Sometimes, especially in the notoriously risk-averse world of education, a looming crisis can turn out to be a very good thing.

A while ago, I presented at a conference in Leeds for Bradford’s headteachers. A week later I was involved in conversations with early years providers in Corby.

They were completely different sectors of the service, but they had something in common. Both were 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 (put your head in the sand, or fight the cuts) or you can turn and face the danger – see it as an energy source and imperative for change, and design new sets of possibilities.

The latter is what, in different ways, each of these were doing.  In Bradford, secondary heads had 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. The thinking, which was before the world of Academy Trusts and MATs, was that they might form a Trust or a Collegiate or Co-operative Academy. At the time we met, there was a journey still to be travelled. However, the intention was to design together a trust which could:

  • agree aspects of policy and strategy
  • deploy expertise across the schools
  • differentiate resources and personnel to places of most need
  • 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 they would provide educational leadership across the city (rather than ‘institutional leadership’, which had often been as much competitive as collegiate).

Even then, there was nothing much new in pursuing school-to-school collaboration. What was different was its formalization at such a scale. A Trust (or an Academy Collegiate) represented a breakthrough for two reasons. One was the sustainability of the arrangements – governance endures beyond the more ephemeral influence or will of leaders passionate about the idea. Leaders move on; governance endures. The other is that a Trust provides a single voice to engage with external partners – whether they are Trust partners, school improvement agencies, community groups, or the Local Authority. The schools were able to speak together, with one voice – and to have that voice be a significant voice.

In Corby there were four Children’s Centres, all facing huge budget cuts. Early years work in Corby was well developed, and professionals were confident enough to know that they had done some great work in a town desperately in need of the regenerative contribution of early years.  But that wasn’t seen as being nearly good enough. They were still not reaching most of those most in need. Cuts to the existing service would set Corby back years.

Their proposal (an outcome of the Innovation Unit’s Radical Efficiency programme) was to create a fifth ‘virtual Children’s Centre’, owned and run by parents. This would be town-wide, so spanning the four existing centres, embracing them, incorporating them. 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 was 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 its commissioning from existing centres.

I’ll be honest.  I have my doubts about whether these ambitious ideas will by now have come to full realisation.  The volatilities that impede system change like this are multiple and, at that time, the ‘burning platform’ may not have seemed life threatening enough. However, both were virtuous and ambitious and public spirited – and should have happened.  Yet neither would have occurred, never mind happened, without the threat of cuts and the disruptive instability that national policies were creating in the Local Authorities.

Both had the potential to be radically different, much lower cost and significantly better. That’s radically efficient public sector innovation.  And the reason it seems so relevant today is because all the background issues, the imperatives for change, are even more obvious and pressing – and that is an opportunity to reimagine together.

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