Networked learning communities give staff across the board a chance to take the lead, writes Martin Whittaker
She is just 23 and only in her second year of primary teaching, but Jenny Allen is already honing her leadership skills. She was chosen to become an "ICT innovator" in a network of schools in Manchester, a post that allows her up to three hours a week of non-contact time to visit other schools, share ideas and coach and mentor colleagues on the use of technology in the classroom.
"We meet once a term at a different school and get to see what the school does at first hand," she says. "I've had guidance from heads, deputies and teachers with years of experience. I never would have been introduced to these people if I'd been just a class teacher."
Her school, Ashbury Meadow primary in Manchester, is part of the National College for School Leadership's networked learning communities programme.
The network grew out of established school partnerships that were part of the east Manchester education action zone.
Enid Bell, a network co-leader, says it has had a big impact on the use of technology in schools and brought new leadership roles. Those appointed to the network include newly-qualified teachers, classroom assistants, experienced teachers and managers.
"The ICT innovators have really blossomed," says Ms Allen. "It's fascinating to see high-school teachers in the nursery school, seeing how much they learn from the experience."
The initiative, now almost two years old, was set up to raise standards and bring together clusters of schools, local education authorities, higher education and the wider community. Today 130 networks cover 93 LEAs and involve some 1,500 schools.
Research into the effectiveness of the networks is thin as yet. A study for the National Foundation for Educational Research last year found that there is limited evidence of "what works". But an in-depth evaluation of the programme has now been commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills.
Some networks operate under slogans such as "working smarter together, not harder alone". But Gene Payne, assistant director of the programme, says schools need to see beyond the rhetoric to the real benefits.
"One of the strongest things we are getting from these networks is that they can dream bigger dreams," he says. "They go for it, whereas on their own they might not. They are doing innovative stuff and feel confident about taking it forward."
Examples include a Bristol network, Excel, which offers philosophy in primary schools. Another, in a Leicester education action zone, has pupils pairing up across primary and secondary schools to improve their literacy.
But Mr Payne warns that some networks get bogged down with structures, committees and steering groups when the last thing teachers need is more bureaucracy. Research on existing partnerships, though, has helped the programme team to nip problems in the bud. A framework, Levels of Learning, was designed to help overcome bureaucracy and focus on learning. Mr Payne says the benefits outweigh the problems and that collaboration has opened up many leadership possibilities.
"There are many new roles - leadership roles, expertise roles, consultants across a whole network," he says.
"These are new forms of leadership - new because they are not bound by an individual organisation. So you might not be head of maths in a school, but you might be maths co-ordinator across the network."
This is raising teachers' morale, he says. Some 30 per cent of the NCSL's networks have found that the scheme has helped teacher retention. "Heads tell us there are older members of staff who are completely revitalised because of this focus on learning," he says.
An NCSL report prepared for a recent American Educational Research Association conference in San Diego found that leadership can take on whole new dimensions in a networked learning community, but heads have to learn to let go.
Networks have set up groups of active middle-leaders who are most effective when they are seen as working colleagues rather than management, says the report. It continues: "Teachers may feel they can say things to a middle-leader that they would not say to a manager."
A group of schools applying to become a network must designate people for the role of "co-leader". The aim is to ensure that no single head or school dominates, while the title is in keeping with the ethos of shared leadership.
Most networks have two or three co-leaders, but most of those in schools are still heads. The report warns of potential pitfalls, particularly if there is a lack of commitment from heads. Some networks have refused to sign partnership agreements because of unequal commitment from school leaders. Yet too much central involvement of heads in networks can block others' involvement. The report says heads tend to relinquish operational involvement over time, allowing teachers to take the lead. But much depends on trust.
The report warns that sharing leadership but not abdicating responsibility is challenging. Indeed, it quotes one head who reflects on the growth of his networked learning community: "It's uncomfortable when you're not in control any more."