Challenging collaboration

Written by: James Croft | Published:
Photo: iStock

Many educationalists support the idea of collaboration between our schools and professionals. However, a new research review has challenged this outlook. SecEd invited its author, James Croft, to put forward his argument

In a recent review of the research on collaboration for school improvement – Collaborative Overreach – I stated that despite the popular rhetoric about its importance, there is precious little evidence of collaboration’s impact on pupil attainment.

This was, coincidentally, published at the same time as a Department for Education (DfE) report produced by Dr Paul Armstrong (of the University of Manchester) to much the same conclusion.

While qualitative studies addressed to showing how important it is for staff development and support number in their thousands, you can finger count the number of quantitative studies that have even attempted to address impact on learning – and none of these are free of significant methodological weakness.

It is hard to know what to make of this. There appears to be a clear bias in the qualitative literature towards highlighting collaboration’s importance for teachers, irrespective of any difference it might or might not ultimately be making for pupils.

This literature typically draws on interviews and survey data gathered from what are viewed as successful collaborations, addressed to showing teacher perceptions of improved efficacy, more positive attitudes toward teaching, and higher levels of professional trust.

It is in the nature of this research to assume that because teachers feel empowered, schools work better, and pupils benefit. But this seems disingenuous – it is hardly difficult to find examples of schools that function well but are not adding value – so what’s going on?

A critique of the theoretical underpinnings of much of this research, my research review shows how influential theories of collaboration and networking are obscuring educational institutions’ primary purpose. Be they oriented to countering negative effects of test-score-based competition on morale, on-going collaborative discovery of new knowledge about the processes of teaching and learning, or investing in teachers’ potential, these theories don’t address themselves to schools’ primary purpose – enabling pupils to master and deploy subject knowledge and skills.

In his foreword to the report, Tim Oates says that collaboration has become a “voyeuristic conceit of analysts curious to see how it unfolds in different settings”. Collaboration has come to be regarded as a good thing in and of itself, irrespective of the educational benefit of the practices so disseminated. Unwittingly perhaps, but the effect is manifestly unhelpful.

This is not to say that there may not be school partnerships and cooperative undertakings that make a real difference to the quality of education. Indeed, since the publication of my report, I’ve been offered many examples.

But it is to maintain that ideas have consequences, and given the pervasiveness of these ideas, you can bet they have influence. It is not hard to imagine how collaborative undertakings focused on morale, on-going discovery of contextually relevant pedagogy, or building teacher and school capacity – divorced from consideration of how these affect the quality of the education schools actually provide – might dissipate the energy behind efforts towards improvement.

And this is exactly what the reports of those national audits and committee inquiries that have looked into this have found. Collaborative ventures between otherwise independent schools are characterised by a lack of clarity around objectives.

They thus tend to underestimate the resources required to sustain them, and are less likely to be subject to the kind of rigorous cost-benefit analysis that one might expect of other initiatives. Moreover, because they are not fully “owned” by any one party, they often run into problems of oversight and accountability. This makes them time-consuming and potentially costly undertakings for teachers and administrators alike.

Ironically, the most straightforward route out of this quagmire is probably via the very processes of corporatisation, systemisation and scale which those under the influence of these theories are inclined to resist. In their own way, each influence school leaders toward local, small-scale and less binding/formal arrangements, designed to preserve participating schools’ independence.

Those designed for the purposes of organisational validation and to counteract perceived attritive effects of competition are unlikely to harden or discover the dynamics necessary to scale. The same may be said of social constructivist projects, which are inherently local and resistant to formalisation.

For social constructivists, systemisation and scale comes at the expense of innovation and personalisation. Social capital theorists, meanwhile, are mistrustful of merged corporate structures because of the limitations they tend to impose on the scope of individual teachers and school autonomy via changes to management structure, new divisions of labour, and tighter definition of professional roles and responsibilities. Never mind that the trade-off just might be a more focused role and a more manageable workload.

To be sure, the relations that subsist between schools in federation are something different from those of the collaborative nature I’ve been discussing – but different isn’t necessarily bad. Though not immune from methodological difficulties, more recent, and convincing, quantitative research on chain and federation effects suggests that merged and integrated governance and leadership structures may be important for raising standards, in part because they facilitate a keener focus on raising attainment. My report explores this research in some depth.

Meanwhile, at the research level, cutting through the confusion requires no less uncompromising a focus on outcomes. If researchers want to address questions relating to underlying causal relationships, then they need to adopt research strategies that are appropriate to this end.

As Caroline Kenny, the research officer at the Institute of Education, and David Sims, research director at the NFER, pointed out to the Education Select Committee inquiry into these issues, proper evaluation should be an integral part of the roll-out of any partnership programme, not an afterthought. Until such conditions can be met, it is simply conjecture to suggest that particular types or aspects of collaborative practice are effective for generating improvement.

Perhaps this is why OECD and PISA ambassadors prefer to speak in rather more nebulous terms of the importance of “collaborative culture”.

There’s a general optimism about the prospect of clarity about the conditions needed for successful partnerships and how they might generate positive effects, which I don’t share.

The issues I raise have been raised before (most memorably by the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education – CUREE – in 2005). The Education Endowment Foundation currently has two projects on the go in this area, but these have gone so far only to deploy “matching methods” in after-the-fact evaluations. Such methods cannot take “unseen” variables, such as the motivation and quality of leadership, into the equation, which might relativise the importance of collaboration itself for outcomes.

It is a shortcoming that is shared by the research on chain and federation effects in the English context, to be fair, but beyond this, these projects don’t begin to address the challenges of navigating the interplay between different factors at work in the system, or of sorting out the relative influence of multiple simultaneous initiatives, or again of multiple overlaying collaborative structures. So to say there’s a long way to go is an understatement.

Most profoundly, research on school collaboration has yet to face the issue of distinguishing collaboration effects from the underlying effects of school autonomy and competition.

Autonomy is not some steady state in the context of which school leaders decide whether to compete or to collaborate. In that its purpose is to enable school leaders to do things differently and find out what works, in and of itself it introduces competitive incentives between and among schools.

There’s good international evidence to the effect that its introduction in developed and high-performing countries is consistently positive for pupil achievement.

So the answer is not to advocate collaboration for its own sake, but rather for research to discourage naïve adoption of collaborative strategies by highlighting the weaknesses of this approach to school improvement, and the lack of evidence of even associated, let alone genuinely attributable, gains for pupils.

If the cooperative behaviour of rival firms in other, often much more sharply competitive, markets is anything to go by, we should expect instrumental partnerships to emerge to wider competitive ends.

Though it may go against the grain of what we would like to believe, further investment in autonomy then, and the market conditions under which successful collaborations are likely to arise, is therefore probably the best policy.

  • James Croft is executive director of the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education and author of the research review, Collaborative Overreach.


  • Collaborative Overreach: Why collaboration probably isn’t key to the next phase of school reform, CMRE, October 2015:
  • Effective School Partnerships and Collaboration for School Improvement (Dr Paul Armstrong), DfE, October 2015:
  • School Partnerships and Cooperation, Education Select Committee, November 2013:
  • The Impact of Networks on Pupils, Practitioners, Organisations and the Communities They Serve, CUREE, December 2005:


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