Christine Gilbert writes that collaboration both within and across schools is vital to improving the quality of education in the UK. By sharing their knowledge and experience with peers, school leaders can become the catalysts for change.
England’s school system is experiencing massive change, largely driven by school leaders. Many secondary schools are embracing greater autonomy, with nearly half now designated as academies. With greater freedom comes the expectation that schools themselves will become the primary drivers of systemic improvement and achieve more. This is a big ask, but the calibre of school leadership has never been stronger. Leaders increasingly see system leadership as part of their role, and have the confidence, capacity and optimism to shape change beyond their own schools. This has not always been the case. The challenge now is to create a self-improving system so that more children and young people get the education they deserve.
Although much has been achieved in our schools, and we can see excellent practice up and down the country, improvement has not been sufficiently universal for all our young people to thrive and succeed. There continues to be considerable variation both within our schools and across them. Too many children, and often the more disadvantaged or vulnerable, lose out.
A self-improving system – one in which school leaders become accountable for ensuring that all schools have the right support – has the potential to create better practice that makes more of a difference. It capitalises on the improving calibre of leadership within schools and the increasing experience of partnership work across them.
In any system, it is the teachers – in particular, the quality of their teaching and their relationships with pupils – who make the most difference to children’s learning. The best school leaders establish a culture that enables teachers to take responsibility for making improvements in their own schools and others. They encourage teachers to develop a strong sense of individual and collective purpose; one where a continuing process of review and dialogue about practice, rooted in the highest expectations, leads to better teaching and achievement. This disciplined learning becomes inherent to their professionalism.
In schools that have a strong, well-established professional culture, teachers see themselves as responsible for the quality of their teaching and its impact on pupils’ learning. They feel part of a professional learning community and view colleagues as an essential source of support. They welcome – and often create – opportunities to engage pupils, peers and leaders in knowledge and skills development. This is central to their professional growth and their accountability for improving quality, and may also feed into the school’s formal performance-management processes.
The best schools know their own strengths and weaknesses, and involve key stakeholders in the process of improvement. Staff members are involved in review and evaluation. Governors can provide perceptive and honest advice. Pupils discuss their learning – and any barriers they face – with their teachers. Parents’ views influence the school’s development.
Share and share alike
Establishing a culture of collaboration within a school is just the start. Good schools are now seeking to build relationships with partner institutions to promote professional development even further. Where these collaborations are effective, all involved share a sense of moral accountability to children and young people in other schools. There is a sense of openness and trust among colleagues; a strong professional accountability to one another; and an uncompromising approach to quality. Teachers not only seek out, but also create, best practice.
According to the findings of a 2010 McKinsey study on the world’s most improved school systems, collaboration among schools has a number of benefits. First, teaching practice is made public and the entire teaching profession shares responsibility for student learning. Second, there is a cultural shift from an emphasis on what teachers teach to what students learn. Third, teachers become the custodians of a normative model of pedagogy and feel accountable for following the high standards that they have helped to implement.
In recent years, we have seen more and more schools putting this collaborative strategy into practice, helped by the National College’s designation of national leaders of education. These outstanding school leaders use their skills, and those of their staff, to support other schools and help raise standards. Alongside them, more than 2,000 local leaders of education contribute to school improvement at local level, while outstanding professionals in middle and senior leadership roles – known as specialist leaders in education – are just beginning to support their peers in other schools.
People involved in this form of system leadership care deeply about their partner schools and want the best for the pupils in them. Not only do they improve the schools they support, they also identify reciprocal benefits for their own schools. Partnership work challenges their thinking, as they observe a different context and become involved in creating better practice. Research shows that schools supported by national leaders of education improve faster than those without them. It is a measure of their effectiveness that the secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, wants to increase the number of national support schools from 700 to 1,000 by 2014.
Other ways of enabling greater professional collaboration include federations and academy chains, which work most effectively when supported by strong governance and leadership. Many of these formal arrangements were set up to give greater support to schools in disadvantaged areas and to accelerate improvement. Following their initial success, some groups are now developing more innovative practice. One chain, for example, is using its collective resources to develop a more creative way to improve performance in mathematics. Having undertaken international research to identify best practice, it decided to customise and trial the Singapore Math Method – a teaching method based on the primary textbooks and syllabus from the national curriculum of Singapore – in its schools. Several groups openly share initiatives beyond their own school communities to support system-wide improvement.
Groups of schools also worked together in the London Challenge, an improvement programme set up in 2003 to achieve better outcomes in low-performing schools in the capital. The programme used independent, experienced experts, many of them national or local leaders of education, to audit and identify needs and broker support for underperforming schools. Excellent system leadership and pan-London networks of schools helped establish effective partnerships that can tackle needs quickly and accelerate progress. A 2010 Ofsted report concluded that London Challenge had improved the performance of pupils in London’s schools at a faster rate than similar schools nationally.
All these examples reflect effective system leadership that dramatically improved struggling schools and, in most cases, yielded reciprocal benefits for the stronger schools involved. Increasingly, however, strong schools are also forming more equal partnerships that enable them to raise performance by challenging and supporting each other.
A self-improving system
One initiative that reflects this shift is the establishment of teaching schools in the UK. Since their launch in July 2011, the number of teaching schools has risen to more than 180 and is due to increase to 500 by 2014/15. These schools, which have a strong track record in developing teachers, have taken on greater responsibility for nurturing trainee teachers, leaders and other colleagues, in partnership with other schools. They use their networks to support schools facing challenging circumstances and to contribute to wider system leadership. All of them see leadership development and school improvement as inextricably linked. The anticipation is that teaching schools will help develop a model of evidence-based improvement that will enable the system to progress.
Teaching schools develop without centralised direction. The lack of prescription means that some may fail to realise the vision set out for them in the Schools White Paper 2010, but others may well use their freedom to generate innovation.
Another example of collaboration among strong schools is Challenge Partners. This initiative was established by a group of outstanding schools that wanted to retain their individuality yet realised that collaboration was the key to their continuing success. A year after its launch, more than 170 schools are working towards its aims of developing a world-class, self-improving and sustainable system. Challenge Partner schools use annual peer review, supported by experienced inspectors, to raise aspirations and increase professional accountability. Effective peer review is characterised by openness to challenge and a willingness to act on the findings. However, opportunities to engage in rigorous school-to-school peer evaluation are still few and far between across the wider system.
The evidence from recent school visits, and from my discussions with leaders and teachers, persuades me that schools are already the primary drivers of systemic improvement. We have passed a tipping point and there is no turning back.
Nevertheless, this is a journey. Not all schools are yet working in active partnerships. The weakest may lack the confidence to invite support, still less peer challenge. The viability of entering into collaborative arrangements remains an issue for small or geographically remote schools in the primary sector. Even if they want to collaborate, they may not know where or how to find a partner. All schools need to ensure that rigour is built into their collaborative activities so that expectations are high and there is an uncompromising focus on quality.
Accountability for school improvement might well be discharged with other public, private or voluntary sector partners, but it should be driven by schools themselves. Such an approach would reduce the risk of isolation by offering all schools access to a professional learning partnership, while providing targeted support for schools that need it. This model would properly recognise the growing role of leaders, teachers and schools in system leadership, and would hold them to account without the dangers of a more centralised model.
Much of the focus so far has been on professionals, but governors working across networks of schools have the potential to strengthen a self-improving system. A more open and collaborative culture could help develop governors’ skills and expertise as much as it does that of teachers. The new national leader of governance role, which enables effective chairs to use their experience to support others, should help this process.
The best policies have their origins in great practice. Today’s developments in profession-led system leadership offer scope for creating better practice that is free from local or national prescription so that all – not just some – children succeed. They present the opportunity to do things differently and more creatively. The impetus for change is now with schools themselves.
In partnership with the Pearson Think Tank, the RSA has launched an Academies Commission, chaired by Christine Gilbert, to examine the implications of the ‘mass academisation’ of state schools.
50 Foot Women
50 Foot Women is a new Fellow-led initiative that aims to connect inspirational professional women with talented female graduates.
Catherine Fieschi FRSA set up the mentoring scheme after she observed an “extraordinary lack of confidence” among the young women who had applied for jobs at her organisation, Counterpoint. One shortlisted candidate even eliminated herself from the process because she felt insufficiently qualified.
To help tackle this sense of insecurity, 50 Foot Women puts new female graduates in touch with professional women. Mentors provide advice on everything from practical skills, such as CV writing, to broader career-related issues, such as how to balance financial security and personal fulfilment.
Supported by a £2,000 grant from the RSA’s Catalyst fund, Fieschi has already linked 25 female graduates with mentors. In a year’s time, she hopes that the scheme will have quadrupled in size and that it will involve professional women from a broader range of disciplines. She plans to partner with university career services – initially in London, and then in two other UK cities – to recruit new graduates who could benefit from support after leaving university.
“We are growing so quickly that demand is exceeding supply,” said Fieschi. “I intend to use the RSA’s networks to help us expand and am keen to hear from women in professional roles who are interested in mentoring graduates.”
Visit the 50 Foot Women website to find out more and offer your support.
Supporting girls’ education
The RSA has a long history of promoting girls’ education. In 1871, Maria Grey gave a lecture on the education of women in which she argued that “the best way to be rid of hearing of [women’s] wrongs would be to right them”.
Following her lecture, Grey encouraged the Society to appoint a committee to promote the better education of girls in all classes. This led to the formation of a National Union for Improvement of the Education of Girls, whose primary objective was to “enlighten the public mind... on the present low state of female education, on the national importance of improving it and on the measures required for that end”.
From the Union emerged the Girls’ Public Day School Trust in 1872, which established new secondary schools that provided an affordable education to girls from all social classes. Maria Grey and her sister, Emily Shirreff, were actively involved in creating the Trust, which still exists today. Now one of the UK’s 20 largest charities, it educates 20,000 girls a year based in 26 independent schools in England and Wales.