Talk to Kate Bond about her role as a facilitator to nine network learning communities in and around Manchester, and one phrase comes up time and again. In the four years since she took the job, she says, she has been "a critical friend" - someone who is always at the end of a phone to offer support and advice, but who is not afraid to ask challenging questions when needs be. For the right sort of person, with the right sort of people skills, the friendship bit might seem relatively easy - a case, perhaps, of persuading busy professionals that you are a reliable source of wisdom, with the contacts and the experience to bring people and ideas together. Of course, you must be sensitive at all times to the needs and preoccupations of network leaders, always bearing in mind that, while your priority might be arranging an inter-network bash, they might be enduring a week of Sats, or girding their loins for an imminent Ofsted inspection.
But once you have won their respect - by demonstrating, for example, that you can organise a launch event for 500 adults without batting an eyelid - then being a friend might be every bit as pleasurable and rewarding as it sounds. The "critical" bit, on the other hand, might require a facilitator to be made of sterner stuff.
Michel Laurent-Regisse, who in 2003 became a facilitation team leader across the Midlands, says: "You think you know what facilitation is until you start to do it. Then you have to learn that it's a whole new skill set.
"Establishing credibility is pretty important, and you often do this through the quality of challenge you offer. Network leaders will learn from the kind of provoking questions you will leave them with."
When the going gets tough, says Kate Bond, a facilitator is often called upon to help networks have what she calls "difficult conversations". And frequently, those conversations arise when one or more members find that their needs and priorities have changed.
"A number of my networks have asked me to help them because they want to be able to say to colleagues that it's okay if they don't want to be in the team any more - perhaps because, while they were really into ICT, they now want to be into pupil voice.
"You need to consider these difficult questions - you can't just ignore them. So I'm sure my networks would say that there have been points when I've been quite challenging as well as supportive."
And in all honesty, even the friendship bit can be hard work to begin with.
On leaving Oxford, Ms Bond spent four years working as a Year 6 teacher at a school near Burnley. And at 28, she became one of the youngest network facilitators. "You're working mostly with experienced headteachers, and I only had four years teaching experience. So to me, one of the most important things was to be able to carry with me stories about what other networks had done."
Ms Bond believes that creating opportunities for network leaders to get together and talk to each other and share experience has been a critical aspect of her job - what Michel Laurent-Regisse describes as "being a knowledge broker".
"It's developing strands for learning for people that you have to get to know really well," he says. "The relationship side of it is critical and the capacity to be able to make effective and appropriate judgments about their school improvement needs is critical, so that you're accessing the right sorts of learning and not engaging in something that is so esoteric that it will have no effect.
"It must be rigorous enough to make them feel that they are moving forward in a different sort of way from the more operational side of national strategy. And it's about learning how to capitalise on individual schools and school leaders' intentions, based on their own expertise and experience. In other words, growing from within."
Ms Bond agrees. "My role has really been about building leadership capacity to help networks lead themselves," she says. "That's why it's been so enjoyable, because I've seen good headteachers become very good network leaders, and teaching assistants take on leadership responsibilities right across a network of schools. I have been really fortunate to work alongside them on their journey of coming together as a network. It's been about growing, trying out new ideas and working innovatively to help schools to work together.
"I have been able to observe what they've done, and help them examine and develop and improve their own practice. I have been able to watch it, but also ask questions. And to be a critical friend."
Hilary Berry, head of Overhall community school in Winsford and a co-leader of the Winsford Networked Learning Community, believes that a facilitator brings rigour to the network's endeavours, reminding members of their focus and giving a structure to what they do. "Kate Bond has been inspirational and creative in the way she has promoted fresh ideas and new ways of thinking and working," she says. "Her enthusiasm, energy and determination have really shaken us up - in the nicest possible way."
Karen Richardson, head of Greenfield's primary school, Winsford, agrees.
"Kate established effective working relations with us, so she feels part of us and our network. But she has maintained sufficient distance to enable her to be our critical friend."
What do network leaders get up to when they get together with like-minded adults? Do they really sit around playing party games? Is there any truth in all those rumours about speed dating? "These are busy people," says Michel Laurent-Regisse, "thoroughly enmeshed in the dailiness of school life. The art of facilitation is about introducing them to deep-level learning with structures and forms that are immediately accessible."
In other words, party games.
But as Kate Bond points out, these are simply a means to an end - the end being to help people at a large gathering to find out what knowledge is available for sharing in the shortest possible time.
KATE BOND'S TOP THREE GAMES FOR GETTING NETWORKS WORKING
A card-sorting activity. Get people to agree on the three most important statements on the cards, placing the most important card at the top and the least important at the bottom. "The modern view is that kids need to be talking to each other to be learning, and the same principle applies to adults. People learn a lot more when they talk among themselves."
The World Cafe
Sit people around tables with white tablecloths. Get each table to discuss the same issue, and to write notes on the tablecloth. Every 10 minutes, all move round, continuing the conversation and adding to the notes left by the table's previous occupants. "This enables lots of different people to go quite deep into a question."
Give each network 15 minutes to think about what they would ideally like to learn from another network. Then give them 25 minutes to split up and circulate, all the time fishing for that vital expertise. "It's a way of getting to know a lot of other networks and finding out what they know in a very quick period of time."