It's good to network
After years of trying to lock schools into a Darwinian struggle for survival, policy-makers seem to have realised that competition can only go so far towards raising educational standards.
From Excellence in Cities to school federations, the thrust of recent education initiatives has been to get schools to work more closely together (see TES, March 7).
This has struck a chord with teachers, according to David Jackson, director of networked learning at the National College for School Leadership (NCSL).
"We come into teaching because we care about children," he said.
"We care about the children within the system ... and being able to work collaboratively in their interests is exciting and motivating."
The response to the NCSL's own networked learning communities programme supports the view that schools prefer collaboration. The college originally envisaged that the programme would involve just four to 12 networks. But after David Jackson and his team talked about the idea at conferences last year, they received almost 150 submissions.
The first 50 networks of between six and 25 schools were formed last September. A further 44 networks recently started, taking the number of schools involved to more than 1,000. By the closing date for submissions for the third round two weeks ago, the college had received another 170 applications.
It is up to each network to decide how its members share resources and learn from and with each other. This has allowed them to come up with some interesting ideas - the Maghull and district cluster of 14 primaries and three secondaries in Merseyside, for example, is getting Years 6 and 7 pupils to keep an "awe and wonder" diary of activities funded by the network, such as trips abroad and mountain climbing.
One of the few things the national college does insist on is "co-leadership", so that one school does not end up imposing its own solutions on the rest. This means that most networks have two leaders, usually from different schools.
Each network receives up to pound;50,000 from the NCSL every year for three years, provided they match that sum themselves. For the schools in the South Birmingham network, which do not qualify for Excellence in Cities or urban regeneration funding, this money has made a real difference. Some of it has gone on research visits. For example, next half term two teachers will be visiting a Chicago school which has become an "honorary" network member.
The five junior schools and one primary in the South Birmingham network are sharing resources and expertise in three main areas: accelerated learning, thinking skills and information and communication technology. Several members of staff are being paid to co-ordinate activities and to organise staff development across the network.
Although setting up the network was more time-consuming than the six headteachers had expected, they are getting as much out of it as their staff, according to Sue Barratt, head of Bourneville junior and co-leader of the network. "Setting up the network has been a tremendous learning experience," she said.
Network schools have found that they have far more bargaining power when buying equipment than they would have had alone. "The more you get into this programme, the more you wonder why people hadn't thought of it years ago," Sue Barratt said.
One reason the South Birmingham network is flourishing is that the schools involved are not competing for pupils. But nationally it remains to be seen if collaboration can thrive alongside league tables, open enrolment and funding for individual schools.