Collaboration and school improvement – it’s a matter of trust!


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Author: Tony Dimmer

“Collaboration-for-its-own-sake is seen as a passive and somewhat voyeuristic conceit of analysts curious to see how it unfolds in different settings” (Croft, 2015, p. 1).

This blog is based on research carried out as part of my doctoral thesis at the Institute of Education, UCL into the extent to which school to school collaboration leads to school improvement. Although there is limited evidence of school improvement resulting from collaboration (Chapman and Muijs 2013), I focus on the mechanisms at play, which clearly demonstrate the importance of developing trust before joint practice development can pay dividends.

At the time of writing many schools in England are engaging in collaborative activities for mutual improvement, whether or not they plan to become members of an academy chain. The traditional Local Authority (LA) role in school improvement is shrinking as funding reduces but there is also a growing enthusiasm for collaboration. This is despite a rather confused national policy scene where the ‘world class – no excuses’ approach jostles with the freedom to teach message and market-based philosophy seeks to be reconciled with developing system leaders (Greany 2014). Collaboration as a means of improvement has its critics who see it as too focused on collegiality rather than improving outcomes (Croft 2015). To some extent this clash arises from my views about the balance between rapidly improving results and developing schools’ capacity for managing change.

The five primary schools involved in the case study chose to work together for mutual improvement and, as a sign of commitment, formed an umbrella academy trust. I tracked their progress over two years, carrying out surveys of staff in January 2014 and 2015 with follow up interviews in June 2014 and 2015. I used three lenses, David Hargreaves’ Maturity Model (2012), Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice and Mary Douglas’ Cultural Theory.

Hargreaves provides both a language and a scale of measure to be able to evaluate some of these developments in capacity. In identifying Professional Development, Partnership Competence and Collaborative Capital, which he then breaks down into component parts, he describes a landscape through which schools need to travel on the road to developing sustainable capacity for lasting improvement. The 2014 surveys and interviews found that the overwhelming focus of the five schools in the case study was on developing trust (High Social Capital) with Joint Practice Development focused in areas of mutual interest such as Early Years rather than perceived areas of weakness. In the meantime, collaborative groups had been set up; for example, subject leaders. The schools were carrying out peer reviews with groups containing members of each individual school focusing on an area identified by the host.

By the time of the second round of surveys and interviews in 2015, there had been clear changes in outlook with strong development of Collective Moral Purpose and a greater focus on Evaluation and Challenge. Communities of Practice (Wenger 1998) were clearly developing although not necessarily focused on key weaknesses in individual schools. Those teachers who were given the chance to work in subject and phase groups were moving beyond sharing good practice towards developing new ideas and trialling them.

In this case, accountability was through an annual meeting of the five headteachers and deputy headteachers in the autumn term when each school’s self-evaluation and outcomes from the previous year were discussed and rated as Red, Amber or Green. Although this aired the areas of weakness and contributed to the growth of trust, it was not until the third such meeting that there was real acknowledgement that one of the schools had serious issues with outcomes below national Floor Standards and that there would have to be stronger intervention to rectify this. Offers of LA support had been declined and the Regional Schools Commissioner had yet to identify the issue. There was, therefore, an absence of the hierarchical player identified by Cultural Theory who could focus on key priorities and help co-ordinate efforts at improvement.

One of the weaknesses highlighted by this case study is the need for a shared plan of action based on thorough analysis of the evidence available. Although outcome data was being freely shared, it was not used to inform an over-arching plan. Although there is no shortage of leadership and pedagogic capacity within the group, it was not deployed systematically to address obvious weaknesses such as results below the Floor Standard. The key expertise and the means of transferring it (Talent Identification and Coaching) were not addressed in a strategic way. As a result action to bring about improvement where it was most needed was delayed and further decline took place before it was addressed.

The key messages for schools from the study highlight the need for better use of evidence as the engine for change and a sharper focus on joint planning to bring resources to bear on key priorities. Policy makers need a greater focus on ensuring that groups of schools have the tools and resources to find a way through the social complexity of collaboration and to foster interdependence.

Dr. Tony Dimmer is a former primary school head teacher and Principal Primary Adviser for Surrey. He is now School Improvement Adviser for Woking and recently completed doctoral studies at the Institute of Education, UCL. His research has encompassed enquiries within educational leadership and transition between Key Stages 1 and 2. The former has included a review of the literature about how school leaders can most effectively influence educational outcomes for primary school pupils and a study of the impact of teachers’ beliefs about the relationship between performance and learning.
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