As the new school term starts to kick into gear, I find myself looking back to the festive period that has just passed. To be precise, to 2:30pm on Christmas Eve as I meandered merrily to the station, my mind filled only with the lashings of gravy and festive cheer that await me two hours down the line.
And then I see my train. Hordes of commuters queue outside the carriages jostling to get on. Cancellations and delays mean that this is pretty much the only train and everyone wants to get on it. The chances of reaching my reserved seat seem as unlikely as making it home.
But as I got closer, what I had thought was an angry crowd was in fact a hive of collaborative activity. Commuters tried as best they could to fit everyone on the train. People stood throughout, children and couples shared seats, bags were passed over people’s heads and piled as efficiently as possible.
Driven by the common goal of getting home for Christmas, everyone benefited – it just goes to show what can happen when people work together.
Indeed, a recent report by the House of Commons Education Select Committee has pointed to the fact that schools, teachers and students can all benefit from collaborating successfully. This is indicative of the current drive from government to promote collaboration as a means to create a self-improving and school-led system. But is collaboration really the answer to all of education’s problems?
The case for collaboration
Collaboration is by no means a new idea. Primitive trade systems in the earliest days of man are clear examples of the benefits that can be accrued by collaborating, and while trade and collaboration has grown much more complex, the basic premise behind such systems, that of mutual benefit through sharing, still underpins modern collaboration.
Indeed, it is often to the modern world of business that education systems look for inspiration and ideas. A great deal of research has been carried out that proves inter-firm linkages lead to improved business performance.
This could be in all manner of ways: the sharing of systems, of contacts, or even working together on joint projects. A noticeable example is that of the UK fair trade industry. Cafédirect was the result of collaboration between four different firms, each of which brought different skills and expertise. And even beyond that different firms worked together on projects such as Fairtrade Fortnight.
This example is a significant one for those in education because one of the reasons for its success was that, like the Christmas Eve commuters, they had a common purpose. And education, I think we can agree, should have a common purpose too.
But this sense of a common purpose aiding collaboration should not mislead people to think that a competitive environment will inhibit or in some way prevent successful collaboration. The perceived marketisation of education has been pointed to by some as having the potential to get in the way of collaboration between schools. This should not be the case.
Education’s common purpose should, ideally, overcome any competitive tensions that might exist. What is more, collaboration should benefit all schools involved, so there is little incentive not to collaborate.
As the Education Select Committee concluded: “While there are tensions between competition and collaboration, these are largely creative tensions and collaboration is growing in many forms within a competitive school system.”
More recently, a lot of work has been done on the potential of collaboration to aid in the transfer and creation of information and knowledge. Neil Mercer, in his book Words and Minds, states that “almost always, significant achievement depends on communication between creative people”.
And it is a claim that would seem to have some truth. There is something about getting a group of people together that can stimulate and create ideas and that can spark and sustain innovation. Indeed, a lot of work has pointed to the fact that good ideas often come from putting people with different sets of skills and knowledge together. As Ronald Burt puts it: “(It) is not creativity born of deep intellectual ability. It is creativity as an import-export business.”
And it is for some of the reasons touched upon above that collaboration is such a hot topic in education at the moment. Of course, just because collaboration helped me get home for Christmas, does not mean it is a silver bullet, capable of solving all of education’s problems. But there is great potential.
Perhaps one of the most frequently referenced examples of collaboration in education is the London Challenge, a school improvement programme started a decade ago aiming to improve low-performing schools in the capital.
The scheme used education experts to broker support and establish collaborative relationships between schools in order to drive improvement. Since its inception, London schools have performed better and improved faster than schools in other regions. Now London has a far higher proportion of outstanding schools and fewer inadequate than in other regions.
The success of the London Challenge has led to a great deal of interest in the reasons for its success. One of the most important, according to an Ofsted report published in 2010, was collaboration, which was cited as a “key driver for improvement”. But it was more than simply taking two schools and telling them to collaborate.
First, other routes of support for schools were offered such as training from outside agencies. Second, and most importantly, schools taking part were very carefully matched, based on accurate audits of their provision, to ensure that collaboration was meaningful.
Not only were they matched according to their areas of weakness and expertise, but matching also ensured that the actual working relationships, so important for successful collaboration, were quickly established too.
Without this careful brokering of support and matching of needs the impact would likely have been far less impressive.
The London Challenge and its great success point to the potential that carefully brokered collaboration, that takes into account the particular contexts, problems and personalities of schools, has to improve the education system on a large scale. Indeed, as a result of the success of London Challenge, a number of other regions in England have attempted to follow suit, with varying degrees of success. Of course, collaboration does not have to be on such a large scale for it to have an impact, it has a great deal of potential on a smaller scale too.
As Professors Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves point out in Professional Capital, there is a danger that when a top-down intervention proves successful, governments mandate or universalise it.
If collaborative cultures are to be truly effective, then they must be voluntary and have buy-in from everyone involved. There are many examples of collaborative practice which has grown organically, from the bottom-up, such as the West Sussex Deputies’ Network.
The network was developed and grew in response to the professional needs of a local group of deputy heads. Working with external stakeholders including SSAT, they take national agendas and approach them together with their specific contexts in mind.
Moving forward, this innovative group is looking at how it can contribute to the wider educational discourse by engaging in joint research projects. It is a combination of both rigorous top-down interventions and targeted local collaboration that is needed to ensure that, in 2014, education moves towards a self-improving, self-led system.
The collaborative commuter?
Is collaboration the answer to all of education’s problems then? Well clearly not on its own, but it has the potential to take us a long way towards solving them. So as 2014 gets into full flow, I guess the question is this: will you be a commuter with your head buried in a newspaper or will you work with others to make sure that everyone gets to their desired destinations?
Chris Smith is research co-ordinator at SSAT where he also works on the Student Impact programme.
- Burt, R., Structural Holes and Good Ideas, American Journal of Sociology, vol. 110, 2004, pp. 349–399.
- Hargreaves, A. & Fullan M., Professional Capital: Transforming teaching in every school, 2012.
- House of Commons Education Select Committee, School Partnerships and Cooperation Fourth Report of Session 2013–14, 2013.
- Mercer, N., Words and Minds: How we use language to think together, 2000.
- Ofsted, London Challenge, 2010.