All systems go
The conference delegates sit in a group discussing how work is assessed in the classroom. One says that the trouble with peer assessment is that if pupils do it with their friends, they are biased. "They will just give good comments," she says. "It would be better to do it with people they're not friendly with." Another suggests that it might be better if completed work was handed out for assessment around the class anonymously. "Then, they wouldn't know whose they're marking," she says, to murmurs of agreement.
Other groups are working on similar tasks, discussing ways of making learning challenging and more interesting and how to improve feedback on pupils' work. Then they head back to the main hall and, with flip charts and overhead projector, each group presents its ideas to 80 delegates.
But these are not teachers - they are pupils. Once a year a network of primary and secondary schools in the London borough of Redbridge holds a pupil conference on assessment for learning. And this is not a token event, a nod to the notion of pupil voice. Their ideas are fed back into the classroom. For example, all 33 schools in the assessment for learning network use a traffic light system for self-assessment after the children said they liked it. Pupils hold up a green light if they fully understand something, amber if they partly understand, or red if they are completely baffled.
Pupil conferences are just one aspect of schools networking in the borough.
Redbridge networked learning community is the biggest school collaboration in the country - 52 primary, secondary and special schools and Redbridge education authority are in the partnership. The network arose out of schools' dissatisfaction with their LEA, which, in 2000 was criticised by Ofsted. While its secondary schools have consistently been among the most successful in the country, the inspection said senior officers had failed to consult heads or develop services in partnership with them. As the newly energised authority began to increase its support to schools, at the same time the National College for School Leadership began promoting networked learning communities.
The borough's schools have since collaborated on a range of themes, including pupil mobility, arts and creativity, P-scales for those key stage 1 pupils who are not yet working at a level 1, and assessment for learning.
This partnership work with the latter has helped raise teaching standards in some of the borough's less successful schools. (See case study, left) "We have massively invested in introducing assessment for learning networks into them," says Sir Alan Steer, network co-leader and head of Ilford's Seven Kings high school. "And the heads have been euphoric after a change of cultures and learning skills."
He says that school improvement through collaboration is not a case of a successful school marching in and showing how it should be done: "It's not a healthy long-term relationship. Also, a school that perhaps needs input also needs self-confidence, and there's no self-confidence in purely being a victim."
He stresses that the partnership offers mutual benefits. His own school, although successful, has picked up good practice from others, such as pupil conferences. "We do them regularly on a structured timetabled basis, talking to kids about their learning experience in the classroom."
The idea of schools working together to raise standards and improve results for children has been around for a long time, but has gained momentum in recent years. School networks now take a variety of forms. The National College for School Leadership's Networked Learning Communities programme involved more than 1,500 schools, 43,000 teachers and nearly 700,000 children.
An evaluation of the programme found that networked schools did better than non-networked schools in the percentage of pupils achieving five or more A* to C grades at GCSE. Data shows that it boosted value added measures, while schools believed it was an important factor in improving behaviour, attainment and motivation.
The Department for Education and Skills has tried to focus the broad spectrum of collaboration with the concept of Education Improvement Partnerships, not just to improve struggling schools but in a variety of contexts, such as extending curriculum choices to 14 to 19-year-olds and improving behaviour.
Schools have also seen the rise of the "critical friend", with school improvement partners - a current or recent head who supports other schools and helps raise standards.
One partnership model fast gaining ground is the federation. The 2002 Education Act allowed for the creation of a single governing body across two or more schools. The national college has also been exploring new models of school leadership, challenging the assumption that every school needs its own headteacher. Some of its latest research examines the role the executive head can play in turning around failing or struggling schools.
One such school leader is John Baumber, executive principal of the Brook Learning Partnership. He was head at the successful Rivington and Blackrod high school in Bolton. Two years ago a failing neighbour, Deane school, was closed after spending three years in special measures. It re-opened as a restart school under a new name, Ladybridge high school, a new leadership team and half the teaching staff replaced. Mr Baumber now presides over the partnership of Rivington and Blackrod high and Ladybridge in an executive role. He says the benefits of the two schools working in partnership have included increasing the number of curriculum options post-16, and sharing vocational subjects such as catering and construction.
"Now it's a real partnership," he says. "And I would say that Rivington learns as much from Ladybridge as Ladybridge learns from Rivington."
Was it perceived by Ladybridge as a successful school coming in and telling staff how to do it? "It didn't quite work like that. We appointed a principal for both schools, so I have an executive position.
"It's important that each school has its own identity, because they are very different communities. One of the research findings from NCSL is that it's a mistake when we are improving schools in this way to just embed the same culture on the same community of schools. It totally disempowers it.
So although we have common systems, the interpretation of those systems is really very much down to the principal and staff in each school."
Last year, Ladybridge's GCSE results improved from 25 per cent achieving five A*-C GCSEs to 31 per cent. This year the school's target is 37 per cent. And a monitoring inspection report in January found the school is improving, with better attendance, more challenging lessons and improved relationships in the classroom.
"It's early days," he says. "But for me the bit that gives me confidence is going in every day and feeling the change in culture. And you know when you feel that, that everything will play through in the end."