The Leading into Learning NLC has developed into a major force for professional development and improved attainment in Blackburn with Darwen, as John Westwell, Des Callaghan, Joanne Emberton and Jenny England explain

In 2003, Blackburn with Darwen’s secondary schools decided to apply to become one of the National College for School Leadership’s (NCSL) Networked Learning Communities (NLCs). John Westwell, Des Callaghan, Joanne Emberton and Jenny England describe the background to that decision.

Opportunities and principles

Leading into Learning was originally inspired in 2003 by John Westwell, formerly a Key Stage 3 maths consultant, and School Improvement Officer Peter Nye. Together with Des Callaghan, Deputy Headteacher of St Bede’s RC High School. They decided to take advantage of the NCSL’s invitation to create an NLC. At that time the plan was that nine of the borough’s secondary schools should work together to improve learning opportunities.

Consult headteachers

Des and Peter realised that NLCs offered new and innovative ways of working that crossed traditional school boundaries and promoted collaboration at classroom level. A steering group was formed, with a member from each school, generally from the senior leadership team (SLT), to meet every half term. This was chaired by Robin Campbell, headteacher of one of the high schools, and also chairman of the headteachers’ forum.

The ability of steering group members to find leadership among learning communities, influence SLT and their involvement in professional development back in school was crucial. Last summer, the steering group drew together the aims and aspirations of all the partnership schools into a set of working principles. These principles are important but not fixed and will be regularly revisited.

Key advice: the active support of senior managers is essential.

What the network does

Support from senior management is essential to network success. It has enabled agreement of a network calendar one year in advance, with twilight slots for network group meetings. These groups are the powerhouses that design and carry out most of the work.

The decision to expand the network to include support staff was reinforced when one headteacher commented that he now employs more support staff than teachers. If our commitment to involvement for all staff was to mean anything, these people needed to be drawn into more creative discussion too. We found that support staff wanted to work in groups specific to them and their peers.

Each of the groups is run by two or more co-leaders who plan their work and adjust their leadership styles to suit the demands of each group. Some plan a whole year’s work in advance; others wait to see what issues emerge. Groups are encouraged to think independently and to be creative.

Key advice: allowing each group the opportunity and flexibility to design its work according to need and interest helps to maintain voluntarism and enthusiasm.

Each group has an annual budget of £200–300 and the co-leaders consult their groups to decide how to spend it. They might invite a visiting speaker from outside the network or share resources.

Project Officer Joanne Emberton supports these groups by nurturing leadership, suggesting ways of working, signposting good practice, communicating events and managing budgets. Her role means the network team maintains a very healthy and supportive relationship with co-leaders and facilitators across all of these groups.

Senior leaders in the network help find the right leaders for the groups. Group leaders negotiate meeting styles and content with their members. A comprehensive system of communications ensures that everyone understands how they fit in to the network and offers an effective way to share success.

Key advice: every group has a facilitator, often someone from the authority. A facilitators’ forum is organised on a termly basis. This acts as a meeting point for sharing ideas, processes and experiences that are then fed back to the groups.

Network context

The Leading into Learning network was set up in 2003, initially involving nine of the borough’s secondary schools. Today there are 13 schools involved — a further four joined in autumn 2006. Of the four new additions, two are special schools, one is an Islamic girls’ school and one is a pupil referral unit. The number of students covered by the network is now 10,000. Approximately 25% of the students come from an ethnic minority background. Around 4% of the students are statemented.

The network schools serve a deprived urban area that has had a lot of problems in the past. When the local authority of Blackburn with Darwen was formed in 1998, 10 of its schools were either in special measures or had serious weaknesses. The new authority had to be proactive in turning this situation around. The department that is now Children’s Services actively supports the network’s aspirations and is a regular contributor to meetings. Its consultants often act as facilitators for the different groups that run network activities.

Challenges and successes

Although we are in a relatively small geographical area, there are so many people active in the network that it became difficult to keep everyone up to speed with developments. In 2004, Jenny England was taken on as Communications Officer. Her role was to make contact with network members, spread good practice and collaborative working, and to raise the profile of the network within its membership and with external agencies. She led two big innovations:

  • The website: to begin with it was designed to be a ‘static’ information base or signposting point. Since then it has evolved into a constantly updated source of contacts, meeting times, venues, dates and resources, to be shared with everyone (often created by the groups themselves). All groups have their own space and much of the basic information is added centrally, such as the network’s mission statement and the annual calendar of meetings and events — see:
  • The newsletter: this comes out once each term and highlights the latest network developments and benefits.

As well as news and updates from the different groups, we have interviews with key people, comments from students and chances to see examples of students’ work. If you would like to subscribe to the newsletter, details are at the end of this article.

Key advice: using face-to-face meetings and workshops, the website and hard copy media offers ways of communicating the work to different staff at all levels, no matter what their preferred medium is. This helps everyone to understand and appreciate the benefits of being in the network.

Knowing who to talk to

Knowing who to discuss potential leadership with was a constant conundrum. The senior leaders who belonged to the steering group have been an invaluable source of support and advice. They act as network champions in their own schools and are key to finding new group leaders. The network needs a constant supply of enthusiasts who will take the network forward and the senior leaders offer longer term support to the people who take on leadership roles. Few of the network’s excellent group leaders volunteered for the job; almost all were proposed by others.

Key advice: every school has a named member of support staff who handles all the network’s communication (meetings included in weekly school bulletins and staff notes, distribution to pigeonholes and in-trays, staff lists, posters, and so on).

Levels of participation
Managing different levels of participation is much easier once you become familiar with what is going on in each school.

Even where individuals’ enthusiasm is constant, circumstances can get in the way of active participation. One network school went through a very traumatic inspection and was placed in special measures. Although they wanted to continue with the network, they had to give their own school and its students top priority for at least a year. They kept in touch with the network and they did what they could in the hope of being fully active again soon.

Working principles

  • The NLC is an inclusive community, so all staff and pupils are given the opportunity to participate in collaborative activity.
  • Professionals learn and work together on behalf of others. Staff are open and honest, are realistic and share difficulties. They give and take and do not judge each other.
  • Leadership in the NLC is shared, non-hierarchical and distributed widely. Leaders use different skills and approaches and are seen as learners who are passionate about their work.
  • Knowledge, resources and facilities are shared readily because this leads to benefits for all pupils. People should receive proper acknowledgement of what they give. Those receiving should seek to offer constructive feedback. There is an expectation that all members of the NLC will both give and receive over time.
  • All groups and communities seek to actively communicate their work within schools and across the NLC. This includes both names of participants and the outcomes of their work. They also encourage and facilitate informal communication between members.
  • The local authority seeks to support the work of NLC with encouragement, facilitation, guidance and feedback. Along with schools, it invests financially in the partnership.
  • When setting working agendas, all groups and communities will take into account the requirements of the schools’ strategic leadership, the views of the group members, and the direction indicated by pupil voice and the more general staff voice.
  • Each community and group should have clear terms of reference and protocols for the way they work.

Steering Group vision statement, Summer 2006

John Westwell, Learning Communities Coordinator for Blackburn with Darwen’s Children’s Services department, Des Callaghan, Deputy Headteacher, St Bede’s RC High School, Lancashire, Leading into Learning Network Project Officer Joanne Emberton and Communications Officer Jenny England