Just a few tips for you, Miss

Nic Barnard

Children are driving new teaching ideas in the 'networked learning communities' springing up across the country. Nic Barnard reports

I've thought about ways of learning, and I think I'm more of a kinaesthetic pupil." Nine-year-old Amber Huckle is telling The TES how she put her teacher straight. This correspondent couldn't even say "kinaesthetic" when he was nine, let alone tell you what it meant, but the word trips easily off Amber's tongue.

"Sometimes children have a better views of how teachers teach, and they can help them improve," she adds. "I didn't understand maths very much and I talked to my teacher about it and he helped me understand."

Amber is in Year 4 at a primary in the Bedfordshire Schools Improvement Partnership, one of 130 "networked learning communities" across the country funded by the National College for School Leadership.

Each has its own agenda and focus, bringing together a wide range of people including school leaders, teachers, support staff, governors, parents, academics and local authorities to tackle issues from classroom practice to bullying to school administration.

But the kind of pupil feedback from Amber is typical - and central to what the college is trying to achieve with the two-year-old project.

The networks turn the traditional hierarchy upside down. In the past, mandarins in London gathered together good practice and then spread it back out to schools - think of the National Literacy Strategy.

But networked learning communities work from the bottom up. "We decided networks should start by agreeing a common pupil learning focus - what do we want to do that will make a difference to the way children learn together?" says David Jackson, strategic director of the NCSL's networked learning group.

The networks look at how children learn, then consider the implications for teachers, schools, networks and the whole schools system - in that order.

Involving children in discussing their own learning styles and getting their feedback on teachers' performance has been a common starting point.

Pupils even have their own networks, visiting other schools to see how other children learn.

Tobias Bown, 16, is no longer "head boy" at his Colchester school: he is "director of student voice", a role he says is "all about improving the relationship between teacher and student both within schools but also between schools and between networks".

Tobias has even run workshops on teaching styles at a conference in Islington: "One of the main things that came out was that teachers teach in the style they are - if you're a visual learner, a lot of your teaching is visual. You need to come out of your comfort zone," he adds, helpfully.

The NCSL set out its vision of networks radiating out from the classroom in 2002 as a way of tapping into a desire among schools to collaborate to improve. After the competitive ethos of the 1980s and early 1990s, initiatives such as advanced skills teachers and beacon schools encouraged schools to spread good practice.

The college was caught off guard by the enthusiasm with which schools embraced its concept. Its intention had been to set up as few as four pilot networks -but it received 150 applications.

It seemed a shame to let such energy go to waste. Luckily, the Department for Education and Skills offered to fund as many as were judged viable, and the scheme was up and running.

The spread of networks suggests teachers are keen to emulate professions such as medicine which have long shared good practice between colleagues and seen practitioners do practical research.

"The world of the future is going to involve rapid change and require rapid knowledge transfer, and you can't use the old tools of bringing knowledge into the centre and then disseminating it. You have to free the system to move it around," Jackson says.

Still, some knowledge spreading from the centre is planned. From next month the NCSL plans to issue reports of ideas generated by networks.

Already, the DfES says, most secondary schools are involved in some form of networking. Most say they would continue even without funding - just as well, because NLCs are funded for only three of their four years. The college is well aware that networks will not be sustainable unless they are self-funding.

Meanwhile, the ripples spread beyond the classroom. Experiments have now begun to replicate networked learning communities at local authority level - between LEA departments and between different services in the notoriously territorial world of local government.

In an attempt to find a way of meeting the demands of the new Children Bill, which requires education, health, social services and other agencies to work together to protect children, around 20 LEAs are building networks.

Denis Mongon, a consultant at the college's LEArning Project supports new networks that include local authority, social services and primary care trust level. "Here you have schools which were historically competitive now working together. They've used the pupil voice as a lever for change. Can we use the client voice in the same way?" he asks.

Chief Inspector of schools David Bell calls networks a "powerful tool" but says they face a challenge to "capture or bottle all that energy that we're beginning to see - and transfer it up to the national scale."

The message from the DfES is unequivocal. Valerie Hannon, director at the department's innovation unit, and a keynote speaker at a recent conference for networks, says simply: "The future is networked."

Networks, she told the conference, are essential in a world where people expect personalised service. People are now much more demanding of public services, and dissatisfied with schools that don't meet their needs precisely. In a Copernican inversion, institutions need to realise they are no longer the centre of the universe: the individual is.

However, don't expect the DfES to disband itself just yet. And the Government that once proclaimed a new era of "joined-up thinking" has so far proved less than effective at getting its own departments to network.

But the DfES has already begun cutting a third of its workforce over the next four years, a move intended in part to reduce the amount of central direction and give teachers space to innovate.

"If you want real reform, then it's the people in the system who have to take it forward. The top-down approach only works so far," DfES chief David Normington told one newspaper earlier this year.

There is always a potential downside; Hannon warns that some teachers get so caught up in the excitement of networking, they forget about the classroom. Privately, some network evaluators have said the same.

But if that happens, there are always children like Amber and Tobias to bring them back to earth.

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Nic Barnard

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