Gene Payne tells Alison Shepherd why school networks create vehicles for shared thinking that are far more than the sum of their parts
There is nothing new in like-minded professionals meeting up to pick each other's brains or sound out ideas. But that informal conversation over a cuppa or a glass of something has now acquired the full gravitas of academic research and the structures and jargon to go with it. "There's something about networks that is morally-driven. It allows people to get together to dream bigger dreams. To deal with higher order issues and really consider how to solve those problems," says Gene Payne, a man at the centre of turning natters into networks in England's schools.
As a director with the National College for School Leadership (NCSL), Mr Payne was instrumental in setting up the Networked Learning Communities (NLC) programme in 2002, with money from the Department for Education and Skills and 40 networks. Originally, the department agreed to fund up to 10 networks, but after the NCSL team were inundated with more than 200 applications, it agreed to provide cash initially for the top 40. These covered the widest possible spread both in terms of the geography and the issues covered. Now there are more than 130 NLC collaborations involving 1,500 schools and many education authorities, universities and other agencies, with the NCSL acting as the hub of the network of networks.
The pound;50,000 a year given to the programme networks runs out this summer, but as the supported networks had to prove their sustainability, most should survive. The college's advice and support will continue to be available online, including the magazine Nexus, as well as guidance, research and practical resources, and the web-based online community, Learning Networks Exchange.
But how was the DfES persuaded to spend so much money a year to support networks? Mr Payne, who is now a network consultant, says the answer is not hard to come by: "Education is incredibly complex. So much comes at teachers from so many different angles, they feel all they can do is hang on in there and come back to what they know. A single school can feel vulnerable to change, but networks can give them the confidence to search for more innovative solutions. There is a lot of professional expertise out there that networks can draw in."
He uses the analogy of a prototype show car to explain the value of a good network, not only on its own terms, but for others. "A concept car is one that will never get to full production, but so many bits of it will go mainstream and turn up elsewhere. You take what you need on to further models, creating a constant knowledge flow."
But none of this would presumably have had much impact on the DfES if it wasn't accompanied by the vast body of evidence that shows that this "creative wisdom of crowds" can have a huge impact on the standards achieved by pupils as well as on the professional development of their teachers.
There is also the little matter of the education white paper, which introduces the idea of trust schools, which could involve the federation of schools under an executive head acting as a single, networked organisation.
The NLC programme could have been based on the folk wisdom that tells us a "problem shared is a problem halved" but, fortunately, it has been given academic ballast thanks to the Theory of Networks which is used in conjunction with the Management of Change Theory.
As Mr Payne explains it, for networks to be effective, they have to be planned using the six levels of learning: think of the child's learning needs; the learning needs of adults working with the child; the needs of managers supporting those adults and children; what does the whole school already know; what do other schools know; what do other networks know?
"Some teachers do not know what the teacher in the next classroom is doing, let alone in the next school," he says. "It is amazing how professionals can understand how children learn, yet fail to use that when looking at adults. How many schools think that teachers will learn just by posting something up on a noticeboard?"
Once the levels have been sorted, next comes the three Fields of Knowledge.
Surprisingly, these are not features of the Garden of Eden, but a way of corralling information: what does global research show; what do you already know; what new knowledge is being generated?
Now, this may sound like a great deal of extra work for teachers who often feel they don't have time to draw breath, but rather than feeling more burdened, Mr Payne says it can give them a whole new lease of life. "Some of the stories of individual teachers are staggering. Networks can liberate their professionalism in many ways. They can break through the levels and hierarchies found in schools giving everyone more opportunities to shine and make a contribution. New teachers or teaching assistants and other para-professionals who may not always feel part of the school often take the lead and discover and develop new skills," he says, proud of the fact many of the members of the NLC have been promoted: heads to directors of education; teachers to senior managers, thanks to their network experience.
It also seems to play a part in increasing staff retention.
"Staff can start off motivated, but can leave quickly if they can see no opportunity within their school for movement. Networks allow them to work in different ways on projects they have volunteered for, increasing their scope and knowledge without having to move schools."
The hope of the NCSL is that this level of motivation, both for adults and children, will continue. And that long after the money has been turned off schools will continue to tap into the flow of knowledge created by networks.