When Lord Baker launched City Technology Colleges 25 years ago, he was creating a school brand. It was certainly not uncontroversial, and it developed in unexpected ways. Technology Colleges and their successor specialist schools proved easier to expand. They made a big difference to standards, as they focused schools on what they could do best; and in doing so, they helped thousands of schools to become better all-rounders.
When the Labour government re-ignited the CTC model through academies, its early incarnation was as much through private philanthropy as through branded chains. But as academies have grown, so have the chains. Last year, the improvements from Harris, Ark and ULT were not only in excess of the national average, they were ahead of the academies average too.
Other growing brands have been promoted by pioneering headteachers like David Carter’s Cabot schools in the West, Michael Wilkins’ Outwood model in Yorkshire and David Triggs’ Greensward brand through the Academies Enterprise Trust. With the growth of free schools and the introduction of primary sponsored academies, there is a real demand for successful chains to expand.
There are some who say that we will only really get traction with school brands when profit-making schools, as in Sweden or parts of the States, are unleashed into English education. But while profit-making may help some brands, those who make the case also ignore the entrepreneurial spirit of English heads that has been a remarkable change since the CTC Trust – that is now The Schools Network – was born.
And that spirit of entrepreneurialism, made infectious by Schools Network conferences, is destined to be more important over the next 25 years, as schools need not only to improve to match the best in the world, but also need to realise the full benefits of emerging technologies and to find ways to deliver teaching and learning in a manner more fit for the early 21st century than the late 19th century.
That’s why the ‘by schools, for schools’ model is so important. With 45% of secondary schools likely to enjoy academy status by next year, the traditional local authority model is not only being displaced by the familiar chains, it is being superseded by a host of much smaller trusts, federations and other partnerships between schools across the country.
I’ll be honest: I’d have preferred if ministers had pushed a few more incentives into the system to encourage this process along. But there is no doubt that it is happening. And that spirit of entrepreneurial headship, using the best practice that they have found to work to help others to improve will be as important a part of the new school brands as the undoubtedly excellent achievements of Harris and Ark. And if there are to be real improvements in the primary sector, ministers know that this model is the only one that will deliver
That’s not to say that these micro-networks won’t draw on wider school brands when they need to do so. But it does offer the prospect of increased insights into curriculum delivery and ICT innovation. After all, if the most successful gaming companies rely on players for their most interesting new ideas, schools and academies should be hubs of innovation in the future of learning.
For that to happen, school leaders and teachers need to take a leaf from the Finnish book, and see post-graduate practical research as an integral part of their job. Those insights – allied to what we know works with the basics – will be a crucial part of the new school brands for the future. They can become brand leaders as well as school leaders.
In its various guises, the Schools Network has been at the vanguard of schools reform over the last 25 years: the next 25 will be the years when ‘by schools, for schools’ really helps to shape our national education system for the better.