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Take your partners by the hand

Teachers would love to spend more time learning from each other. New 'networked communities' will allow them to do just that, reports Phil Revell

IMAGINE a learning community, where teachers become researchers, find out what works in the classroom and spread the message to other schools. That is the vision behind this week's announcement of a multi-million-pound professional development programme.

The scheme is being steered by the National College for School Leadership in Nottingham and funded by the Department for Education and Skills. The college is inviting groups of schools - in partnership with other bodies such as further education colleges, universities, local authorities and community groups - to set up "networked learning communities" as part of a four-year pilot. Each network will get pound;50,000 a year in matched funding (see box).

"We need to find new ways of doing old things," says David Jackson, director of research and school improvement at the national college. "If you go into a school and run an audit - asking what teachers think of the meetings in their school - there's uniform dissatisfaction ... But if you ask teachers whether they would like time together to share professional knowledge, study each other's practice, they say 'Yes please'."

Despite the college's focus on leadership the scheme does not specifically target headteachers, an approach that reflects the college's belief that leadership is not something that should be confined to the head's office.

"The college has a commitment to certain models of leadership," says Jackson. "One of those is distributed leadership. We need to move away from the hero-leader model. Fundamentally, leadership is an emancipatory activity - it's about unlocking potential."

The template for the programme is the Bedfordshire School Improvement Partnership, a successful network now in its third year of operation. The programme grew out of an attempt to kick-start collaborative working among upper schools in the county. Seven schools decided to work together in 1999, putting more than pound;3,000 each into a common pot and developing shared approaches to professional development.

"It was quite a commitment," says the programme's co-ordinator Louise Raymond, a deputy head on a one-year secondment to the project. "In the second year all 17 upper schools in the county joined the partnership and we now have 22 middle schools on board as well."

The Bedfordshire group has organised local conferences with high-profile speakers and helped schools find consultants and higher-education partners for specific training needs. But the main focus has been on practical, classroom-based research, by teachers and, even more unusually, pupils. In Bedfordshire, pupils have become classroom observers, giving feedback to staff on how lessons went and contributing to the professional development process.

The programme has 200 students and 20 teachers working on projects that include: classroom practice, teaching styles, student facilities, the personal, social and health education programme offered by schools and the development of trainee teachers. "There's some fantastic enquiry work going on," says Ms Raymond.

The Bedfordshire partnership even employs a full-time researcher, and the national college hopes that its networks will also be able to work with professional researchers. The college will support the programme and be responsible for spreading good practice from one network to the next.

"Schools could buy researcher time or develop a relationship with an institution that can provide that support," says Mr Jackson. "We can work with them in the early stages but down the line they might say 'We can do this better than you'."

For more information contact the National College for School Leadership's Networked Learning Communities team on 0115 846 6848 or visit the NCSL website at www.ncsl.org.uk

HOW TO FORM A NETWORK

* Networked learning communities must involve at least six schools, working together with a partner institution such as an FE college or university * Matched funding of pound;50,000 a year over three years is available. Schools may use existing training budgets including Standards Fund cash for their half of the funding * Projects could include: investigating new teaching methods, professional development, "action" research, coaching, study sessions, headteacher networks, consultancy support * The closing date for applications is March 29, 2002. The first networked learning communities will be launched in September 2002. A second group will operate from September 2003. Applicants will be required to return a statement of intent by the March 29 deadline and a full submission by December 31

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