Catch of the day

Don't get tangled up in the wrong network. Huw Thomas offers advice

Nets can catch someone falling, or provide a means of climbing. In communications, the net connects efficiently. They also kill fish. In my positive experiences, networks cluster me, support me and stimulate me.

Other experiences are more like a tangled haddock. Nets need to be selected carefully. This can include asking:

WHY DOES IT EXIST?

What will this grouping provide that can't be done in any other way? This is one to be quite bloody-minded about. Networks need to be handled with care: they can congeal as well as stimulate, tying us up for hours of facilitation (sounds like castration - but it's more painful). We need to watch out for duplicated efforts. If we're meeting all the heads in the locality do we also want to meet with the pyramid that feeds to the local secondary? Won't these meetings duplicate each other? There tends to be a continuum of networks that ranges from the group gathered for a specific purpose to the more general gathering. Both types are useful - more than one of either could be overkill.

WHO SETS THE AGENDA?

Any network has some sort of agenda. The question is how effectively it can work with what the school is doing already? Beware those who say "This will just fit in". That's always bull. If it was true, why add this new string to the bow? It's also worth knowing the level of commitment required. Are you stuck with a whole package or allowed to be more selective? If it's otiose, can you dump it after session one?

HOW MUCH?

Talk brass tacks early on. Is there a bill to pay? Is the venture funded? It's also worth enquiring what the cost will be in terms of time. How many people are needed for how many meetings? On the other side of the balance sheet you're asking "What's in it for us?". Alongside long-term answers, such as gradual school improvements, seek out more immediate answers. For example, if staff need to put in time then the wheels of any development are greatly oiled by funded supply cover - though there's still a need for caution - there's no point having oceans of supply if it's releasing staff to waste time.

WHAT WILL WE ACTUALLY DO?

It's worth finding out as much as you can about this before signing on the bottom line. If people can't be precise at the early stage it should sound a note of caution. None of us has time to be vague. With more controlled programmes, getting early information is like getting blood out of a stone, but it's worth trying to see something like the first pile of handouts - if only because of the fun of the challenge trying to wrench them from the hands of those who zealously guard them prior to any launch.

In case this sounds cynical, can I remind you I am a beneficiary of some great networks. However, I also think of the fish.

Huw Thomas teaches in Sheffield

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