The Knowledge

Place-based challenges for schools mean locality matters

Tanya Ovenden-Hope sets out the key findings from new research on a multi-academy trust Hub model for schools intended to mitigate educational isolation

Tanya Ovenden-Hope sets out the key findings from new research on a multi-academy trust Hub model for schools intended to mitigate educational isolation

19 Jun 2023, 5:00

An estimated 17 per cent of the population live in a rural or coastal area of the UK, and educational isolation is common these areas. Socioeconomic deprivation, limited cultural opportunities and poor employment prospects negatively affect housing, transport, technology, and leisure facilities in these communities. Educationally isolated schools experience these place-based infrastructural issues through challenging teacher recruitment and retention and in limited access to high-quality staff development, school-to-school support, and external funding opportunities.  

This spatial inequity plays out by limiting educationally isolated schools’ access to resources and in the end, this impacts on pupil outcomes. Pupils from persistently disadvantaged backgrounds in rural and coastal schools have lower attainment at the end of secondary schooling than pupils from similar backgrounds in urban schools.

For over a decade, Dr Rowena Passy and I have been exploring the experiences of coastal, rural and small schools. Our new report, published last week, demonstrates that locality matters.  We share findings from a three-year study of a ‘hub model’ for schools implemented in a twenty-school multi-academy trust (MAT) in the south west of England.

The hub model was used to geographically group schools into smaller local units for school-to-school support. The aim was to reduce the limiting effects of educational isolation experienced by many of the schools involved.

The research team interviewed all senior leaders within the trust each year for three years. The MAT’s vision was to give a better education to children by sharing resources, expertise, and knowledge at a local level. The CEO believed that smaller groups of schools working together as a hub could achieve this vision.

The findings from our research suggest that the CEO’s vision was achieved. The hub model was able to mitigate place-based challenges in different ways. It reduced the effects of geographical remoteness, creating formal connections for staff development and the sharing of resources, including teachers. It also created opportunities for schools to work together to submit applications for innovative external funding.

The hub model can mitigate place-based challenges

The key to the success of the hub model was the development of trusted, supportive relationships between local school leaders. These relationships secured collaboration and encouraged partners to share resources and expertise within the hub. School leaders said they appreciated the non-judgmental, local peer support, and being close by to each other meant that the context of their communities was shared and understood.

However, we also identified areas of development for the hub model. The context of each hub of schools was different. Some had more geographical distance between schools; some had schools with different characteristics, such as size, or different foci, such as faith; and some had differentially experienced headteachers. In some cases, this resulted in a lack of sharing with regards to expertise, uneven opportunities for CPD, or a need for more rigorous MAT-level support for school improvement.

The role of hub lead was also an area of concern. Some found there was a lack of clarity about the responsibilities involved, which others noted a problem of capacity as a result of undertaking multiple roles with sometimes conflicting priorities, such as headteacher and hub lead.

This said, enabling school leaders to develop close working relationships with a small group of nearby headteachers clearly supports them to share ideas for more effective school improvement. It can also help to mitigate elements of socioeconomic deprivation in school communities, such a lower attainment. Hub school leaders were seen to provide new opportunities for children in their local communities that widened experiences, raised aspirations and reduced cultural isolation for pupils and staff.

The key message from this research is that bringing small groups of local school leaders to work together supports greater access for each school to the resources needed for school improvement. Awareness of the potential pitfalls should also help to build further on the success the schools in our project experienced.

Our recommendation is that MATs with educationally isolated schools consider a hub model of local school-to-school support. We also recommend that, in a policy arena often driven by the considerations of urban schools, policy leaders recognise and respond to the specific needs of educationally isolated schools in coastal and rural areas.

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