Despite successive government initiatives with the declared intent of addressing equity and inclusion within the English education system, significant numbers of children and young people remain marginalized within, or excluded from, schools. This indicates a need for locally coordinated efforts to promote equity in education. One response to these issues is Area-based Partnerships (ABPs) which are collectives or groups of schools working with other stakeholders operating in localised contexts to support school improvement initiatives and provide professional development and training. In this article, Dr Belinda C. Hughes and Dr Paul Armstrong outline their study investigating these partnerships and make policy recommendations for their governance and accountability.
- Researchers from The University of Manchester investigated several ABPs in a study analysing their implication on local coordination within education systems.
- These partnerships can lack formal governance structures, and formal regulation and they can add further complexity to the education system.
- Governance structures of these partnerships should be formalised through a Local Authority presence.
Area-based Partnerships and our research
These partnerships have emerged in response to the discontinuation of funding for local authority education services, specifically for school improvement. This is part of a longer standing reduction in the direct involvement of local authorities in Education in England. This absence has necessitated school leaders to fill the gap left in provision with formalised collaborative arrangements in particular areas. Such partnerships comprise local Head teachers, or Multi-Academy Trust Chief Executive Officers and in many cases Local Authority officers such as Directors of Children Services.
It is against this backdrop that colleagues from The University of Manchester were commissioned by the Staff College to investigate eight of these partnerships across regions of the English school system. The study aimed to investigate such partnerships in a bid to discover:
- What conditions facilitate the establishment of ABPs
- How do they operate and what are the benefits of such partnerships
- What barriers do they face and how are these being addressed?
- What are the implications for the creation of effective forms of local coordination within education systems?
The two-year small-scale project involved identifying area-based partnerships operating in different geographical contexts (urban and rural). We looked at both well established and relatively new ABPs, those who were working directly with their local authority counterparts, those overseen by LA and those who operated exclusively beyond LAs. Initial scoping exercises revealed their foundations, aims, and status, how they were funded and how they were governed. Some were public limited companies or registered as charities for example.
Several involved maintained schools, faith schools, academies, and multi-academy trusts. Thirty interviews were conducted with colleagues directly involved in running the partnerships including head teachers, Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) CEOs, Councillors, and Directors of Teaching/development hubs.
Local context matters
The research project arranged for focus groups to share initial findings – culminating in the publication by the Staff College of Turning the Tide Report: A study of place-based partnerships. Empirical evidence from the study revealed locally coordinated efforts to promote a more equitable based education are vital – and that social and political capital are key factors in the success of ABPs.
The findings suggest that the local context of these ABPs matter, tackling issues at the local level where a deeper understanding of communities and their complexities is key. Whilst inequity amongst young people remains a major problem for schools and policy makers, area-based partnerships have a potentially important role to play in ameliorating challenges particularly when working with Local Authorities.
Coordination of local education systems
The evidence also raises questions regarding the local coordination of a system driven by a policy emphasis on school autonomy, new governance structures, and a sense of competition that can discourage schools from working with others. A further factor is the gradual reduction in the power and influence of local authorities that have traditionally taken on the responsibility of education coordination and oversight. This means that in many parts of England, no single organization has the overall picture that would enable it to orchestrate more collaborative ways of working and to step in when schools need support.
Our research findings indicate that ABPs should be led locally and work with other community stakeholders including the LA to support wider issues surrounding children’s’ mental health, attendance and learner’s needs. This would mean policymakers should consider a radical redefining of the place of schools within the wider civic society.
The Department for Education should also establish a clearer role for Department for Education Regional Directors to have more detailed oversight of these ABPs. Currently, these individuals have little to no involvement with ABPs.
Further policy recommendations
The findings lead us to propose a system of evidence-based professional accountability, coordinated at the local area level. This implies a move away from a heavy reliance on external accountability and towards an investment in the professional capital of teachers and school leaders. This would have to be challenging and credible – meaning it must not involve forms of collusion within which partners endorse one another in an acceptance of mediocrity. The implication of such a proposal is that the national system of inspection will need to be redesigned as a means of moderating local accountability procedures.
At the same time, inspectors would be positioned to develop links between area partnerships so that they can facilitate knowledge mobilisation and the sharing of good practice. Adopting an area-based approach would allow accountability measures to be directly informed by those closest to practice.
National and local policymakers in education should also consider:
- Supporting school leaders (of all school types) to work more closely with their local authorities for which both can significantly impact on the lives of children and young people.
- Encouraging school leaders to adopt a more outward looking approach that considers the wider needs within communities and the importance of investing in broader outcomes than just educational performance.
- Recognising ABPs and providing them with autonomy for setting their own contextually informed agendas
- Funding linked to wider community resources that is formalised and targeted to ABPs with local authority involvement and oversight.
We also advise that more research needs to take place on the many partnerships operating across England to gain a more detailed picture of their activity and impact.