Competition and Collaboration in Local Learning Landscapes- where next for policy?

A new policy landscape?

In our previous blogposts we have set out the thinking that underpins the EQuaLLS research project as well as some of the emerging themes and issues we are exploring (such as ‘place’, ‘boundary spanners’ and teacher learning). We have also outlined our research design, which has involved interviewing local system leaders and visiting 6/7 primary schools in each of our three localities – City, Town and Shire – to understand how schools and teachers engage in professional learning for mathematics. We are currently working to finalise our analysis and draft the project report, which will be published in early December.

In this post, we step back to consider our findings in the context of recent policy developments, including the schools white paper, published in March, which set out plans for every school to join a ‘strong’ Multi-Academy Trust (MAT). Clearly, much has changed in the policy world since March, and Prime Minister Truss has asked the new ministerial team to pause the Schools Bill – which had already hit serious roadblocks – while the government considers its priorities. Despite this pause, it seems unlikely that the government will abandon its plans, and the retention of Baroness Barran as Minister for the School System makes this all the more likely. However, there will undoubtedly be changes in how the plans are now taken forward. Back in March, the schools white paper was published hard on the heels of Michael Gove’s Levelling Up white paper, which put devolution and place-based working centre stage, including through plans for 55 ‘educational investment areas’. As yet, it is not clear whether and how Liz Truss’ government will remain committed to levelling up, but the priority for the new education ministers is clearly grammar schools and increasing parental choice. Previous research has shown that increased choice is associated with increased competition between schools, and this is likely to be accentuated by tight budgets and a demographic drop in pupil numbers. In this context, collaboration between schools and MATs will be more challenging, so it is concerning that the government has removed the expectation for MATs to collaborate with each other and with local partners from the draft Schools Bill.          

Fragmentation and reformation in local learning landscapes

One consistent theme across the project blogposts has been that the school system in England – including the arrangements for continuous professional development and learning (CPDL) – is complex, and that this has important implications for quality and equity in CPDL. In high performing and high equity school systems around the world, the ‘middle tier’ that operates between schools and central government plays a key role in ensuring local coherence, including through high quality CPDL that all schools can access. In contrast, we characterise the overarching process of change in England since 2010 in terms of ‘fragmentation and reformation.’ This reflects the move from place-based oversight of schools by Local Authorities (LAs), to network-based oversight by MATs. However, as anyone involved in schools will know, this process of change is incomplete, inconsistent and all-too-often seemingly incoherent.  

The EQuaLLS research is focussed on understanding how these developments are playing at local levels. In our last blogpost, Andy Noyes and Cath Gripton characterised our assessment of the three localities at headline level, distinguishing between Town’s (aka ‘recent mover’) rapid shift towards a majority of primary schools in non-local medium and large MATs, City’s (aka ‘first mover’) more established model of local and regional MATs, and Shire’s (aka ‘assimilator’) approach in which a school-funded coordinating network helps to communicate and integrate new initiatives.         

MATs and the future of local collaboration and CPDL

One clear finding from existing research on MATs, which the EQuaLLS findings serve to reinforce, is that MAT leaders are working to create internally coherent and consistent approaches to CPDL within each trust, because this supports wider efforts to generate a shared culture and aligned practices across member schools. This raises the question of whether the move to greater coherence within MATs will lead to greater incoherence among them, making local collaboration and knowledge exchange between schools that are in different MATs more difficult?  (Sidenote, I discuss these issues with three US researchers – Josh Glazer, Meg Duff and William Berry – comparing MATs and US middle tier developments here).     

More recent work by members of this team (Greany, Cowhitt and Downey, forthcoming) has highlighted a second trend: although the majority of small and medium-sized MATs operate within one government region, MATs are not really ‘local’, in that they do not operate all the schools in one town or locality. Instead, even those MATs that have a clear geographic focus tend to oversee a subset of schools in that locality, while larger MATs might operate multiple local hubs. In fact, the government has made clear that it wants to ‘avoid local monopolies (i.e. one MAT operating all the schools in one locality) which are not in the interest of parents’ (p6).

Meanwhile, Teaching School Hubs, Maths and other curriculum hubs, Behaviour Hubs and Research Schools have been tasked with working laterally, across differing regional footprints, to engage schools and MATs in CPDL and knowledge sharing. These hub-based offers overlap with various other forms of CPDL available to schools, including from LAs, from other schools and MATs, from edu-businesses and online. The EQuaLLS project has revealed examples of Maths Hubs working successfully with a range of different MATs in their area, arguably helping to ensure that these trusts and the schools within them can learn from each other. But EQuaLLS has also identified examples of closed MATs, which operate as ‘boundary keepers’, by preventing staff from engaging with the Maths Hub because this might cut across the trust’s internal approach to maths teaching and CPDL.

Where does this leave us?

The government wants to see choice for parents and to avoid local MAT monopolies. Back in March, the government was also committed to levelling up and place-based development – which included a commitment to encouraging collaboration between MATs (which is not to say legislating for collaboration would have made it happen!) The new ministerial team has not stopped existing work on ‘educational investment areas’ and it still is expected that the Department’s new Regional Directors will publish local capacity plans for MAT consolidation and development in the next few months. However, the new focus on grammar schools, choice and competition seems likely to make MAT to MAT collaboration more difficult, while the removal of any requirement for MATs to collaborate from the Schools Bill seems to indicate a loss of commitment to this ambition.

Meanwhile, schools and teacher will continue to need access to high quality CPDL and expertise, wherever that may come from.

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