Diary of a headteacher: Collaborate or die

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How do we achieve genuine collaboration in such a competitive educational landscape? Our headteacher diarist is tackling this dilemma

I’ve listened to many inspirational speakers at various education conferences over the years talk about the importance of schools working together. One particular phrase, “collaborate or die” from John West-Burnham, has stuck in my mind and I’ve been thinking about it a lot during my first year of headship.

I’ve also heard throughout the past two years a similar message from Mr Gove and Ms Morgan outlining how schools must seek to work together in more collaborative ways. 

I can say with hand on heart that collaboration with local education partners is a key component of my educational leadership philosophy, but I have come to realise the environment that schools currently operate in has changed dramatically in recent years and the new landscape provides real challenges for schools when it comes to working together.

The rise of academies has, in many cases, pitched schools in direct competition with each other. There is no doubt that competition between schools has always existed, but never in such a way as at present, and never with such high stakes.

Competition between schools is at the heart of government policy as a means of driving up standards, so how do we achieve genuine collaboration in such a competitive world? 

School leaders and governing bodies are the key to achieving positive working relationships between local schools and more often than not the level of collaboration is dependent on how willing the leadership personnel from neighbouring schools are to work with one another.

Too often I have seen the actions and decisions of school leaders compromised through the need to “get one over” another local school. A poor set of results or disappointing Ofsted judgement can often send rival schools into a marketing frenzy in order to show the local communities who the top local school is. This “one-up-manship” is not healthy for the local educational community and is the polar opposite of why I believe most teachers entered this profession.

I regularly explore with colleagues the reasons why they became a teacher and no-one ever mentions the word “competition”. Nobody talks about marketing and not one person mentions celebrating the demise of other schools. What people commonly talk about is wanting to give young people greater life chances and a love of learning. So how did we end up in a world where schools are constantly pitching themselves against each other in the race to be top of the league table?

As a headteacher I want our school, our staff and our students to be the very best we can be. If we get great results I want to shout about them because the teachers and students deserve the recognition, and, yes, I want us to be the most successful school in the area. But I am very clear that I want to work with other local schools to improve the educational provision for all young people, regardless of which school they attend. The phrase “collaborate or die” is burnt into my mind’s eye, constantly there as a reminder that if we operate in silos and become too insular then we will fall behind and our students will suffer. 

I want all the schools in the local area to work together to improve teaching, learning and outcomes for our students and I want to do this with honesty, integrity and transparency. However this is a real challenge given the way education has been reformed during the past five years.

Ultimately, it requires school leaders and governors to put personalities and egos aside and from my experience this is a difficult obstacle to overcome. For me it boils down to what we, as school leaders, have at the core of our educational morals – I just hope most of us are in it for the right reasons.

  • SecEd’s headteacher diarist is in his first year of headship at a comprehensive school in the Midlands.


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