The pandemic has forced school leaders to deal with a totally new set of new challenges, and the government has largely left those leaders to make often difficult decisions about safe reopening, managing transmission risks and supporting pupils to catch up.
While few would argue against leaders being the right people to make these decisions, they are doing so in the face of increasing pressure. Our own research has found that additional covid funding made available for staff cover, cleaning and catch-up have never fully met schools’ needs, and costs have mostly had to be covered by other means.
For better or worse, the successful running of schools has never been more reliant on the effective decisions, actions and policies of school leaders, and now is the moment to start capturing that decision-making. We must seek out the best examples with proven results, so that they can be celebrated and shared.
This is why the Education Policy Institute is this week launching recruitment to a new national survey that seeks to understand the decisions of schools made in their groups: the Decisions in Education in England Panel survey – or DEEP survey for short.
We are inviting around 200 school groups, representing many hundreds more schools, to be part of this longitudinal study which will examine key actions and policies, and how schools work together through groups.
This is not just about traditional attainment outcomes. We are also focusing on inclusion, workforce sustainability and financial efficiency. We want to identify school practices which achieve strong academic performance without compromising these other, important features.
The experience of delivering education in a pandemic has cast light on the importance of these wider features of school practice. Schools have had to come up with novel ways of reaching the most vulnerable at home as well as focusing on their emotional health and wellbeing, not just their academic progress.
The stability of staffing (as well as staff’s wellbeing) has also been crucial in supporting pupils through the pandemic. Yet we have seen increasing staff absences due to Covid and only a limited amount of financial support from the government. Understanding how schools respond to such challenges is key to this study.
Another consequence of the pandemic appears to be strengthened networks of leaders. Collaboration and sharing of resources and information has happened by necessity and there is a fruitful opportunity for those strong collaborations to be embedded in the system if we can capture and codify them.
Of course, schools working together in groups is nothing new. It has been the DfE’s answer to school improvement for many years through the academies programme. This is why the DEEP survey on schools’ decisions will focus on schools that are part of groups.
Nearly twenty years on since the first multi-academy trusts were incorporated, we know that some MATs, academies, and free schools are achieving good results. But we also know that some are struggling, while others have failed.
There’s also still a huge amount we don’t know. We don’t yet know how to assess a MAT’s performance in the round: how can we balance academic performance with other areas, to ensure the system doesn’t reward groups which compromise pupil inclusion or increase teacher burnout? We don’t know whether MATs really are the best model, or if any ‘best’ group model exists, when there are also federations, dioceses, cooperatives, learning trusts, and local authority-level cooperation to look to for other examples.
The current DfE is coy about the future of the academies programme. The latest clue as to their current direction is the recent consultation, which some have suggested signifies ‘academisation via the back door’, but whatever form school groups take, it’s clear they’re here to stay. That’s why we must fill these gaps in our knowledge now.
With everything going on, filling out a survey might feel like the last thing school leaders need. But given the future of education is in their hands and in the partnerships they are forming, we simply must get better at finding and sharing the best examples of effective practice.