Successful school-to-school collaboration

Written by: Claudia Sumner & Karen Wespieser | Published:
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At the heart of the self-improving school system is school-to-school collaboration, but how can collaboration work effectively for the benefit of all involved? Claudia Sumner and Karen Wespieser look at the research evidence

The self-improving system relies on high-performing schools and effective school leaders working beyond the parameters of their own institutions to support the wider school landscape.

At its heart is the notion that stronger and weaker schools should work together to drive up standards for the mutual benefit of both. But what does this look like in practice and does the system have the capacity to support it?

The theory of the self-improving system

Describing the concept of a self-improving school system in 2010, the government stated: “Our aim should be to create a school system which is more effectively self-improving ... it is also important that we design the system in a way which allows the most effective practice to spread more quickly and the best schools and leaders to take greater responsibility and extend their reach.” (Department for Education, 2010).

In its report on school collaboration in 2013, the Education Select Committee noted that “school partnerships and cooperation have become an increasingly important part of what has been referred to as a ‘self-improving’ or ‘school-led’ system”. A school-to-school partnership approach can facilitate collaboration and allow schools to provide resources to support each other while retaining autonomy.

Ideally, collaborative arrangements should involve institutions demonstrating excellent practice that can be shared, while recognising that such practice cannot be simply replicated between institutions.

Collaboration between institutions should be two-way. For example, the national schools commissioner, Sir David Carter, has spoken of the incentives for outstanding schools to engage with underperforming neighbours, explaining that “every school ... should be both a giver and a receiver of support” (ASCL et al, 2016) and that “there is as much, possibly even more, to learn from the teachers who have gone from special measures to good as there is from the ones who have gone from good to outstanding” (Busby, 2016).

Collaboration in practice

In Wales, the Welsh government has been trialling a collaboration initiative called the Lead and Emerging Practitioner School Pathfinder Project. The project aims to raise the standards of educational practice and attainment within primary and secondary schools in Wales by facilitating school-to-school support.

During the Pathfinder, a “Lead Practitioner School” works with an “Emerging Practitioner School” to share, disseminate and implement good practice approaches to teaching and learning on a systematic basis for 18 months.

The evaluation of the project found a range of collaborative practice is undertaken and could be grouped into three broad categories: teaching and learning, leadership, and using data and assessment.

Most schools engaged in activities which covered all three categories, with a main focus on teaching and learning.

The headteacher of one of the secondary lead practitioner schools said: “Effective and lasting change is attitudinal and cultural as opposed to structural. It requires change by all within the system, but particularly by schools which need to realise fully the advantages of collaboration over competition.”

In England, initiatives such as the Department for Education’s Gaining Ground Strategy have also focused on using school-to-school collaboration to drive improvement. Gaining Ground supported school improvement in secondary schools that have reasonable-to-good GCSE examination results, but have poor progression rates in English and mathematics. The intervention included, among other things, partnership with high-performing schools to support, challenge and inspire.

The evaluation of the strategy concluded that school-to-school partnership was most effective when:

  • Schools have similar characteristics.
  • Schools are within reasonable travelling distance.
  • Schools have staff time and commitment from both parties and partnerships at different levels of seniority.

Capacity for collaboration

In order for these types of approaches to work, there needs to be sufficient capacity in the system within reasonable travelling distances. In order to assess capacity within the system for collaboration, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) conducted an analysis to identify and match underperforming schools and high-performing schools within a limited radius using Ofsted data and Department for Education attainment data. To account for similar characteristics, the research only sought to match schools within the same phase (secondary or primary).

The analysis highlighted that there are more high-performing schools than underperforming schools, in both phases of education – in England there are 5,677 high-performing schools and 2,511 underperforming schools.

To assess the level of potential support, the research team looked at how many high-performing schools each school in need has nearby. The analysis revealed that each secondary school in need of support has a median number of two high-performing secondary schools within the set radiuses.

While having support close at hand does not necessarily mean that the schools in question will want to or will be able to help (because, for example, they may already be working with other schools), it is nonetheless positive that schools in need have options nearby that they can explore for support.

As a result of this analysis, NFER created an interactive map plotting the location of high-performing schools and schools in need by phase (primary and secondary), as well as calculating the ratio of the two groups, by region, local authority and Parliamentary constituency.

The tool is intended to help teachers, governors and school leaders to identify potential collaborative partners in their area, with a view to improving outcomes for all pupils.


Collaboration is a vital tool in the school improvement arsenal. It can be used to improve teaching and learning, leadership, and use of data and assessment. It works best when partners have similar characteristics, are nearby and both sides are fully committed at all levels.

There is clear evidence of capacity within the system to work in this way and NFER hopes this research, and the accompanying resources, can be used by headteachers, governing bodies and local authorities to embrace the opportunities offered by working with colleagues in other schools to raise attainment for all young people.

  • Claudia Sumner is a senior research manager and Karen Wespieser is head of impact at the National Foundation for Educational Research.

Further information

NFER Research Insights

This article was published as part of SecEd’s NFER Research Insights series. A free pdf of the latest Research Insights best practice and advisory articles can be downloaded from the supplements page of this website:


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