Managing effective school-to-school partnerships

Written by: Robert Smith | Published:
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Enabling the teaching profession to instigate, develop and lead school improvement is seen as an effective way of embedding educational reforms. Robert Smith explains how this has worked in Wales through school-to-school partnerships

In Wales, policy-makers have been keen for the most successful schools to take a lead in transformation and school improvement through partnership and collaboration with colleagues in other primaries and secondaries.

For the past three years, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has been analysing the impact of the Lead and Emerging Practitioner Pathfinder Project, or “The Pathfinder”, which was carried out in two tranches, the first in 2014 and a second in 2015.

The Pathfinder aimed to raise the standards within primary and secondary schools in Wales by facilitating school-to-school support to accelerate improvement.

Lead Practitioner Schools are high-performing primary and secondary schools with a proven leadership track record that has resulted in high levels of performance and/or improvement over a sustained period.

Emerging Practitioner Schools have already shown an early improvement in pupil outcomes but some of these schools have a mixed record of in-school variability over the last two to three years and the support of the Lead Practitioner School is designed to assist with stabilising this variability.

A report into Tranche 2 of the project examined how school-to-school support raises the standards of educational practice and attainment. Overall, researchers looked at 20 schools – four matched pairs of secondary schools and six of primary schools.

The analysis found that most schools believed their partnerships improved standards of teaching and learning, and had raised pupil performance in maths and numeracy. There was also evidence that leadership at senior and middle leader level had been enhanced and that schools’ data tracking and assessment systems had been strengthened.

The headteacher of one Emerging Practitioner School said he felt he “could really benefit from having a critical friend in an experienced, successful headteacher who I could learn from and who could support me to address the improvements I wanted in my school”.

Most of the pairings of schools decided to work on a small number of priorities, the report said, so they were not over-stretched and were able to devote the resources, time and effort needed to make positive changes.

Most of the staff noted the positive impact of the partnerships, with “mutual trust, willingness and respect between the schools which had facilitated effective collaboration”. However, there were some factors which might have constrained the relationships, including proximity and differences in pupils cohorts and characteristics.

One Lead Practitioner School headteacher told researchers: “The key for us in the beginning was trust and we are now in the situation where we are very open with each other, friendly ... it was about developing relationships, going slowly, getting to know each other and having the confidence to be open and honest.”

Teachers who were involved in the project reported that they had refined approaches to teaching and learning, which had had a big impact on the work done. Teachers felt more confident to try different approaches and to experiment with techniques that they may not have used previously.

As a result, lessons become more dynamic and interactive, inviting students to become active participants. Quality of feedback was improved and teachers changed the way they asked questions, allowing them to elicit answers which delved into how well learners understood concepts and issues.

Some schools had also used the Pathfinder to look at how they might deliver the curriculum more effectively, including focusing on the National Literacy and Numeracy Framework.

Teachers told the NFER researchers that being involved in a partnership made them more reflective of their own practice, and that they had looked at different ways of learning. This included examining how they used data as part of teaching and learning to suit the individual needs of classes of individual pupils.

In secondary schools, most heads and teachers said that participation in the Pathfinder had had a positive effect on teaching, with one senior leader describing it as a “journey of improvement”. Teachers said they had more opportunities to self-evaluate their own classroom practice and were developing an “extended repertoire of teaching, assessment and tracking skills”.

This was achieved by discussing different methods and approaches, sharing schemes of work and methods of tracking and using data, as well as lesson observations. Teachers said they also gained the skills to teach smaller classes and of working with individual pupils.

The report said: “Most senior leaders and teachers considered that classroom practice was improving as a result of the increased interaction between staff within and between schools, which had raised staff awareness of alternative approaches when planning, teaching and assessing.”

At whole-school level, NFER found that what happened in one primary or secondary school in the partnership often influenced how things were done in the other. Headteachers became more reflective of their own leadership styles and in some cases, leadership teams were restructured as a result of the partnership. There were also changes among some middle leadership teams, with some middle leaders taking on new responsibilities.

The use of data was also strengthened, with schools changing how they collected data and how they then used this to support teaching and learning, in particular in supporting individual pupils. NFER researchers noted that in some partnerships the staff at the Emerging Practitioner School raised their expectations of what learners could achieve.

At the same time, the report said, pupils were made more aware of their targets and the level at which they should be working. This had the knock-on effect of making them reflect on their own needs, even setting down their own success criteria. Partnership schools used pupils’ work from both settings to standardise judgements for assessment and moderation. In some cases, work from the Lead Practitioner School was adapted for use in the Emerging Practitioner School.

However, what did not work was an approach based on transferring practice directly from one school to another, or where school leaders assumed that what worked in their school would be effective practice elsewhere.

As a result of all this, NFER found that: “Learners’ motivation improved and they were more engaged with teachers and the learning process. All of these changes were related to work to strengthen learners’ voices, through formal processes for them to make their views known about their own learning and other work to nurture their independence and their enjoyment of their work.”

The most lasting changes, researchers found, came about when there was a shift in attitude and culture, and this was needed alongside structural and procedural changes if reforms were to work. The Pathfinder appears to have helped schools to make sustained improvements. The study concluded that the partnerships had been effective in supporting and speeding up changes in participating schools. This was achieved partly through matching up schools effectively, the support that was given by the Welsh government and the Project Champion, and the “emotional intelligence” shown by senior leaders in getting their staff on board with the project while being mindful of their emotions and sensibilities.


NFER recommends the following to enable sustained improvement in school-to-school collaboration.

  • Ensure there is a coordinated strategy for school improvements that responds to the needs of schools, but that different initiatives should be mutually supportive and not lead to overload or duplication.
  • Embed CPD across Wales to build on the success of the Pathfinder. In particular, school leaders should develop the skills needed to work with other schools.
  • Facilitate the sharing of good practice identified in the Pathfinder so it has the maximum impact in Welsh schools.
  • Encourage further collaboration between schools as the Pioneer Schools start reforms to the curriculum and professional development arrangements across Wales.
  • Schools should ensure that any specific improvement work forms part of a joined-up approach to overall school improvement plans.
  • Schools should continue to gather and share evidence on what works locally and nationally.

  • Robert Smith is a research manager at NFER and has extensive experience of designing and leading a range of research and evaluation projects, mostly in Wales.

Further information

  • Mid-point Evaluation of the Lead and Emerging Practitioner School Tranche 1 Pathfinder Project, NFER, July 2014:
  • Evaluation of Tranche 2 of the Lead and Emerging Practitioner School Pathfinder Project, NFER, March 2016:
  • NFER Self-Evaluation Toolkit: This free tool was developed to help schools evaluate and evidence the work they had been doing as part of the Lead and Emerging Practitioner Schools Pathfinder Project. Visit
  • For in-depth case studies of schools involved in Tranche 1 of the Pathfinder that showed signs of developing and sharing good practice, visit


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