Schools that pull together, succeed together, says Gerald Haigh
Schools networking is one of the declared values of Excellence in Cities. It just makes sense: whatever works in one school is worth sharing with other schools in the area. Heads agree that across the main EiC strands - provision for gifted and talented children, learning mentors, city learning centres - success springs from a collaborative approach. Learning mentors meet each other; so do co-ordinators for gifted and talented provision.
Andy Wynne, manager of the South Sheffield City Learning Centre, sees his and other CLCs as an important arena for the sharing of professionalism.
"It's very much tapping into expertise of teachers and getting them to share," he says. "We bring teachers together from a number of schools to develop curriculum content and to improve ICT skills."
All such initiatives are best driven from the bottom up. This seems to be accepted wisdom in Sheffield, which has a tradition of encouraging schools to work together. To this end, headteachers across the city are using the specialist schools initiative to build a network of schools with different, complementary specialisms.
It was also decided in Sheffield to tackle provision for gifted and talented children by putting schools together in groups of three - one high performing school, one less so, and one facing real challenges.
Edward Wydenbach is head of Myrtle Springs secondary school, working, and making progress, alongside two higher performing schools. The children and the staff meet for combined activities and for residential experiences, some of which involve schools across the country. Although it's natural to assume that the benefits of co-operation accrue mainly to the professionalism of staff, Mr Wydenbach is just as impressed by the effect on children.
"When our children go to a higher performing school, and give us the feedback," he says, "it's striking how they realise that the other children they meet are just like them. They are made to feel that interest in their subject is legitimate. For example, one girl in our Year 10 is particularly able in maths, and she's realised that her interest in maths is normal and that others are equally interested."
This enhances their self-esteem and expectation about what they can acheive, so that Myrtle Springs children are now involved in expeditions, residentials and national get-togethers in universities that once would have seemed out of their reach for both social and educational reasons.
Networking is perhaps more overt in excellence clusters (officially described as those areas "designed to bring the benefits of Excellence in Cities to small pockets of deprivation"). In the Walsall Excellence Cluster, which brings together 20 schools, primary school co-ordinators for gifted and talented provision work closely together with secondary colleagues across the cluster, sharing good practice and exchanging ideas.
Primary heads believe that this work has contributed to a significant improvement in key stage 2 Sats scores at the higher levels. Bob Szpalek, head of Darlaston community school and chair of the cluster, sees similar progress in the secondary phase.
"There's no doubt the additional funds have helped raise attainment. The recent GCSE results for the cluster showed a greater rate of improvement than the rate of improvement in the rest of the borough."
Activity across the Walsall cluster also extends into school management.
Two cluster schools, Darlaston and Frank F Harrison, now combine senior management meetings. Collaboration across the cluster has now increased to the point where a cluster manager has been appointed with the task of co-ordinating and tracking it all.
The clear message is that schools want to work together. They'll compete where it's necessary, but they have never relished the more cut-throat aspects of the battle for parental choice.
Graham Harris, assistant head at Darlaston, says, "Several years ago there was a competitive edge to things, linked to the coming of local management of schools and the demise of LEA advisory services. Schools were increasingly isolated and collaboration declined. Now, schools have found ways of working around that and coming together. There's an immense will to collaborate with colleagues in other schools and make use of their expertise."
School leaders of like mind - and there are many - see EiC as a vehicle for bringing that philosophy to fruition.
As Myrtle Springs head Edward Wydenbach says, "We've learned that national initiatives are more successful when they are owned and managed at school level. The EiC has worked because the schools have had a lot of say in how a national initiative is run at the level of schools and groups of schools."