATs, the three localities can be viewed as being at different points on that journey (see figure 1). Town has over 40% of its primaries in medium (6-15 schools) and large (16+ schools) MATs, more than twice the proportion in Shire. This might have something to do with the density of schools in Town compared to Shire, with its population/school clusters separated by sparsely populated rural zones. We characterise the three localities as ‘recent mover’ (town), ‘first mover’ (city) and ‘assimilator’ (shire)

The ‘recent mover’ had a proportion of schools moved to large MATs due to performance concerns.  A number of these were quite early on in the academisation process.  More recently, the rate of schools choosing to become academies has accelerated with a number of small and medium local MATs forming along existing partnerships and networks. The name ‘recent mover’ aims to capture the shift in the last 2-3 years with the balance of Town schools now having tipped to around two thirds being academies. Academisation is spread quite evenly across the geographic area meaning that there are a mixture of schools in MATs or SATs (Single-Academy Trusts) and schools that are maintained by the LA (Local Authority) located in close proximity throughout. Historic networks for CPDL have largely disappeared meaning that most is provided within the MAT or individual school. It is challenging to establish new networks in this varied and shifting school system.

The ‘first mover’ was relatively quick to academise with the Local Authority swiftly receding and moving to a traded offer as medium and larger MATs formed quite early on in the academisation policy.  These trusts grew up along existing networks and partnerships with many of the schools that were key in organising these MATs taking on local leadership, hosting and partnering with curriculum hubs as these developed.  The system in City has been relatively stable since the early shift with approximately half of schools academies. 

The ‘assimilator’ has maintained an influential coordinating role for primary heads group, albeit decoupled from its original Local Authority oversight.  The social capital in this group provides a dense network that does an effective job of moderating or assimilating new arrivals (leaders of new school and system leaders) into the area.  A network of high-level boundary spanners sit on one another’s boards.  This coordinating network is independent and leading the way in producing new platforms for knowledge exchange and facilitation of CPDL.  Large MATs seem to have little influence in this locality and new CPDL providers access schools through the established, stable network.

An interesting feature of our localities is the spatial geography of the locality and locations of the centre of gravity of the hubs to the location of the schools across the areas. Shire is remote from both the Teaching School and Maths Hub, both of which access the locality by assimilating into the existing network of head teachers and teaching schools though which most of the social capital in the locality is mobilised. This is the same for Town but there is not an existing network for the hubs to work with and the proportion of schools in larger MATs is much higher so these are more influential in determining school engagement with hubs. The situation in City is quite different with both the Maths and Teaching School Hub in this small geographic areas which is densely populated with primary schools.

Our three localities have shown us just how many versions of ‘local’ are operating simultaneously. We now appreciate more keenly the level of complexity involved in navigating the local learning system for primary mathematics CPDL. We found similarities but substantial differences between our three localities which suggests that each is reforming differently based on varied historic and geographic structures and relationships.  In each locality, system and school leaders are adjusting and adapting to try to make the local learning system work but there are challenges for them, including existing within multiple ‘locals’, as we have shown. We still have many questions, one of which concerns the representativeness of the three localities. Are they representative of most similar sized City, Town and Shire localities? What proportion of localities are like each of these three? Are there other types that are unique, distinctive or more extreme versions of our three?

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