Networking has become an obsession. Picking up a phone to talk, knowing and being known on the conference circuit, having easy access to the right people in the right places, supporting colleagues and exchanging ideas: these quick, criss-crossing threads of communication which form powerful undercurrents are seen as essential in all walks of professional and political life.
Being a good networker is regarded by many as fundamental to success. Yet, for many teachers, opportunities for networking have diminished in recent years. Competition between schools, the reduction in in-service training outside school, the demise of many local authority teacher centres and the heavy demands of the national curriculum and other government initiatives have led to a heads-down mentality.
But the need for networking has never been greater, according to Sheila Dainton, head of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' policy unit. "At a time when local government is atomising, networks become more important than ever," she says. "No school is an island. It is essential that teachers extend their professional horizons beyond the school gate."
Kathryn Riley, director of the Roehampton Institute's Education Management Centre, says that, though pressure of work in schools discourages teachers from networking, research shows that those who build up professional networks outside school are often better teachers. A recent survey of 800 teachers in California found strong evidence, she says, "that teachers who are part of professional development networks have higher standards, a stronger service ethic in their relationships with students, and a greater commitment to the teaching profession than their colleagues".
In terms of teaching careers, Professor Riley believes networking can open doors, and throws a perspective on other jobs and career opportunities.
In case studies of failing schools, her centre has looked at the characteristics of teaching staff. "A striking feature was that these schools were full of teachers who didn't really talk to each other," says Professor Riley, "who were not part of any networks."
Frank McNeil, a co-ordinator for school improvement at the Institute of Education in London, says research also shows that the most powerful change in children's learning comes about when teachers work collaboratively. "The idea that networking is cost-effective and beneficial to all is slowly gaining ground. When a school is in special measures, the first thing we do is send teachers out to see what is happening in other schools. Networking is that important," he says.
Sylvia Morris, head of the Cathedral School of St Saviours and St Mary Overie, a 280-pupil primary in Southwark, south London, dedicates much of her time and energy to networking in the community and with local business. A director of KPMG, a chartered accountants firm, acts as her mentor, and she has encouraged her deputy to do the same. "My deputy came back from his first meeting with his mentor," she says, "and it was as if somebody had given him gold. He said it was the best one-and-a-half hours of professional development he'd ever had."
Paul Edwards took up his first headship at Knottingley High, a school with falling rolls in a severely deprived area of West Yorkshire, four years ago. A relentless networker, he has transformed Knottingley into a full school, with the proportion of pupils achieving five or more GCSE A-Cs rising from 20 to 35 per cent. And through partnerships with local industry and the ruthless pursuit of European and Government money, the school has attracted an extra Pounds 1 million in the past three years.
"I make sure that my teachers go out into local industry," he says. "I send them out to look at departments in other schools. When I am appointing middle managers, I look for people with contacts. I want people who are opportunistic, who have their ear to the ground."
An ear to the phone: networking has become more important than ever