Successful school partnerships

Written by: Liam Donnison | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

We know that partnership can play an important role in school improvement, but what ingredients need to
be in place for it to work? Liam Donnison finds out

Maggie Farrar knows plenty about collaboration and partnership and the role it can play in driving forward school improvement.
As a former senior director at the National College for School Leadership, Ms Farrar had an instrumental role in developing and promoting collaboration and partnership approaches that are now becoming a common feature of the school landscape.

Ms Farrar, now an independent consultant with a focus on cluster-based school improvement, has contributed her thinking about partnerships to the National Professional Qualification now being developed and delivered by Outstanding Leaders Partnership.

Ms Farrar explained: “I was recently struck by a quote from Professor Alan Dyson at Manchester University on challenging patterns of inequality. He wrote that all schools, however good they are, will always fail some of the children some of the time and that no one school can ever hope to meet the needs of all staff, students, children and their families.

“This struck me for several reasons. First, it is so self-evident and increasingly so in the complex world in which the children and young people we serve are growing up. Second, because it is so self-evident, doing anything significant about it seems extraordinarily difficult.”

Ms Farrar said that even after years of reform, much of it based on networks and collaboration, the “pull” of the individual institution still seems to be stronger than the collective: “In my current work on cluster-based school improvement I frequently return to the work done by Professor David Hargreaves for the National College for School Leadership (now the National College for Teaching and Leadership) on the building of self-improving systems.

“His view was that giving schools greater autonomy and at the same time strengthening accountability, would not by itself create a self-improving system. It was in fact more likely to create a fragmented and more unequal system.

“What was needed was for us to think less about autonomy and more about ‘connected autonomy’ in which we accept strong systems of accountability, but at the same time strengthen trust-based accountability between schools, and focus on collective capacity-building and growing a collaborative culture of continuous improvement, backed up by a shared responsibility for outcomes.”

Ms Farrar said that outcomes improve when collaboration is focused on impact and outcomes, is evidence-based and done well, and has clear rules of engagement. But it’s not always like that. She continued: “Collaboration can also be a significant waste of time and a distraction. It can create more meetings and although it might prompt some interesting work on the margins it won’t radically alter and improve the experience of most leaders, teachers and children.”

So how can partnerships be made to deliver? Ms Farrar said there is significant evidence on what makes collaboration work but suggests that successful partnerships focus on four things: the why, the how, the what, and the “so what”.

The why

“The partnership spends time exploring a shared and compelling purpose,” said Ms Farrar. “Why do they exist? Their response is not ‘to improve outcomes for all children’ – that’s a result. The ‘why’ is an articulation of what they are passionate about and what will keep them working together even in the ‘white heat’ of holding each other to account for outcomes.”

The how

“They then look at their values – what binds them together in this shared purpose? What behaviours will they adopt, and what will they not tolerate? How will the way they work together align with their values?

“For example, if they say one of their values is ‘inclusivity’, then how much attention are they paying to who is lost and isolated in the cluster, who is excluded or excluding themselves? What role do the children, young people and families play?

“Importantly the partnership itself is not inward looking but is connected to other partnerships in a spirit of mutual support and challenge.”

The what

“They have a clear focus on no more than two or three priorities agreed following a scrutiny of the data of all participating schools. These priorities form the basis of peer review, of action research and joint practice development, of CPD and leadership development and of cluster-based investment.

“Crucially these priorities should be ones that no individual school could achieve alone. Schools set their own targets for improvement but should all be able to set stretch targets that can only be achieved through their engagement in the partnership. If they can’t do this then why does the partnership exist?”

The ‘so what’

“They hold themselves and each other to account for impact. They publish and review progress on their agreed priorities. They publish their partnership review and encourage families and members of the community to also hold them to account.

“Importantly partnerships know that sustainable change and impact on outcomes can take time. Robert Hill, who has looked at effective partnerships and federations particularly in small schools, said it can take between two and four years for sustainable change and impact on outcomes to manifest itself.”

  • Liam Donnison is managing director of Best Practice Network, a Department for Education-licensed provider of National Professional Qualifications (NPQs) for school leaders. Ms Farrar’s reflections on collaboration are part of the new NPQs developed and delivered by Outstanding Leaders Partnership in partnership with Best Practice Network. Visit


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