Adversity and innovation make good bedfellows

February 10, 2011 at 3:47 pm 1 comment

By David Jackson

Sometimes, especially in the notoriously risk-averse world of education, a looming crisis might just be a good thing.

Last Friday I presented at a conference in Leeds for Bradford’s headteachers.  Today I’ve been involved in conversations with early years providers in Corby.

They are completely different sectors of the service, but they have something in common.  Both are considering radically new local arrangements stimulated by the precipitous feeling of standing on a burning platform.  In such situations you can dig in and retrench (like put your head in the sand or fight the cuts) or you can turn and face the danger – see it as an energy source for change and design new sets of possibilities.

The latter is what, in different ways, these two are doing.

In Bradford, secondary heads have been working together to create a shared vision statement and agreed values (supported by the still visionary Tim Brighouse) with a view to creating a formal coalition across all the schools.  Current thinking is that this might be a Trust or a even a Collegiate Academy.  There’s a journey still to travel, but the intention is to create a trust which can agree aspects of policy and strategy; deploy expertise across the schools; differentiate resources and personnel to places of most need; and enable practice to transfer more readily between schools.  In a phrase, heads would commit together to taking  collective responsibility for the success of all students, and providing educational leadership across the city (rather than institutional leadership often as much competitive as collegiate).

There’s nothing much new in pursuing school-to-school collaboration.  What is different is its formalisation at such a scale.  A Trust (or Collegiate Academy) would represent a breakthrough for two reasons.  One would be the sustainability of the arrangements – governance endures beyond the much more ephemeral influence and will of key leaders passionate about the idea.  The other is that it provides a single voice to engage with external partners – whether they are Trust Partners, school improvement agencies, or the Local Authority.  Schools speaking together have a significant voice.

In Corby there are four Children’s Centres, all facing huge budget cuts.  Early years work in Corby is well developed, and professionals are confident enough to know that they have done some great work in this town desperately in need of the regenerative contribution of early years – but that it isn’t nearly good enough yet.  They are still not reaching those most in need.  Cuts to the service could set Corby back years.

Their proposal (an outcome of the NESTA and Innovation Unit’s Transforming Early Years project) is to create a fifth ‘virtual Children’s Centre’, owned and run by parents.  This would be town-wide, so spanning the four existing centres.  It would have no formal home, but would use community-based facilities (municipal, private and domestic) and would use trained parent (and grandparent) volunteers as a field force to mobilise involvement and to design provision: “to enhance intelligence gathering and provision of appropriate support in areas where disengaged and disillusioned families ‘hang out’”.

The idea is that power to commission and decommission services could be placed in the hands of parents by devolving some of the combined early years budget to this parent-led cooperative or mutual (the virtual ‘fifth’ children’s centre) to support and empower both the parent-led service model and commissioning from existing centres. 

Neither of these ideas yet exists.  Both are on the journey, though.  Neither would have happened without the threat of cuts and instability in their Local Authorities. 

More potently, both have the potential to be radically different, much cheaper and significantly better.  That’s radically efficient innovation.

Entry filed under: Radical Efficiency.

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