Pioneering school improvement company offers safety in numbers

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The people running Sheffield schools will be making an important decision over the coming weeks that will affect the future of a pioneering educational organisation in the city.

When Learn Sheffield was established a few years ago, most people had little idea about what it was and how it would operate with the city.

Schools signed up to be a member for a modest £25 and Learn Sheffield, despite its unimaginative name, began delivering some of the services once considered the bastion of our local authority.

A swathe of educational service has been successfully delivered by Learn Sheffield over recent years, from key help for schools needing improvement to induction training for folk wanting to be governors.

The operation has been passionately overseen by chief executive Stephen Betts - former headteacher at Malin Bridge who has devoted his working life to improving outcomes for the city’s kids.

Most funding initially came from the local authority, but the amount they can put into Learn Sheffield is decreasing thanks to central government cuts and the Tory belief that schools should be more autonomous when handling their cash.

To make their business model work for the supply of educational services in the future, Learn Sheffield is asking schools for a larger contribution and to sign up for three years.

It’s not a massive amount. The cost per school will vary depending on the number of pupils. A junior school may have to find £2,500 a year, with secondary schools asked to pay around £4K or £5k.

Out of the total budget, these are tiny amounts. But these are extraordinary times when school funding is being squeezed in a state-sponsored bear hug.

Schools look to save money at every twist and turn through the year. Cutting down on supply teachers, reducing the number of teaching assistants, restricting photocopying and scrapping voluntary contributions to union fees are some of controversial methods employed to balance budgets.

Inevitably, some managers have had the conversation about whether to buy into the three year Learn Sheffield package or whether to use it as a chance to make savings. To make a difference, Learn Sheffield need around three quarters of schools to sign up - and for me it’s the simplest decision of the year.

What Learn Sheffield is trying to achieve is admirable and triumphantly goes against the grain of what’s happening elsewhere.

It’s a model that other towns and cities look upon enviously; an organisation that keeps schools linked together and provides services with the unified aim of improving all schools across the city.

The schools are the owners and drivers of Learn Sheffield and it’s a not-for—profit organisation that is able to reinvest any surplus money. It’s a gloriously refreshing approach.

The fragmentation of schools is upon us. Empire building is commonplace, with Multi Academy Trusts looking to swallow up extra schools like they’re in a game of Teaching and Learning Monopoly.

Even primary schools with no reason to become an academy are looking to convert, with heads scared of the future like bunnies in the government’s headlights.

One of the main reasons for joining a MAT is to benefit from economies of scale - the idea that ten schools can make savings that isolated schools cannot.

This is, of course, a nonsense when schools all used to belong to one local authority.

But Learn Sheffield is trying to pool those resources, make use of the city’s economies of scale and traverse some of the boundaries carved by academy chains.

Every school is welcome into the Learn Sheffield structure, be they academy or local authority, primary, junior or faith school. By joining, they are not only helping themselves but providing unity that could help others that are in more need at that particular time.