Transforming Doncaster’s Education and Skills System.


Damian Allen, Director of Learning, Opportunities & Skills, and Director of People, Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council.


Doncaster, England.

The pioneer

Damian Allen holds two Statutory Director roles in Children’s and Adult Services for Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council, where he is responsible for school standards and learning opportunities and skills of Doncaster’s children and young people.

Before taking up his position in Doncaster, Damian was Director of Children and Families at The Children’s Society, a UK charity. He was previously Executive Director for Children’s Services for Knowsley Council.

“I have an absolute belief that all action should be socially situated and socially embedded. We all have a sense of belonging, we all have a sense of identity, we all have a sense of origin. So understanding how that operates in the place sets some key policy directions for me.”

The Big Change

Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council, a town in Northern England with poor social mobility and high unemployment rates, has committed to being the most child friendly borough in the country, placing a real emphasis on achievement and aspiration and providing the next generation with the opportunities that they deserve.

The transformation of Doncaster’s education and skills system is based on a future-focused, long term (5-10 year) policy platform that has already introduced new provision and delivered better outcomes.

Examples include:

  • A new University Technical College (UTC), supported by the Doncaster Chamber of Commerce, local businesses, Doncaster Council and partners;
  • The UK’s first ever Big Picture Learning school, a new evidence-based model of Alternative Provision for young people struggling to thrive in mainstream school;
  • A new National High Speed Rail College, providing cutting edge, high-quality technical learning for Level 4 qualifications.

The ambition for change

The big vision for Doncaster’s education and skills system is:

That young people in the borough have the higher level of skills needed to take advantage of better jobs in the region.

An ambitious programme of work, including a range of innovative new provision, that will transform the learning landscape in Doncaster.

A shift in direction

Acknowledging the changes to the powers and duties of local authorities, the council sought to build local consensus around a compelling set of priorities.

The Independent Commission on Education and Skills in Doncaster, led by nationally recognised and credible experts, provided a clear understanding of need and the current state of play.

They surfaced three key messages: that education and skills are the responsibility of schools, colleges and the wider community over a lifetime; that individuals’ capacity to flourish in changing social and economic conditions, is dependent not only upon traditional outcomes but also a wider set of outcomes; and that the ever-changing landscape of educational and skills requires a rapidly diversifying set of learning pathways and provision.

From these, the commission made a set of recommendations for the future, which school leaders, teachers, and employers bought into and which formed the foundation for a longer-term vision and plan for transforming education and skills in Doncaster.

Making change happen

1: The start point

Communicating a moral imperative

Communicating the high level need for change as a moral purpose was critical. For Damian, his team and partners, this was about how the borough was not delivering on the life chances that children and young people of Doncaster need and deserve. It was about engaging people emotionally as well as rationally. This moral imperative was framed alongside the ‘do-something’ principle in order to energise people and get them exercised to want to do something.

“While government policy is important, it never mandated what mattered in the place, and what we’ve done is craft a more bespoke education policy for the locality.”

2: Taking off

Aligning local and national priorities

Local alignment involved better school-to-school relationships, an improved school improvement offer and support for an empowered ‘middle-tier’ leadership, including Teaching School Alliances and informal school pyramids.

Focusing on national priorities meant working with the Department for Education to negotiate 70% of the Commission’s recommendations be incorporated into their social mobility opportunity area initiative, which represented £8.75 million pounds of investment over 3 years.

“By enhancing local collaboration and focusing that on the current system outcomes, we improved those outcomes and built the conditions needed to deliver the strategic outcome of the Education and Skills Commission. This type of activity and engagement created the “bridge towards transformation”.”

Leadership at all levels

Leadership of the programme of work underpinning the system transformation occurs at a number of levels:

  • Politically – Mayor Ros Jones highlighted education and skills as one of the key priorities in her 2017 borough strategy;
  • System-wide through “Team Doncaster” – private, voluntary and public sectors represented in a boroughwide partnership;
  • Local leadership of the education and skills system – middle-tier leadership within the primary and secondary school structure. 

“As a local authority, we acted as a convenor. We went from a fragmented system to an increasingly corralled and cohering system focused on activity that people could engage with. We scaffolded some of the relationships and created some new players and new roles within that.”

3: Keeping going

More agile and adaptive approaches to change

While communication, capability and capacity issues are often blamed for the failure of transformation efforts in the public sector, another reason is an overreliance on structured approaches to change, when dealing with a complex, adaptive system.

“Being able to assess as you go and ameliorate and modify your plans whilst in flight is not a comfortable position for public sector leaders to be in. When the system is governed by national expectations, particularly with regards to its own policy and high-level accountability system, that tends to put a break on the innovation that’s needed.”

Empowering the demand-side

The transformation in Doncaster is driven by an engaged and empowered community demanding what needs to be delivered, rather than providers of the education and skills system setting the terms.

“What we’ve done is shift the dynamics of the system so that the demand-side has got a voice, particularly in terms of the business sector. The leadership we get from the Chambers of Commerce is a key factor in that, and we have key business representation on the opportunity area board. In our statutory role as a champion for young people, I am working to do that on behalf and with them.”

Stewarding leaders who travel their own path

Damian and others recognise that you need to be clear about the direction of travel, while also recognising that when the journey involves lots of different partners, you’re going to veer left and right along the way. You have to manage and coral the system at different moments to get to roughly where you want to get to. This relies on building a sense of momentum, cadence and rhythm that is relentlessly focused on driving delivery forward, rather than going at the pace of the slowest.

“I remember Bill Gates said, “money is great, but people are better”. That mobilisation of a coalition for leadership is really important, because it’s when you get that combined commitment and will that you shift the inertia in the existing system.”

“We firmly believe that we have effectively taken forward the challenges posed by the Independent Commission for Education and Skills and in so doing, initiated a transformation of the learning landscape in Doncaster that will provide the next generation with the opportunities that they deserve.”

Taking change wider

As a public body, Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council must take into account the public purse and be mindful how it’s spent.Networks and system-level change

But they balance this with the promotion of a default, innovation-led culture and approach, advocating for a mindset and approach that is risk-aware, not risk-averse.

“We’re all self-limiting. Some of that comes from the compliance culture, and certainly successive governments have reinforced that and reduced creativity and inventiveness. I’ve always found it a paradox that the very thing we’re trying to do is maximise the imagination and creativity of young people, and yet we do that by bureaucratising the learning experience for them.”

The impact of change

System impact

“We warmly congratulate Doncaster Council for creating an environment within which innovation and the sector-led transformation of the learning environment can take place. The authority’s continuing efforts to place children and young people at the centre of the transformation process is a key strength and young people have themselves attested to this.” – Commissioners, The Independent Commission for Education and Skills – Delivery Review 2018

Learner impact

  • Doncaster is closing the gap in terms of attainment at primary level with 2018 seeing excellent Key Stage Two Results, with the number achieving the expected standard or above in reading, writing and maths rising to 60%. This demonstrates a sustained improvement, with results for 2016 and 2017 being 46% and 54% respectively. We are closing the gap with the national average, which has narrowed from 7% to 4%.
  • 2018 has seen some excellent and rapidly improving A Level Results, with the percentage of students in Doncaster achieving at least one A level pass rising above the national average by 1.7%. This is a 2.3% improvement on the 2017 figure. In particular, the proportion of A-A* grades has risen from 19% to 22.8%, closing the gap with the national figure.
  • Over 70% of children reach a Good Level of Development, in line with the national average and above all other benchmarks. This has increased by 28% since 2013.

Over 70% of children reach a good level of development

In line with the national average and above all other benchmarks. This has increased by 28% since 2013.