Competition vs collaboration


Schools don't have to choose between collaboration and competition argues National College chief Steve Munby ― they should embrace both.

At the National College’s annual conference last month, I asked the question: what sort of leadership is needed from us in these times of change? With increased autonomy and freedom, I questioned whether the emphasis should be on being decisive and strong, leading with authority, driving things through at pace? Or is now the time for our leadership to be more inclusive and empowering?

I believe, as leaders, we should not choose between these types of leadership – we must choose both. In doing so, we face a number of tensions. I want to look at one of these: being competitive versus being collaborative. 

Most of us are accountable for what happens in the organisations that we lead. We are responsible for ensuring our organisations improve. And so, of course, there has to be competition between schools. Having a competitive edge as a leader stops us from being complacent and keeps us on our toes. We learn from the performance of others, we realise we can do better ourselves. Without this, we may struggle to improve.

And so being held to account has to be seen as a positive thing and being benchmarked against external criteria is a way of supporting improvement. I have no doubt that over the last 20 years or so, this increased accountability has improved quality. Schools in this country are significantly better places – providing better teaching, better leadership and higher standards.

However, collaboration also has a critical role to play. Without it, we will get greater variation between schools – some will get better and do well, but overall the system will not improve. But what should collaboration look like in order to make a difference? During my travels around the country this year, I have seen some really impressive examples where school leaders are supporting each other but also offering real challenge. 

I have also seen some that appear to me to be too cosy, too much about endorsing each other’s views and practices. I have also seen other collaborations that seem to be challenging but not very inclusive.

The most effective partnerships have to be inclusive but also focused on outcomes in order to achieve real solutions for improvement. Our leadership needs to be collaborative but with a competitive edge, especially at a time of greater autonomy and as we move towards a system where schools are taking increasing responsibility for leading on improvement right across the sector.

Last week, the National College published an article by Christine Gilbert to stimulate debate and discussion around the role of school accountability in a self-improving system. Towards a Self-improving System: The role of school accountability, explores the potential of accountability to support a culture of self-improvement within and across our schools.

In it, Christine talks about accountability in a broader sense, where a school or an individual has an obligation to account for their actions or performance to another. She identifies four key audiences that schools should hold themselves accountable to: pupils, colleagues, employers/government and parents.

These four relationships are managed through two approaches – first, a performance (or summative) model which emphasises outputs such as test and exam results, and second, an improvement (or formative) model which emphasises school evaluation, opening practice to debate and critique.

She argues that as we move towards a self-improving system, the second approach needs to assume more importance, balanced with the first approach, so that schools take greater ownership of accountability, seeing it as something developed and owned by them, supporting them in their work, rather than something that is done to them.

She highlights the work being undertaken through initiatives such as Challenge Partners and Teaching Schools. Such initiatives are increasingly enabling senior and middle leaders to take greater ownership of accountability, training and empowering them to effectively evaluate and hold each other to account across and between schools.

The key thing, however, is how this feeds into improvement, and it is clear that peer review of each other’s schools provides a powerful basis for developing best practice at all levels. These examples are demonstrating that school-to-school accountability can be a strong driver of self-improvement.

Christine also puts forward some interesting proposals for policy-makers, including strengthening the link between inspections and improvement, for example, by drawing on the input of our best leaders to support the inspection process and by using judgements to signpost schools to school-led improvement opportunities. 

I think a shift is already beginning to take place here, as we can see from Ofsted’s plans to pilot the use of National Leaders of Education in inspections. I am also encouraged by Sir Michael Wilshaw’s comments, when he said that Ofsted will look to recognise where leadership is making a difference in those schools that require improvement.

Some of our schools are already succeeding in finding a balance between competition and collaboration. They are developing strong forms of collaboration with a healthy competitive spirit – asking how they can learn from the best, offering advice and support to others, and aspiring to reach the highest standards.

Accountability can play a key role in all of this. It is a means by which an empowered profession can focus on supporting and challenging itself to greater heights, identifying excellence and holding each other to account.

  • Steve Munby is chief executive of the National College for School Leadership. 

Further information
Towards a Self-improving System: The role of school accountability is available at
Watch a video of Steve Munby’s speech at the National College’s annual conference at


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