What Works in Enabling School Improvement? The role of the middle tier

Claire Easton, Robert Smith, David Sims, Fiona Walker, Helen Aston, David Crossley, Jonathan Crossley-Holland

24 April 2013

Against a background of increased school autonomy, this research looked at what works in enabling school-led system improvement and the emerging role of middle tier bodies. By ‘middle tier’ we mean the diverse range of bodies that operate between schools and central government to support school-led improvement. This includes, among others, local authorities, school clusters, academy chains, Teaching School Alliances, education trusts and partnerships.

Also see:

  • a rapid review of the evidence on how some high-performing countries enable
  • case studies of how school-to-school support and the role of the middle tier is developing in five areas of England – Brighton and Hove, Hertfordshire, Wigan and York authorities and the Southend Education Trust (SET), carried out by consultants Jonathan Crossley-Holland and David Crossley.

NFER carried out this project in partnership with Jonathan Crossley-Holland and David Crossley and co-funded it with the five case-study areas.

Key Findings

  • In high-performing countries the middle tier plays an important part in school improvement, nurturing and facilitating school-to-school support.
  • Case study schools were choosing to belong to a range of middle tier bod(ies) which between them provide strategic and operational functions, and a local and national perspective.
  • Case-study LAs were repositioning themselves to put schools in the lead, while securing delivery of their statutory duties through education partnerships. They were adopting a more adaptive style of leadership, and were prepared to move radically to enable school to school support. Many schools wanted LAs to remain players in school improvement.
  • National Teaching Schools were increasingly important and their work seemed to be enhanced by working with other middle tier bodies in the case-study areas.
  • There have been some challenges around:
    • delineation of roles, reflecting lack of clarity about accountability and leadership
    • finding capacity among senior leaders to take on a systems leadership
    • engaging all schools in looking beyond their own institution’s performance
    • measuring and evaluating impact effectively in the rapidly changing landscape
    • long-term funding and sustainability.