It’s cool to collaborate
In education systems across the world collaboration is in fashion. Although collaboration has been promoted for many decades, there has been a particular emphasis on its importance in recent times, and this has brought with it new expectations of leaders. Those who advocate collaboration within and between schools argue that it brings dividends in terms of:
- improvement – in schools and the overall education system
- learning – of children and staff
- joined-up working to ensure children’s well-being
- new opportunities and possibilities for leadership.
Schools working together in strategic partnerships and practical networks are central to future improvement in the system. This is common theme within current educational thinking in the UK and elsewhere:
Schools that once were islands are becoming connected. Indeed, it is increasingly rare to find outstanding schools that do not have a web of links with other schools.
(Matthews et al, 2011; page 5)
The Welsh Government sees a significant number of practitioners developing ‘system leadership skills’ – i.e. working beyond their own institutions in contributing to system-wide improvement. This might include contributions to online communities, local and regional networks, and other agencies beyond education (Welsh Government, 2013). Internationally the picture is similar. A common feature of headteachers in the world’s most improved school systems is that they help each other establish networks and clusters, which they then use for learning and development and for providing support to weaker schools (Barber et al, 2010).
Intriguingly, this movement towards increased collaboration has occurred alongside similar developments to increase school autonomy (i.e. ability of schools to control their own affairs) and to promote diversity (i.e. encouraging a range of different types of schools and provision). This has led to some tension between distinctive schools competing with each and schools forging new ways of linking and collaborating.
Professionally learning together
A key part of the emphasis on linking schools together has been the view that within and between schools there is a body of experience and expertise that they can draw on for professional development, rather than staff going elsewhere. There is now a significant consensus that the most effective professional development is school-based and led, but with a judicious mix of external input determined by the school or cluster of schools themselves. However, there are issues about what kinds of collaborative organisational developments are needed to sustain teacher learning over time. Husbands (2011) feels that what schools working together frequently lack is the infrastructure to sustain collaboration beyond specific projects and initiative, and that to be effective professional development alliances need to draw on a number of principles.
Collaboration between schools: this is necessary in order to bring scale and genuine common focus to work, such as drawing together mathematics teachers or special needs coordinators across the number of schools.
Collaboration across time: most schools find it relatively easy to work with other schools over a specific project – a behaviour management initiative or a curriculum development initiative.
Collaboration with external partners who provide a critical eye or a wider perspective.
There is a considerable tradition of developing teacher professionalism through networking. When this was developed in America during the 1970s it was seen as part of the ‘new professionalism’. In Britain, teacher networking was linked to the schools council curriculum projects of the 1960s and over 1,500 schools in England worked in Networked Learning Communities from 2002 to 2006. A great deal is claimed about the power and benefits of education networks. A specific emphasis is placed on their ability to be flexible. According to Lieberman (2000), education reform networks, partnerships and collaboratives are organisations that are loose, borderless, and flexible. She states that:
. . . unlike bureaucratic organisation, networks are organised around the interest and needs of their participants, building agendas sensitive to their individual and collective development as educators. They can change quickly and invent new structures and activities that are responsive to their members.
Joined-up working for children
A significant dimension of the call for greater linking of organisations together to collaborate more effectively is the concern that different agencies that work with children and young people need to be more coordinated. This raised considerable challenge in terms of how schools collaborated together and how they engaged with other agencies such as health and social care. In recent research exploring leadership and collaboration in the early years sector, three trends emerged:
- centre-to-centre leadership: leaders worked across children’s centres to share and develop good practice
- leadership across Foundation Phase settings: leaders working beyond children’s centres to lead work with other Foundation Phase settings, such as nurseries, childminders and schools, in order to secure greater coherence across the Early Years sector
- leading the system: children’s centre leaders drew on their experience and expertise to influence change in the sector and how services to children and families are shaped and developed.
(Sharp, Lord, Handscomb et al, 2012)
In a wide range of cultures across the world there has been a movement towards the decentralisation of control of education towards the schools, accompanied by an expectation that schools will use this increased autonomy to work together in bringing about improvement across the school system. As a leading exponent of system leadership, Hargreaves argues that building on schools’ increasing expertise in partnering and networking the time is now ripe for the school system to become self-improving, for ‘a new era in which the school system becomes the major agent of its own improvement’ Hargreaves, 2010). In turn, this calls for leaders to constantly reinforce the self-improving collaboration through a narrative which persuades and explains the work of the alliance to a range of groups like staff, parents/carers and governors. It is suggested that this new narrative will need to incorporate:
collective reporting, to tell the story of the partnership and the benefits it brings
collective accountability, to report on the responsibilities and achievements of the partnership
collective celebrating, to honour those who have contributed to the partnership’s collective outcomes.
Benefits and costs
Many commentators highlight the potential difficulties and costs of collaboration. They particularly stress the need for collaboration to be robust and have purpose:
Our contention is that organisations cannot afford to avoid collaboration but, also, that organisations cannot afford collaboration without purpose and efficiency.
(Hay Group, 2000)
There is always the danger that collaboration can be extremely comfortable but lack challenge and opportunity for growth. Partnerships also have ‘transaction costs – the time, energy and resources necessary to keep the partnership alive and well’ (Hargreaves, 2012).
Networks – structures and processes
A network has been defined as a mixture of structures and processes. The structures bring people together; the processes are about what they do when they get together. The following uses this idea by plotting performance features of networks against a high/low matrix of structure/processes (Handscomb, 2012). Apply this matrix [.pdf] to two networks with which you are familiar: one you regard to be a high performing network and one, low performing. Where would each be on the matrix and why? How helpful are the features in the matrix in characterising each of your networks? What other features would you add?