Lessons from Alberta

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Many of the world's best education systems have learnt that collaboration works. So why haven't we? Phil Parker explains

I recently spent some time working with schools in Redcar and Cleveland, an experience which reaffirmed my belief in what can be achieved against the odds of the prevailing climate in education.

The senior leaders I met talked about the importance of collaboration. Not competition you’ll notice. Far from it, they are actively working together to develop their schools and provide a range of opportunities for students and teachers alike. They share teachers, a crucial factor in these days of limited budgets; students get to study a course by visiting another school. Furthermore, there isn’t the tension between students from different schools that you might expect.

As one head told me: “Students from other schools go into the playground and mix with our students readily. I’ve seen some of our kids even pay for food in the canteen for someone who’s visiting us. It’s just part of how we are as a community.”

I was running an event looking at creating a common “language of learning” across the schools, a way to potentially bring students and teachers from their schools even closer together. The atmosphere was relaxed, positive and constructive. During lunch, a teacher from one school popped out to see an NQT she had helped train who was now teaching in the host school. There was warmth here, discussion centred on how well she had settled in, what innovations she was planning, and how some of her ideas had been derived from her experiences in her training school.

Collaboration. You can imagine how that word will be treated with distrust in the murky heart of the Department for Education. It isn’t part of the brave new world envisioned by our political master who has modelled his strategy for global dominance on the highest scoring, British-speaking education system in the world – Alberta in Canada. But this is where the strategy falters. The emphasis on competition in this Canadian state has been abandoned – and what for? Collaboration. 

Edgar Schmidt, superintendent for Edmonton’s public schools, says: “We’ve been able to change the rhetoric to less of competition and more about collaboration and co-operation. After all, who are we competing against?”

In Alberta, the role of head is one of “instructional leader”. They are (as the name suggests) teachers first and foremost. They lead the collaboration between schools in their district and meet regularly to find out how they can collectively improve the education of their communities. There is still choice, but choice doesn’t have to be driven by competition. It can be driven by co-operation.

It appears to be so different in Britain doesn’t it? The discussions at events I’ve attended have focused on two issues – fear; as in those schools where staff are not allowed out on courses because a “no-notice” inspection is imminent. The second is risk; where innovation is stifled because it can adversely affect that small percentage of the student population which could cause a slight drop in pupil achievement.

Last September, a report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Education, Overcoming the Barriers to Literacy, identified one barrier as being the lack of CPD. It showed a substantial number of teachers didn’t possess the expertise needed to address this fundamental problem, one which sits at the heart of the new inspection framework too.

What is happening is that most schools are busy re-inventing the wheel in isolation. Local authorities are not there to provide the support, bringing in experts costs money that can be ill afforded right now. 

Surely the answer lies in collaboration? It does in Alberta. They’ve realised there is success to be found in working co-operatively rather than competitively. Redcar and Cleveland are starting to do the same thing. We can only hope other areas learn the lesson from Alberta. 

  • Phil Parker is an ex-senior leader of a successful school and is now a director of Student Coaching Ltd. Visit www.studentcoaching.co.uk

Further information
For information about the Alberta strategy can be found atwww.teachersmedia.co.uk/videos/autonomy-choice -and-competition.

 


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