Some of the most innovative and best practice is now taking place in schools in England. Yet there is a great deal of variety between schools, and many are isolated from practice going on elsewhere in the country. Many are also struggling to balance new freedoms and opportunities for innovation with the pressures of Ofsted, exams and accountability.
How can we ensure that improvements and successes in schools are shared with others and felt across the country more widely? How can we break through the isolation?
There has been a great increase in the amount of communication between individual teachers, largely as a result of developments in technology. Twitter and blogging has revolutionised the sharing of practice for many. It is a fantastic way to pick up new concepts and to learn about other opportunities and other’s experiences. That, however, is also its flaw. It is extremely easy to pick up a very high number of ideas, but not necessarily to embed and contextualise them into your own classroom, or to verify the evidence-base behind the idea.
Not many schools are working in complete isolation. With Teaching School Alliances and local organisations, many schools are working together and supporting each other in some way. However, even within groups, it is possible for these schools to become isolated; with more than 24,000 schools in England, in many different contexts, it is important to have structures and opportunities for schools to share more widely across the country.
The best opportunities for collaboration are between schools that would not be working together otherwise, and are outside of their governance structures.
The most effective tool for improvements in schools is through networks of schools that facilitate this collaboration. A number of networks support schools to share, based on their commonalities.
For example, Challenge Partners is a group of schools who work together to lead school improvement, Whole Education brings together schools who have a commitment to a more rounded education for young people, and the National Teacher Enquiry Network (NTEN) is an innovative network of schools working together to transform professional learning in schools. All these organisations facilitate sharing and learning from schools, structured around a particular focus.
The recent NTEN Conference held at Cramlington Learning Village in Northumberland provided a fantastic opportunity for both NTEN members and non-members to network and support each other, with a great deal of discussions around innovative practice.
Attendees were able to experience and learn a great deal about Cramlington’s continuing journey towards effective professional development, with a keynote speech from Ken Brechin, the deputy headteacher at Cramlington, as well as a tour of the school.
Mr Brechin described the move from “thinking you have an effective CPD programme to knowing you do”, with the increased emphasis on evaluating the impact of CPD on pupil learning that is taking place at Cramlington, and how the NTEN CPD Peer Audit against the CPD Quality Framework had supported them to do so.
Similarly, Graham Frost, a primary headteacher, spoke about the need for a CPD programme and staff’s professional learning to be rooted in evidence and to avoid passing fads. To support this, a reciprocity and peer-to-peer work is most effective, which has been implemented in his school with Lesson Study supported by the NTEN.
Crucially, however, the event provided opportunities to share and meet other like-minded organisations and professionals. The day included a “speed networking session”, where attendees shared a particular aspect of CPD in their schools, and were able to discuss and identify their priorities.
Participants were able to share particular tools and resources and discuss their particular context and evaluations of their practice. Attendees are now in a position to forge partnerships and follow each other’s progress with each initiative.
The day also provided the opportunity for attendees to share their ideas and thoughts around particular issues in order to create a collective voice for facilitating effective professional development. Discussion particularly focused around how to balance accountability with innovation and supportive challenge in a school.
By providing opportunities for networking and collaboration between schools, in a supportive but also challenging environment, networks such as NTEN are supporting schools to develop and improve.
They allow not only the sharing of recommendations, but should also support those schools to evaluate and implement ideas that are collected. In the current climate, there is a real variety in school practice and innovation, and to harness the successes, all schools need to be working within such networks to unleash the good practice that exists, and to truly transform schools across the country.
Bridget Clay, a former maths teacher, is National Teacher Enquiry Network support officer at the Teacher Development Trust (TDT).