What a school says it does is often very different from what is actually achieved. This is frequently most true when it comes to the boast of "links with other schools" that features proudly on many school websites, newsletters and development plans.
The best schools I have visited - in Europe, Asia and North America - not only state this but they deliver on it, too. Some of the weakest schools I have visited say they make connections but don't; instead, they operate rather like work pods in vast open-plan offices, existing in the same area as other schools but rarely interacting.
Of course, schools have relationships with other "agencies" and could not function without them. These agencies can range from government, regional districts or social services to professional organisations (such as unions), consultants and educational providers (such as companies that offer professional development). But at a curriculum level, there is often too little interaction.
This is a great shame, because schools should mirror on an institutional level the behaviour they encourage in every outstanding lesson. Teachers learn best from other teachers, and schools should approach the establishment of strong, meaningful and sustainable links with other schools in much the same way that excellent teachers approach planning a lesson. This means:
- knowing at the start of the process what needs to be learned;
- agreeing on the learning outcomes;
- choosing a range of activities that will facilitate learning;
- building in differentiated tasks so that learning is accessible to all.
The timing must be right, both in terms of when you choose to start building these links and the demands made of those involved. One unexpected consequence of creating an effective network of schools is that morale among staff immediately improves. Each school has deep reservoirs of experience and many people will want to access it, but to be sought after and listened to as professionals by those outside the immediate school community is something that many teachers too rarely experience.
All this is easy to say, but how do you do it?
Creating links with other schools is relatively easy, but ensuring that they are sustained and are of genuine benefit to your school are quite separate challenges. However, if you embed the connections in a school improvement plan there is more chance that they will endure.
Take stock of what you've got
Start with a process of self-evaluation: where are you, what do you want to improve and how do you go about doing it? Consider innovative policies across the board - including curriculum, assessment, teaching and learning, governance and pastoral care - that will challenge existing models.
For example, when my school wanted to reinvigorate the curriculum, we decided to introduce the International Baccalaureate's middle years programme (MYP). Although we gained a great deal from working with the IB, its success with us was due in no small part to the network of schools that we tapped into: MYP teachers from other schools (in the UK and Europe) evaluated our schemes of work, advised heads of faculty and talked to parents and students.
It is extremely helpful to make "evidence of working with other schools" a mandatory target in every teacher's professional development plan. New technology can facilitate this. We used - and continue to use - Google tools to work collaboratively with our network of schools. I can't stress enough how transformative these have been. They are that rare thing in new technology: simple to use, collaborative to the core and, best of all, free. We have conducted Hangouts, created Google Communities, worked on collaborative schemes of work through Docs, shared data on Spreadsheets, filmed lessons and shared them on YouTube, and coordinated meetings on Calendar. We have also used Twitter and Facebook to begin conversations about pedagogy that inform our thinking every day.
But none of this is possible without the right person to lead the networking - and that person must have the time necessary to make a difference. Key requirements include diplomacy, the ability to organise others and a deep commitment to learning about pedagogy. The best networkers are insatiably curious, highly sociable and usually see "consolidation" as a euphemism for complacency.
We have introduced Harkness teaching from the US, Mandarin lessons (and teachers) from China, IB from all over the world, and many ideas surrounding new technology, assessment, well-being, emotional intelligence and service learning from a huge variety of schools. When we started this process, we were told by several school leaders in our sector that "sharing is dilution", but we have found the opposite to be true: sharing strengthens.
Dr David James is co-director of the Wellington College Teaching School Partnership
Broaden horizons - yours and students' - by building bridges to the big wide world. bit.lyForgingLinks.