International networking provides schools not only with overseas connections, but also with a wealth of different ideas and perspectives, writes Nic Barnard
The bottom line, David Jackson says, is this: "Whatever you are trying to do, you're not building on a greenfield site. There will be other people who have wrestled with these issues." Increasingly, he adds, those people are abroad. Mr Jackson, the National College for School Leadership's director of networked learning, is talking about the growing number of schools in this country that are looking overseas for inspiration in raising standards, whether working with schools abroad or drawing on the research of networks around the globe.
It is, he says, "inevitable" that a programme like this will start to cross international boundaries in the search for what works. Networks are, after all, only following the Government's example after seeing Michael Barber, former head of the Prime Minister's delivery unit, scour the world to devise the literacy and numeracy hours.
"This week I was in Barnsley," he says. "Staff here have just gone on a study visit to America to inform the development work they're doing. We've got significant numbers of networks that have gone to study in different countries - South Africa, America, Australia."
What proponents of international networking argue is that schools benefit not so much from the specific work they do, or the solutions they find to particular problems, but from the way they work, and the approaches they bring to collaboration.
For Mary Rose, who runs the independent International Learning and Research Centre near Bristol, it forces teachers to look again at their own values and beliefs. In the process, they gain a richer, deeper insight. Since 2003, she has linked six primary and secondary schools on the outskirts of Bristol with six schools in Malta for a programme of teacher-led research focused initially on leadership and, more recently, on pupil participation.
The scaffolding for the collaboration was a series of pupil projects, including an arts performance involving secondary pupils which was mainly developed and rehearsed via the internet. But behind that, staff were engaged in research on spreading leadership roles throughout the schools and on giving pupils a greater voice. As a former British colony, Malta's school system is like an older version of the UK's; it still has the 11-plus and single-sex secondary education, and staffing is more hierarchical.
The collaboration, teachers say, has helped crystallise their thinking about distributed leadership - where schools move away from traditional hierarchies and give greater autonomy and leadership roles to junior or classroom staff. But they were also inspired by the close-knit Maltese community and the role schools played.
Andy Leggatt, head of Longwell Green primary, in Bristol, which has won awards for its international work, says: "We pride ourselves on our partnership with parents and yet the school isn't such an integral part of the community (as in Malta); I don't think many UK schools are. In some ways there seems to be a more holistic view of children's education in Malta than here, where the standards agenda has tended to predominate in recent years. That has given us a huge area to ponder and hopefully change and adapt."
Ms Rose says she has observed a regular pattern whenever teachers find themselves in a foreign environment. "They go through that excitement of being in a different place and seeing things done differently," she says.
"Then they go through a stage of seeing things that are similar to their own practice. Then they go through a stage of it all being too different, and they reject it."
Yet, they can see that something in this alternative system is working, she says. "So they really have to confront their own values. What do we believe in, philosophically? What do we know about teaching and learning? What can we learn from these people, what are they doing, what's the ethos? That's the process people go through, and it's quite tough, it's quite challenging."
The result, though, is schools that are better equipped to meet new challenges, such as the rapid changes brought about by the Every Child Matters agenda, she says.
Technology has revolutionised the potential for international collaboration - but only up to a point. Network leaders say there is no substitute for personal contact. "Face-to-face contact is really important," Mr Jackson says. "Subsequently, you can sustain that relationship online."
The NCSL has itself looked overseas for inspiration, drawing on international research into the benefits of networking around the globe from Canada to Pakistan. Networks in the UK can now add to that cache of information; North American education consultant Ann Kilcher says she is trying to set up networks in the United States based on the British networked learning community model. "Most networks in the US have tended to be top down," she says.
Many are set up by universities or government bodies who invite schools to join and involve comparatively little inter-school collaboration. By contrast, networks in the UK may be state funded but typically develop organically, from the grass roots. "I think everybody can learn from English schools."
Mr Jackson sees the US as offering fertile ground for collaboration - but not for replication. "In America, there's a huge trend, which we don't have in this country, towards smaller schools, where you take a large high school, say of 2,000 pupils, and convert it into four schools of 500. We can bring that learning back not to apply its model but to draw on its lessons," he says.
And that underlines his basic point. It's not what you do in international networks as the way that you do it.