A classroom

One Big Idea to Lead the System to Excellence


One Big Idea to Lead the System to Excellence

In May, we engaged trust leaders from across Challenge Partners in an exploration of how - as system leaders, and working in partnership with government and others - we can lead the system to excellence. Trust leaders were invited to engage with three key questions:

1. Within your trust, how are you leading towards the future right now?

2. What needs to change over the next 5 years?

3. If there were ‘One Big Idea’ that would really make a difference, what is it?

Conversation around these questions revealed some recurring themes and some pointers towards Big Ideas that we will develop further at our Trust Leaders’ Conference on 22 June.

You are invited to:

1. Read on and send your response to our thinking so far to trusts@challengepartners.org.uk to further shape the conversation we will have on 22 June

2. Join our intimate conference in person for deeper dialogue of these ideas with peers, sector leaders and Shadow Schools Minister, Stephen Morgan MP - sign up HERE


What needs to change over the next 5 years?

Three key themes emerged:

A system with children at its heart

For decades there has been a tension between schools’ core role in educating children and the wide range of other responsibilities schools are asked to take on, whether preventing extremism, promoting British values or picking up the pieces of broken CAMHS services. Covid saw the lines blurred further, with schools assuming responsibility for feeding hungry families, as testing and vaccination centres.

A strong theme in our discussions with trust leaders was that - in the interest of the young people they serve - they want to embrace this tension and for their trusts to become genuine community hubs. This means ending the fight to access external community and social services by integrating them within trusts.

It is important to note that this isn’t about intensifying the expectation of teachers to be solvers of all society’s and student’s ills, but having professionals with the right expertise on hand, addressing the needs of children where they are - in schools. As one trust leader put it, “it’s about the total collective expertise and how it comes together to support each child”. Teachers should be free to teach because qualified professionals are attending to the other aspects of child development, wellbeing and flourishing.

Getting this right in the early years is particularly important, to avoid the situation where schools are playing catch-up from the start. Identifying and addressing early the issues - like speech, language and communication difficulties - that hold pupils back could prevent them escalating through their school career.

Pupils with SEND were highlighted as worthy of particular focus. It is clear that the current situation of insufficient specialist provision and mainstream schools feeling helpless to meet increasingly complex needs cannot continue. Equally clear is that there isn’t the funding available to bolster current arrangements in any significant way. Instead, we need a new paradigm for thinking about SEND and inclusion in education. Recognising what children can do (not what they can’t) and building the system around them would seem a good place to start.


A system which better reflects and aligns with the world our children and growing up in and will shape as young people and adults

We are living in a world where even AI experts cannot keep pace with the change in the digital landscape nor agree on the implications for the labour market - or the future of the world itself. An ostrich strategy is unsustainable; it’s not going away.

The debate to be had here isn’t about knowledge versus skills. It is about how we make the boundaries between schools and the world they operate in more porous, giving teachers and pupils the space, scope and support to engage with what’s going on around them and bring it judiciously into the classroom to enhance learning for its own sake and preparation for life beyond.

During lockdown, it was striking how the time and impetus to engage with digital heralded leaps forward in the use of technology to support teaching and learning. While some schools and trusts have continued this journey, many have snapped back to more traditional methods, reinstating the boundaries between what goes on in classrooms and life outside. Students still write most exams on paper in rows in exam halls, which in no way reflects how the vast majority will be expected to operate in wider society or the world of work.

What schools and trusts need is the time, training and IT infrastructure to engage with the possibilities of digital and AI. This would allow them to explore how embracing it can strengthen subject knowledge and reduce workload, as well as considering what new skills we need to equip young people with to navigate its darker side and harness its potential to do good.

Of course digital and AI is only one example of change in the world around us that we might want to embrace more in our schools. Another point that came up in our discussion was the perennial issue of the devaluing of vocational subjects. The general point is about increasing the porousness of the boundaries between our schools and the world outside.


A system characterised by recognition and respectful leadership of the profession

Some trust leaders reflected on how - when pointed at a clear goal - the system can align to effect impressive and rapid shifts in practice. Recent examples include the huge and frequent pivots during covid, and the Ofsted-prompted refocusing on the curriculum. Leaders wondered at the potential to galvanise the profession behind a new clear national priority or mission, shaped through dialogue between politicians and the profession.

There are frequent calls to take politics out of education, but equally frequent complaints when the direction isn’t clear. Parsing these points may mean accepting the democratically legitimacy of political interest in education, while enhancing the role the profession plays in setting the direction of policy in partnership with government. Put simply, this is about deciding together what needs to change and the government driving a profession-informed agenda to realise it.

There are some important preconditions for this - and the one that came up most frequently in our discussions was around raising the profile of the teaching profession. This is both about respect from politicians and those in the sector doing more to talk it up.


What’s the Big Idea?

Pulling the themes of what need to change together, we offer a few Big Ideas to explore:

1. Replace existing accountability measures with a measure that focuses on the quality of provision and success (within school and their progression beyond) of our most vulnerable learners - those from disadvantaged backgrounds or with SEND

2. Realign our fragmented education and social services systems around the needs of children - forging deep partnerships that bring trusts and other local services together to serve every child in their locality

3. Experiment and evaluate new modes of teaching, curriculum and assessment which break down barriers between schooling and the world beyond

If you want to endorse, expand or challenge these ideas - or offer one of your own - please email trusts@challengepartners.org and/or join us at our conference on 22 June.