In an increasingly fragmented system, here’s how one part of the country has taken a joint approach to school improvement, explain Simon Faull and Simon Burgess

In England we have a reasonably functional system of school accountability, using school performance tables and Ofsted inspections, which provide outcome and process oversight. While this system is often changing in detail, it is now part of the landscape of school life. But is it enough? Specifically, is it enough for school turnaround?

There are four possible channels for change. The first is bottom-up, where parents choose ‘good’ schools and reject under-performing ones. It works to a degree, but is not very strong or very quick.

The second channel is a market-contestability measure: the potential of having a free school set up on their doorsteps was meant to keep all schools on their toes, though evidence suggests this is not a source of ongoing pressure.

Third, change can come from within the school, but this can be difficult – we don’t want to have to rely on outstanding heads being in the right place at the right time.

Most MATs have considerable leverage over their constituent schools, and are in a position to attempt to turn a school around

This brings us to the fourth channel: the mixed economy of regional schools commissioners and local authorities. While the new subregional improvement boards might grow into this role, their remit is currently limited to advising on spending, and the nature of their relationship with the RSCs is far from clear.

Multi-academy trusts themselves are emerging as a source of change.

Most MATs have considerable leverage over their constituent schools, and are clearly in a position to attempt to turn a school around. But by definition, they only relate to academies. And anyway, only a few MATs are truly transformational; most others are merely an assortment of schools in a group.

This shows us that there is no quick, effective, clear and purposive pathway from the accountability structure to school turnaround.

There is one local initiative which provides some useful lessons on another approach, however.

In 2013 Somerset county council took the bold step of funding the Somerset Challenge for three years. The remit was not modest: improve outcomes for secondary-aged students in Somerset, narrow gaps between disadvantaged students and their peers, and increase the proportion of schools judged ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted.

Crucially, it covered every state secondary in the county –academies and maintained. There were two key areas of operation: working from data to school support, and managing a county-wide programme of CPD.

The first element was data-based triage to determine which schools needed support, which was followed by brokering school-to-school support, and monitoring progress. School-to-school support was emphasised partly because the best answers to local problems are found in local schools, and partly because schools are generally more receptive to receiving support from other schools.

Of course, teachers are a major factor in school effectiveness, hence a county-wide emphasis on secondary professional development.

We ran CPD programmes at a number of levels. There was a leadership development programme from local headteachers involving placements in two different schools, one shadowing a head, and the other providing consultancy to another school. We also had an annual ‘Schools for schools common inset day’, on which around 20 programmes provided subject-specific professional development to over 1,500 teachers each year.

Over the three years of the Challenge, attainment in Somerset improved across a number of metrics relative to other LAs.

We obviously cannot say that the greater collaboration that took place during the Somerset Challenge caused the improvement in results to other LAs. But the relative improvements are certainly interesting. For example, in 2016 disadvantaged students in Somerset made better progress from key stage 2 than their counterparts nationally for the first time.

The wider lessons from the Challenge relate back to the core systemic flaw in England’s education system – the lack of any body to take an overview across all schools in an area and provide a clear and effective path from accountability information to school turnaround action.

Simon Faull is ex-director of the Somerset Challenge. Simon Burgess is Professor of Economics at the University of Bristol