School improvement: What should collaboration look like?

Written by: Keith Wright | Published:
Image: iStock

Is collaboration the future of school improvement? Keith Wright reports from a gathering of education leaders at which this question formed the key topic of debate

There has been much discussion and debate in recent years about the schools inspection system and whether it really is effective as an engine for school improvement.

Some very exciting thinking about new directions for school accountability and improvement, many based around the idea of schools working together to help each other in their improvement journey, is emerging from this debate.

This so-called “collaborative improvement” approach – in which schools of similar types work together to review and support each other – has a lot of appeal for many school leaders.

In fact a recent survey by school improvement management business Bluewave Education appears to back this up.

The survey canvassed nearly 60 school leaders about their approaches to school improvement planning, asking them to choose a single model for school improvement – 63 per cent said that a nationwide school-to-school support network not limited by geography or Ofsted grading was their favourite.

A return to the local authority model was chosen by 12 per cent of respondents and 10 per cent opted for the Teaching School model.

The appetite may be there among many school leaders for a collaborative improvement approach, but there is much work to be done on the practical details of how exactly this would work.

We invited key players – primary and secondary leaders, Teaching School directors, academics, policy experts and senior representatives from leadership unions – to join us for our third annual roundtable at the UCL Institute of Education.

We asked them to give us their answers to the key question: “Is a collaborative school improvement system, founded on trust, possible and how would it provide a valid and robust alternative to the current system?”

It was clear that our delegates believed that such a system was possible. They suggested that existing small-scale examples of collaborative improvement should be used as examples – and that there should be safeguards in place to ensure that any collaborative approach didn’t lack rigour.

“We need to identify what is effective and what to learn from. Challenge Partnership, which was formed out of London Challenge, is a good example,” said Carol Jones, a specialist in leadership and teacher professionalism from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

“We should use this as potential evidence for working up a set of principles and criteria that would be useful across the system.”

Debbie Barkes, CPD lead at the KYRA Teaching School Alliance in Lincolnshire, added: “A lot of leaders feel under pressure and feel that they are not good enough. You need to have that confidence that you have value to add to each other’s schools.

“Supporting each other is a good way forward. The next steps are where do we go for the support for what we have identified in peer review? You need confidence in the people doing those reviews and then some kind of mechanism to provide that support to make those improvements.”

Leora Cruddas, a policy director at ASCL, said safeguards were needed to make sure that such a system did not become self-interested: “ASCL strongly endorses peer review and collaborative school improvement,” she said.

“But we believe that an independent inspectorate in the form of a regulatory agency does have a place as a guard against self-interest.”

Several delegates pointed out that while collaborative approaches were happening these were on a very limited scale and that work needed to be done on making collaborative improvement a reality on a much wider scale.

Philippa Cordingley, chief executive of CUREE (the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence Education), pointed out that in London Challenge there was a point where all headteachers in the Tower Hamlets authority were prepared to take responsibility for children across the borough: “This was a rich reservoir of relationships but you can only have these in a community which recognises itself as such,” she said. “We have to think about how we rebuild meaningful collectives. Is peer review a necessary stepping-stone for moving towards a community? Peer review is great but let’s not see it as an end in itself.”

Systems to underpin collaborative school improvement were needed, said Peter Earley, professor of education leadership and management at the UCL Institute of Education: “We do not have the system at the moment. There is a need for us to systematise and get better understanding of what is going on around the country.”

He added: “We need to have a peer review system within a performance framework and we have got to drive towards a system where more effective schools do more in this area.”

Dame Reena Keeble, a consultant and former headteacher, suggested that a national system to enable collaborative school improvement was vital.

“I am arguing for a system that would provide scaffolding for all schools,” she said. “There are some schools that might feel geographically isolated. They are ones that need that support through partnerships, but there is nothing there for them. If we have a system that would allow all schools to engage in self-improvement that would be better.”

Phil Crompton, executive headteacher of the Trent Academies Group in Nottingham, argued that there should still be a place for Ofsted in any future system based on collaborative improvement.
“We do need a philosophy for working together more closely but we need practical stuff before we get to that position,” he said. “If it takes Ofsted then that’s probably needed. I still think that we need an Ofsted-like body to make Trusts trusted, for example.”

Meanwhile, Kathryn James, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, believed that trust-based collaboration could work on a scale larger than a handful of schools and could even be done on a national level.

She continued: “It needs to be built around professionalism. You need to be able to say to professionals ‘forget about people on the outside asking why you have not done this or that and think about why as a profession you do what you do’. You can then work with other schools and develop that trust.”

Prof Earley suggested that the system should be looking for common behaviours and qualities in leaders of the future that would make collaboration possible, such as peer review and a commitment to developing skills so that they can be system leaders in their locale, region and ultimately across the country.

Governors should play their part in identifying these behaviours, Ms Barkes added: “It needs to be part of leadership training and recruitment and governors need to be looking for those behaviours.”

  • Keith Wright is managing director of school improvement management company Bluewave Education. For a free copy of the new Bluewave Education white paper, A New Era – Can we systematise collaborative school improvement? go to


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