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Sense and singularity

Better school collaboration would make its mark on challenging behaviour, writes Jodie Reed

In her first speech as Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly said that every secondary school should, by September 2007, be part of a group working together to manage behaviour.

Launched at last week's annual conference of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, the new, not-so-catchy phrase for these groups is Education Improvement Partnerships (EIPs).

I am doubtless not alone in thinking that this could be a very exciting proposal if it enables schools to take a more preventive approach to pupil behaviour. After all, behaviour is perhaps the area that has suffered most from a lack of collaborative thinking.

Whenever challenging pupils are moved, the traffic is almost always one-way, with popular schools transferring unwanted pupils to schools that are undersubscribed.

Alternatively, failure to work in partnership has meant that pupils have been dumped in pupil referral units - rather than supported for temporary periods - before returning to the mainstream.

But if the Government is serious about making the new partnerships work, it must deal head-on with tricky questions about how they fit with other key priorities.

School autonomy and collaboration are, according to the Government's five-year-strategy, the yin and yang of school reform.

While ministers have been energetic in promoting greater school independence, strategies to promote collaboration have been pursued with far less vigour.

Plenty of incentives have been given to schools to share ideas and practice, but when it comes to joint planning and provision it has been a case of "it's there if you want it and not if you don't".

Inevitably, when other pressures dominate school decision-making, most don't - as we have seen with school federations.

So what has changed? The Government would argue that the incentives for collaboration are now much greater. The idea that schools working in the new partnerships should take charge of funding and services hitherto controlled by the local education authority will no doubt appeal to many heads.

For heads already sold on collaboration, the main obstacle will be the cost of getting started. Allocating a portion of the leadership incentive grant for this purpose would probably strengthen the collaboration case. This is an option that the Secondary Heads Association has already put forward, but which the Government has resisted so far.

Schools that simply do not buy into the idea of collaboration on any meaningful level are a more significant obstacle.

There are plenty of popular schools that pay some dues to the agenda by supporting weaker schools in what may be termed "dependency relationships".

But as long as the league table culture dominates and schools compete for pupils, these schools are unlikely to embrace an initiative which in effect forces them to give equal priority to outcomes for pupils in neighbouring schools.

Yet the answer is staring us in the face.

If you want groups of schools to act together, you must create a framework in which they can be judged as one. The new partnerships should be encouraged to develop strong mechanisms for joint accountability.

That means more than simply creating a new collective accountability mechanism on top of what already exists. Groups of schools should be represented as a single entry in the league tables if they so wish.

Similarly, those that want to move towards a single partnership-wide Office for Standards in Education inspection should be able to do that.

Politicians might be scared of such a move because they think it could alienate parents who prioritise choice. But if collaboration could bring about a fairer distribution of difficult pupils, it could help to drive up attainment across the board and increase real choice.

Foundation schools, academies, faith and specialist schools could still be encouraged to follow diversity in terms of ethos, the curriculum and governance. It is simply that their missions must be brought into line.

Community should be at their heart.

If schools are to move successfully towards the joint commissioning and management of services, they need first to be transformed from disparate, competitive entities into coherent corporate partnerships.

To suggest that the unwilling could be coerced into doing that could lead to the proposed EIPs falling flat on their faces.

We need radical action to take the current collaboration agenda forward, and then successful partnership could reap large benefits. Of these, improved behaviour could be the biggest of all.

Jodie Reed is a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research

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