The Magnificent 7: The "Why", "How" and "What Now?" of the School Led System

When I first qualified as an English teacher in 2001, research carried out by the NUT warned that teaching was in danger of becoming an "unsustainable profession" with too few high-quality graduates being attracted into the job.  Think-tanks warned that the shortage of teachers was a long-term problem, as opposed to dip, and that it would only worsen.  Alongside this, recently much has been made in education of England lagging behind our international cousins. The most recent PISA report have been used to argue that our test results are “at best stagnant, at worst declining” against places such as Poland and Shanghai.

But back in 2001, there were more optimistic words from the BBC journalist Matthew Horne, who said, "If teachers become more involved in the task of transforming schools, standards in the schools themselves are more likely to improve, while teaching will begin to be seen as a sustainable career with more opportunity for professional development … Most of the teachers surveyed felt they had no constructive part in new initiatives and yet were not opposed to change, but acknowledged its importance.”  More recently, Chris Keates, leader of the NASUWT, has also given voice to the fact that high performing countries were those which promoted the professionalism of teachers.

We would all recognise the truth in the words from the PISA report in 2012 that “The quality of a school cannot exceed the quality of its teachers and principals. Countries that have improved their performance like Brazil, Japan and Poland, for example, have established policies to improve the quality of their teaching staff by (among other things)  offering incentives for teachers to engage in in-service teacher-training programmes.

And this is the raison d’etre of teaching schools; game-changers working together to give schools more control to reward, recognise and train their staff, in harmony with their vision and capacity. 

The Magnificent 7: Collaboration

As the Astra Alliance (, we put the promotion of the professionalism and development of teachers at the heart of everything we do because we believe this has the biggest impact on pupil progress.  This is done through the so-called “Big 6”: Continuing Professional Development (CPD), Research and Development, School to School Support, Succession Planning and Talent Management, Special Leaders of Education (SLEs) and Initial Teacher Training (ITT). However, to the Big 6 list, I would like to add a Magnificent 7th, which is often the key to our success: Collaboration.

It is clear that this is at the heart of the government’s current educational agenda; the number of maintained schools are declining as the number of academies and free schools grow.  In her first major announcement since being reappointed as Education Secretary after the election, Nicky Morgan has said, “Our big priority will be to speed up the process for tackling ‘coasting’ schools.”  In a three-point plan revealed recently in The Telegraph, Mrs Morgan has outlined new powers to intervene in failing schools and the requirement for hundreds of “coasting” schools to be produce urgent improvement plans setting how they will change their methods to help pupils progress further and raise their standards.  The mechanism for doing so will be to bring in new leadership and support from other excellent schools, including Teaching Schools.

Therefore, it seems the future is a school-led, collaborative model, from ITT and beyond. 


Successful growth, as a Teaching School, is both a blessing and a challenge.  Since accreditation in 2013, Astra has expanded from 6 secondary schools to 23 schools in both the secondary and primary sectors, as well as a Special School and a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU), stretching across Buckinghamshire.  We also work with a large number of strategic partners which include Ashridge Business School, the NFER, the Bucks Learning Trust, the Best Practice Network as well as - crucially - other teaching schools, such as the Alban Alliance, Herts and Bucks Alliance and Cygnus Alliance, who have supported us along the way and are part of our programmes. 

And with this success inevitably comes the challenge to manage time, resources and people efficiently and effectively.  I can think of at least two Teaching Schools - one in Bucks and the other in North London - who have lost their teaching school status as a result of losing their outstanding school status, in one case down to “Requires Improvement”.  The burden of delivering the “Big 6” while maintaining your outstanding status can be difficult, and therefore any decision to become a teaching school, or indeed a School Centred Initial Teacher Training provider (or SCITT), must be balanced with current and future capacity to deliver, as well as understanding the need to specialise.


One of our core areas of strength is our CPD programmes which, like our alliance, have grown organically, responding to needs in our local area that have been identified over time.  During this academic year, we will have successfully delivered three ‘Outstanding Teacher Programmes’ in both the secondary and primary sectors, attracting 35 delegates from 9 Buckinghamshire schools. We will have worked with another teaching school to facilitate middle/senior leader ‘Internships’. 19 aspiring middle leaders from across Bucks will have completed the ‘Astra/Ashridge Middle Leadership’ Programme, gaining world class insights from leading business educators and two of our current middle leaders will have started their NPQSL qualifications part funded by new research bursaries offered as part of our commitment to R&D. 

Also since July 2014, we have hosted two of our own ‘Astra Conferences’ with more than 120 delegates combined and helped to train 24 NQTs from six schools who have attended our free of charge ‘NQT Enhancement’ Sessions’, run in collaboration with Astra partner schools.  As part of our commitment to School Direct, we will have also designed, hosted and delivered over 30 weeks of in-school training for eight unsalaried trainees this year, helping them to gain both QTS and employment - as well as all of them being awarded as Grade 1 (“outstanding”) on their final reports.  Furthermore, we have continued to train new ITT Mentors and ITTCOs into their upcoming roles, as well as planned for the delivery of sessions for up to 20 trainees across eight schools in 2015/16.

Next year, we aim to offer an increasingly wide range of CPD and training events, inspired by the successes this year, for staff at alliance schools and beyond.  We have set an ambitious target to ensure more Astra staff both deliver and receive alliance CPD and we want to ensure that 75% of all CPD will to be designed, authored or internally delivered within the alliance. 


Next year, we also aim to ease time pressures by making further use of technology to create a more varied delivery model, eg online INSETs. This will broaden the scope, and accessibility, of training, to suit working patterns.  Crucially, we are designing a portfolio based ‘Knowledge & Skills Audit’, allowing staff across the alliance to showcase their abilities, including endorsements (similar to the LinkedIn model), and allowing easier matching of skillsets to training delivery needs.  We will open up our CPD opportunities, using ‘EventBrite’ (and social media integrations) to ensure everyone is aware of what is going on, and to ensure the highest possible attendance at all events. This is a free-for-free ‘event management’ platform that will be linked (by us) back to evaluations and endorsements, creating a valuable feedback loop.


The other area of key growth is ITT, often described as the “Big Brother” to the other five of the “Big Six” (and not in a creepy Orwellian sense), which is why we took the decision to submit a SCITT bid to the NCTL for accreditation from September 2016, which has now been officially approved.  Some people might ask why bother with running School-Centred ITT provision, or SCITT because surely ALL teacher-training is “school centred” by its very nature - and universities have been doing this sort of thing for years.  Additionally, running a SCITT means taking on responsibility for not just recruiting and hosting trainees, but ensuring they meet all the standards for QTS, as well as subject-specific delivery.  It means tracking and supporting them beyond the training year, as well as being fully accountable to Ofsted.  It means a lot of hard work and building capacity.

However, one of the big attractions of growing ITT through SCITT status is that it gives our alliance partners a clear role in the teaching school model, as schools increasingly recognise teacher training as an essential part of recruitment methods as well as staff retention.  This benefits the professional development of all our current staff, with roles in mentoring, observing, interviewing and training new entrants.  Without SCITT plans, we would not have had the impetus to work so closely with primaries, with special schools and with pupil referral units.  And the bid has led us to define and redefine what we mean by outstanding teacher training, and to be innovative!  So even 18 months before operation, I have had the privilege to engage in debates about education which is unique to this process; I see this as the value of self-reflection.

Additionally, by becoming more involved in ITT, schools can take increasingly control of the looming teacher supply “crisis” which predicts a shortfall in the number of teachers needed for our primary and secondary classrooms.  By recruiting trainees, we are recruiting not just the teachers but also the leaders of the future; through the SCITT, we can ensure they are prepared to flourish and develop with carefully tailored, high quality and cost-effective CPD support. 

However, if you are considering becoming a SCITT, please note that it is not for the faint-hearted - and may at times feel more like an endurance test than a process.  You will need to put at least three months aside for the work involved in writing and submitting the bid, from the approval meeting at the DfE to work with an NCTL representative in school.  You will need to call on wider knowledge networks to assist you, and accept that, in Year 0, you will receive no funding.  Therefore, financial reserves will have to be in place to invest, and your school as the legal entity will need to be fully - and literally - “bought” into the vision and value of teacher training.

It is a bit like running a business without actually running a business.  Although strategies like consider discounting programmes in shortage subjects may be considered, I am not trying to compare trainees to supermarket chickens, or to propose a “pile them high, sell them cheap” BOGOF model. As David Ogilvy memorably said;

“A steady diet of price-off promotions lowers the esteem in which the consumer holds the product: can anything which is always sold at a discount be desirable?”

The high quality of our programmes and training will be essential; this is not a race to the bottom.  We have already consulted with other SCITTs because we recognise the need to collaborate with one another on high quality, cost effective provision, as well as HEIs, to ensure this can happen, joining together to avoid duplication of effort and making the most of our resources.

For us, like all other SCITTs, the biggest risks are under recruitment, especially in certain subject areas, as well as the complexities of the UCAS application system - and our target is ambitious, with 74 trainees to begin their training in September 2016.  With no big budget, we aim to tackle the challenges of recruitment by raising our visibility and profile through social media rather than costly marketing and advertising campaigns and construct videos and guides to make the entry process more “user-friendly”.  So - please - like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and connect with us on Linkedin!  You can also follow our journey via this website, where you can also find an inspirational video of our current trainees talking about their experiences in gaining QTS at Dr Challoner’s.

Stephanie Rodgers,

Director, Astra Learning Alliance/Assistant Headteacher, Dr Challoner’s Grammar School