School-to-school collaboration is now the big idea for raising standards.
Many practitioners are warming to the suggestion, arguing that the emphasis on competition between schools has failed to deliver the desired improvements in student achievement. Others remain unconvinced that collaboration is feasible within the context of market-based reforms.
Writing in The TES recently (June 20), David Reynolds concluded that "the policy cannot work". He rightly argues that school improvement efforts must focus, where it matters, on the classroom. He also suggests that teachers have much to learn from one another. For him, this is more likely to happen within a school rather than between schools.
I cannot see why we have to choose. By and large, schools do know more than they use. It makes sense, therefore, to build improvement efforts around the expertise that exists within an organisation. Indeed, the recent national strategies have been successful when they have been largely based on this approach.
We do, however, still have a long way to go. The emphasis on competition between schools to raise standards has hit a plateau. Last summer, for example, 30,000 pupils left schools with no recognisable qualification.
Meanwhile, we continue to see large numbers of young people excluded from school. The situation is particularly acute in the inner cities. It is clear, then, that despite all the progress that has been made, we still fail to reach many pupils. What we now need are strategies that go beyond improvements for the many, to achieve excellence for all.
Our research at the University of Manchester suggests that the development of inter-dependence between schools is a promising way forward. For example, we have looked closely at the way three successful secondary schools in Wigan supported Kingsdown school, so that its truancy rates were halved, and A* to C grades at GCSE increased from 7 per cent to 27 per cent, in just two years. It was significant that the benefits of the arrangement were also seen in the successful schools.
It is important to recognise, however, that school-to-school co-operation does not offer a simple panacea. If this approach is to be used successfully, we must learn more about it. New national strategies, such as the leadership incentive grant and the networked learning communities, can be used to draw lessons from what are potentially rich processes of action learning; that is, research carried out by practioners to determine what works.
Already there is evidence of interesting developments that are pushing our thinking forward. For example, in local education authorities such as Knowsley, Nottingham and Sandwell that have struggled to overcome the barriers to learning associated with poverty, groups of schools are exploring innovative ways of sharing their expertise. Involvement with colleagues from another school can generate new knowledge and improved practice. Most obviously, there is the possibility of sharing ideas, resources and strategies.
There is, however, the potential for a more profound form of professional learning that can arise as a result of school-to-school collaboration. This occurs when colleagues from another school offer their outsider perspectives as a result of observing lessons or talking to students. The visitors take on the role of co-researchers, collecting evidence on behalf of the host school. They provide interruptions that can help to "make the familiar unfamiliar" in ways that stimulate self-questioning, creativity and experimentation.
The development of inter-dependent relationships between schools raises questions about the role of education authorities. If schools are better placed to support and challenge one another, is there any need for LEA involvement in school improvement? My own view is that there are important new tasks that LEAs must take on in order to foster co-operative relationships between schools. LEA staff will have to rethink their roles, recognising that leadership for improvement is the responsibility of those within schools.
Michael Fielding, at the University of Sussex, draws a useful distinction between collaboration and collegiality. Collaboration, he suggests, is a plural form of individualism in which participants are typically intolerant of time spent on anything other than the task in hand. Once the task has been completed, such collaborative working arrangements are likely to disappear. Collegiality, on the other hand, is much more robust, long-term, and rooted in shared ideals.
In practice, instances of schools working together do not fall neatly into either collaborative or collegial activity. Moreover, it may be that sometimes collaboration is the forerunner to collegiality. It seems, then, that school-to-school collaboration can work, particularly if it leads to collegiality. The question is: do we have the collective will to make it happen?
Mel Ainscow is professor of education and co-director of the leadership development unit, Manchester university