Barbara Spender outlines the benefits for students that can come from schools collaborating with each other in a formal partnership where staff give mutual support and share resources

Networks are an increasingly important feature of contemporary life. Modern organisations understand their importance for innovation and knowledge exchange, and within the education sector it is now understood that organisational isolation inhibits learning. There are now many schools, both in the UK and internationally, that are benefiting from working together as a network. These schools are harnessing the potential of collaboration, while reducing the damaging aspects of competition between schools.

There is no blueprint for an effective network and one of the most important things that networks can acknowledge, as participants begin their journey together, is that the schools, the staff and the students will guide what schools get out of the network as well as its design and activities. This month’s Case in Point begins by looking at how to embark on a successful networking journey, before we learn from a network of schools that has put this into practice.

Networking comes naturally to teachers. The last 20 years in education have seen a growing emphasis on the need for schools to collaborate to create the best provision for students. Many collaborative initiatives and incentives are aimed at creating education partnerships.

Now, 14–19 innovations are driving forward the need for greater collaboration. The 14–19 and Every Child Matters agendas are so wideranging and carry such a strong demand for personalised learning that schools will have to look beyond the narrow boundaries defined by the school gates and build new relationships with parents, local communities and external agencies.

This activity is not new. Schools have always been part of networks. Secondary schools and colleges have a long history of working with feeder schools and teachers have always enjoyed opportunities to discuss their specialist interests and particular problems with colleagues from other institutions at teacher-training events and conferences. It is not such a big step, from casual contributions in these loose associations, to regular, organised exchanges of expertise. The Hampshire Partnership is one example of this – see the box below.

Why collaborate?

Every day, in every school, teachers are facing the same problems and difficulties. Thousands of individuals are working in isolation to solve problems that are common to them all.

At the same time, there is a wealth of external advice and resources on which they could draw for support in that problem-solving activity but how will they know which are the most reliable and effective? Which have already been tried and tested and how they can access the best training and support? For examples of how resources can be shared, see the box top left on page 5.

On the other hand, there are some problems experienced by individuals in isolation that may be specific to them and their institutions but how can they know for certain whether that is the case?

Exam outcomes are always a hot topic for discussion. If GCSE results dip in one subject for no obvious reason, how can a teacher get to the root of the problem? There are implications for professional competence that make such issues difficult to discuss within the school. Taking them to the neutral territory of a peer group of subject teachers opens the door to a supportive discussion.

Knowing the answers will be informed and supportive makes it possible to ask questions that will help diagnose the problem:

  • Have others experienced the same problem?
  • Has there been a change to the specification or mark scheme that the teacher has missed?
  • Is there a ‘rogue’ examiner? Someone in the group will know.
  • Have grade boundaries changed? If so, everyone’s results may be affected.
  • Was there a problem with all or part of the exam paper?

Where the location of the problem can be identified, the individual or group is better able to decide what action to take, from re-reading the specification or asking for training, to a collective approach to the exam board. Further examples of how you can benefit from taking concerns to a partnership are given in the box above.

The support  such arrangements offer does not have to be confined to formal meetings. The relationships established in the group foster informal contacts and exchanges. These can then be used outside formal meetings for advice on sensitive issues, such as  dealing with difficult colleagues or students, as the case example in the box below illustrates.

Sharing resources

A common feature of the Hampshire Partnership’s support-group meetings is the sharing of resources. In many curriculum subjects, there is a wealth of published material targeted at classroom teachers. In others, there is very little that meets the precise needs of teachers.

The support groups consist of practitioners with widely different levels of experience and expertise, drawn from diverse institutions and locations in one of England’s largest counties. They discuss what has worked in supporting different aspects of the curriculum and explore the strategies that individuals have used to fill resources gaps.

Examples of shared practice are:

  • In a science-based group, a teacher asked for advice on how to improve students’ understanding of photosynthesis. A colleague took us to an interactive website that gives students direct access to an observation of the process, saving hours of laboratory time.
  • In another group, a teacher described how he overcomes students’ reticence by asking them to hold up traffic-light cards to indicate their grasp of a concept:
  • Green = ‘Got it’.
  • Yellow = ‘Think I understand – but am not sure’.
  • Red = ‘Do not understand yet’.

He then regroups the students so that ‘green’ students can rehearse their knowledge with ‘reds’ while ‘yellows’ work together to pool their partial

Who will join us?

A decision about potential partners will depend on what school leaders define as the most urgent problems facing the school. If transition is an issue, it may be useful to work with primary schools. If implementing the 14–19 agenda is at the top of the list, partnership with local colleges and employers may be more productive. The experience of the National College for School Leadership’s (NCSL) Networked Learning Communities (NLCs), comprising groups of schools, was that it is not difficult to find partners as everyone grapples with the same changes to the education environment. The NLCs were supported by the National Learning Group.

Most networks originate with a pre-existing relationship or the enthusiasm of a handful of participants from different institutions. The same is true of links with external agencies; it is worth tapping into the advice and contacts of colleagues within school for names of potential partners in the local community and in other non-school agencies.

Networks grow through a mixture of formal structures and events – such as meetings and training days – and informal contacts. Word of mouth can be a significant influence in attracting new enthusiasts. Many new networks begin with a launch event for all staff; others adapt existing activity, rebranding it with a network identity and changing content to suit collectively identified needs.

Nothing succeeds like success. It is important to track what has been achieved and to make sure it is advertised within the network so everyone can see the value of joint working. This is particularly true for governors and parents who will want to know that time spent in other schools is of direct benefit to students. Every meeting and event needs to be followed by a reflection on what has been achieved and how students might benefit from it. The communications strategy used by the Leading into Learning project (see the case study on pages 8–10) is an effective means of building support and interest within the wider community.

Hampshire Sixth Form Colleges’ Partnership

The Hampshire Sixth Form Colleges’ Partnership operates at many levels.

College principals meet regularly to determine joint overall strategy. The partnership offers its own management training programmes, such as opportunities for middle-management development, and is currently designing a workshadowing scheme for staff at all levels. It also collaborates in areas such as purchasing, working with external agencies and event organisation.

At the level of classroom practice, the partnership runs support groups in nearly 40 curriculum subjects and specialist staff areas, involving a core partnership of 11 sixth-form colleges. These are open to any institution in Hampshire that teaches students up to the age of 19, so they include a huge breadth of experience and working circumstances, covering the whole of the 11–19 age range and beyond. Improving teaching and learning is the overarching theme for the work, whether discussing ways of encouraging students to use library resources more effectively in their coursework or thinking about the specific problems raised by the new GCSE science syllabuses and transition to A/S-level science.

The meetings provide a safe space for individual practitioners to discuss specific challenges with peers and to request specialist input. Because of the number of institutions involved, external agencies, such as exam boards and training agencies, are willing to support the groups and to consult them on changes in provision. These agencies value direct contact with practitioners who can help them to improve their provision.

The longer term objectives for the groups include creating ever-closer working relationships and improving opportunities to influence developments that may affect the work members do.

What will a network do?

What the network does and how it operates will be determined by collective priorities, agreed at senior management level between participating institutions. Over time, this can become an iterative process, with network interest groups identifying their own priorities and designing associated activities. As a general rule, the purpose of networks at the level of curriculum managers and classroom teachers should be the promotion of effective teaching and learning. It is helpful to focus this overarching objective on more specific issues, ideally student-centred ones that bring identifiable benefits to the classroom.

One thing that emerges very strongly from all types of school collaborations is the significance of face-to-face contact. While, in theory, it is possible to initiate networks that are based on virtual communication and discussion, in practice, teachers need regular meetings and conversations. Nothing will be as effective as getting a group of enthusiasts together in the same room.

Successful networks

Key factors for success:

  • Active management support — at the very least, heads and principals may need to authorise time out for meetings and visits and promote awareness of the network’s existence.
  • Active strategic managers based in more than one institution.
  • Enthusiasts who will commit time and energy to fostering contacts, organising meetings and working with groups to identify what will engage their interest and what type of support is most useful.
  • A clearly identified focus for activity.
  • Effective communication – is there a member of the schools’ support staff who will act as a central contact point?

Case example: building professional confidence

A group of drama teachers from very different institutions, including independent secondary schools, sixth-form colleges and a special college, came together to meet an exam board’s subject specialist.

Members of the group spent two hours discussing specific issues in detail with the specialist, learning a lot from each other’s experiences and approaches to the subject in the process. In their schools they work in relative isolation, having few colleagues with whom they can discuss their subject in detail. They cannot test their choices and decisions in their own schools and, as a consequence, they have many uncertainties and feel it is sometimes difficult for them to perform well.

Benefits of curriculum-focused networks

  • Shared training from specialists within network schools (such as people who work closely with exam boards and can advise on what the board’s expectations are) or from external experts recommended by network members
  • Teacher study days, trialling resources and activities developed by others
  • Teacher visits and exchanges to experience other colleagues’ working environments and see how they have dealt with specific issues
  • Collective negotiation with external agencies, such as providers of resources
  • Collective negotiation with higher education for training packages
  • Classroom-based research, with scheduled opportunities for feedback to the network as a whole
  • Exchanges of data to facilitate transition between schools and identify local trends

Managing relationships

Managing interschool networks is different from working in the familiar environment of a single institution. Commitment to sharing good practice also means willingness to talk about what has not worked and what could be improved; many professionals find this difficult. Designing network groups around a shared curriculum interest helps to defuse tensions that could arise from competition between institutions. Similarity of interest and status within groups tends to take precedence over real or imagined rivalries. Because, as a partnership group member said recently, ‘We are all friends here’, difficult issues can be discussed without fear or loss of professional credibility.

Group leaders can promote peer collaboration (and counter inappropriate assumptions) by inviting contributions from quieter members or setting up small group discussions and activities within the meetings. Where power relationships get in the way of true collaboration, it can be helpful to call on external agencies, such as a facilitator from higher education or a training agency, to broker a group’s work from a position of visible neutrality.

Constructive disagreement is useful in testing the strength of ideas and practices but network meetings are not an excuse for grinding personal axes. Occasionally it may appear that an individual dominates a group. As a last resort, it may be necessary to have a discreet word with them or even to remove them from the group, but it is usually possible to direct their energies into more productive and supportive roles. Networks create leadership opportunities outside conventional school hierarchies. Conventional roles can often be disregarded altogether in favour of looking at each individual and seeing what they have to offer the group, regardless of whether they are experienced heads of departments, newly qualified teachers or teaching assistants.

Alternatively, network managers should consider how groups might be adapted, or new groups set up, to ensure that everyone has a space in which to contribute. Much of this is an extension of what practitioners do in the classroom. What works well with students is often effective with adults too.

Many network managers find it difficult to adapt to working in other schools, where they have no special status. There are potentially delicate issues to consider in talking to other schools’ staff (see the box on working between schools at the bottom of page 7). Keeping the network’s focus resolutely on students and retaining classroom activity as a core theme ensures colleagues are willing to contribute and can help to avoid straying into strategic territory. For examples of this, see the box on working for students, top right. Many organisers find they are supplementing their managerial skills with those of facilitation to make this activity successful.

Has it been worthwhile?

Because networking takes a lot of time and investment, accountability and performance are important. Successful networks tend to be diffuse and diverse and are difficult to evaluate. It is difficult to make secure links from supposed cause to effect because so many factors are involved, often outside the control of the network or school. If a network chooses a specifically attainment-based set of activities, for example, improvement in boys’ achievement in English, then it makes sense to evaluate success on the basis of comparative value-added over the network’s lifetime. Networks that focus on the broader aim of transfer of good practice may find it more difficult to prove their worth. However, shared activity that is professionally focused and which prompts enthusiastic participation must have a value in maintaining staff commitment and interest. Enthusiasm and commitment are essential characteristics of the high-quality teaching that produces better student outcomes. The questions in the box below can help you to measure the value of network activity. Knowing that we have good answers to these questions will provide the most convincing proof of networks’ abilities to improve teaching and learning for both adults and pupils.

More information about creating and maintaining effective networks can be found at NCSL’s website at http://cms.ncsl.org.uk/ networked/index.cfm

Barbara Spender, Curriculum Networks Development Manager, Hampshire Sixth Form Colleges’ Partnership

Barbara was formerly a researcher and writer with the National College for School Leadership’s Networked Learning Group programme

The subject specialist reassured them. The decisions they have made are good. He confirmed that, in many instances, the nature and quality of the work students are doing is unusually innovative and ambitious. 
The drama teachers left the meeting feeling buoyant and more confident. Some of them set up further consultations with the specialist. In return, he was able to feed back to his board some specific issues and shortcomings in their support materials.

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