The increase in academies and the dwindling number of local-authority schools has led to a system that some would describe as fractured. A large number of MATs wanting and needing to grow has unquestionably led to increased competition within the trust sector as well as with local authorities. This competition, it is argued, has led to increased separation within the education sector and a breakdown in collaboration between providers.
Researchers from the University of Manchester have highlighted the dangers of competition without collaboration. But they have also shown that collaboration is possible, that it is happening in places, and that it can be highly effective where it takes place.
In Suffolk, we have identified three main barriers to learning. Due to an outdated formula used by DfE, funding for SEND is significantly below our statistical neighbours. Low attendance is a major issue for a small but significant number of students. And an increase in safeguarding referrals with little external support are costing school leaders and their staff time and resources.
All three significantly impact all schools in the county. Therefore, MAT CEOs and senior LA officers agreed to work in partnership to develop solutions to overcome these barriers and, where possible, remove them.
The result is the Suffolk Education Partnership (SEP). In operation since January and representing 75 per cent of Suffolk’s learners, it aims to leverage the great work happening across the county to support all our schools and colleges, whether LA-maintained or academised, to tackle our pervasive and common challenges.
This collaboration of MAT leaders, LA officers and maintained-school headteachers demonstrates the commitment of education leaders to accept accountability for outcomes across the county.
We have created task groups for each of our three key challenges: SEND, attendance and safeguarding. All meetings are open to observers from education providers in Suffolk, and ensure updates are shared through regular communication with all members.
This work is already leading to action.
The SEND task group has engaged with stakeholders to canvas views before writing an action plan aligned with the DfE’s direction of travel for reform in this area. The action plan is focused on two of the DfE’s themes, ‘Fulfil children’s potential’ and ‘Build parents’ trust’. Within the former theme, our ambitions are to play a part in developing and sharing inclusive approaches, to provide training, and to support schools to take up the ‘Centre of Excellence’ inclusion quality mark. For the second theme, we are working with the LA to provide feedback, support and suggestions to improve processes for families.
Meanwhile, the attendance task group has built its membership to include members of the DfE’s Ipswich priority area. It is therefore able to adopt and adapt some of their work on attendance and 0 share this with school across Suffolk. They have looked at case studies and worked to develop and publicise guidance which will be available in a web repository for schools. They have also enabled the movement of the attendance team to be within the LA education team to provide greater focus on this as an education issue.
Finally, and crucially, the safeguarding task group has developed close links with the Suffolk Safeguarding Partnership (SSP) and is strongly supported by its Chair, Anthony Douglas. They have undertaken a sector-wide survey to identify key issues and have been working on these with safeguarding officers from the LA, supporting its annual safeguarding audit and securing improvements in the feedback to schools following a referral. A small sub-group has also been working on developing a peer review process for schools to support one another to review safeguarding at a school level. The SSP has also started to record monthly podcasts on a variety of topics to support the development of high-quality safeguarding across Suffolk.
The barriers we are facing are significant and will not be solved immediately. However, by working together we are able to identify and focus on specific areas to improve our effectiveness for Suffolk learners.
And as to the education landscape, it goes to show that there is no rift that can’t be bridged if we recognise our common challenges and shared objectives.