On the same wavelength
Daniel Lee looks at the Think First network for answers
It may seem strange for a group of teachers to be discussing their deepest emotions at a school tucked away in a new housing development in the small West Sussex coastal town of Rustington. With its neat classes and more than 400 pupils, Summerlea seems fairly similar to so many other primaries around the country.
But the tantalisingly close brine smells and waves of the nearby beaches have not been getting to the teachers' minds. The meeting is all part of the Think First Networked Learning Community (NLC), set up with funding of pound;50,000 per year for the first 36 months from the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) in 2002. The NLC is made up of seven primary schools scattered around West Sussex.
"One of the things we were able to do as a network was find out what the issues were for everyone," says Brian Ball, Summerlea head and one of Think First's leaders. "What emerged strongly from all the schools was an interest in emotional intelligence - understanding that people, both staff and pupils, are often not acting with logic as their motivation.
Among other things, understanding this enables you to perform the crucial task of putting self-evaluation forms (SEFs) in context. If you are developing emotionally intelligent children and teachers it enables everyone to re-assess constantly what you are doing."
The SEF states that it wants an assessment of "personal development and well-being, since these outcomes will form the basis for your judgments in other sections". And it is clear that all the elements of emotional intelligence - self-awareness, managing emotions, motivation, empathy and social skills - are key factors in maintaining an effective school.
But the NLC has helped the Think First network in other more obvious ways.
Mr Ball explains: "Think First headteachers have met to discuss and share examples of self-evaluation materials they'd used or planned to use. These included: questionnaires to parents, pupils and staff; pupil voice exercises and "learning walks"; local authority advisory service research on parent, pupil, teacher, headteacher and governor views of school leadership, organisation, and quality of teaching and learning."
"We are able to share data, information and methods of completing self-evaluations. At school inspections, heads from other schools in the network are able to confirm community roles. My own school's approach to SEF completion is now totally different, with as many as 20 staff, including teachers, teaching assistants and administrators, helping with various sections."
Think First group meetings have included a part-time local authority-seconded head, a trained Ofsted inspector, a Centre for British Teachers head, and members who expected an imminent inspection of their schools. This was exactly the original intention of the NCSL when it launched the NLC programme four years ago. It wanted to encourage groups of "schools working collaboratively in partnership with local authorities, higher education institutions and the wider community, to improve opportunities and raise standards for their pupils", to quote from its own literature.
Teachers involved in networks are keen to emphasise that the working arrangements help ensure that the natural competition between schools in the same area is constructive for, rather than critical of, rivals. This is particularly important, bearing in mind that many networks are concerned to draw their members from a relatively small geographical area, so that logistics do not become too complicated or time-consuming.
This is not an issue for Think First. "We choose members not for their geographical locations, but because we share views,"
Mr Ball says. "This common view has enabled us to do some major work onCPD - connecting the curriculum was a main theme - and other concerns, such as timetabling."
Think First has set up focus groups, peopled by representatives of the seven schools, to handle specific issues, such as assessment for learning and thinking skills. Focus groups distribute their findings throughout all the schools in the network. One of its most successful ventures was the market place. "We asked all the network's teachers and teaching assistants to bring along one thing that works for them in the classroom. It was a fantastic way of exchanging knowledge."
In another innovation, a newly qualified teacher at Summerlea teamed up with an experienced teacher in another school to develop a shared code for children to assess their own work. The pair came up with a portfolio of assessment and self-assessment techniques to distribute to all schools in the network. Children also visit each other's schools with teachers to look at how the other schools handle different aspects of learning.
Think First is not the only network to be taking its facts and figures to heart. Madcos (Maghull and district cluster of schools), comprising 13 primaries and three secondary schools near Sefton, north of Liverpool, has taken innovation to high-tech levels. "We were given the opportunity of becoming involved in a pilot of electro self-assessment and we passed it out to all the headteachers and assessment co-ordinators in the cluster,"
says Frank Driessen, one of the NLC's leaders and the head of St Andrews primary. "We did training and had meetings to analyse how effective it was.
This became the assessment software developed by Tricostar, now commercially available throughout the UK."
As well as providing useful knowledge and shared good practice, NLCs encourage schools to get their problems into perspective, look outwards and speed decision-making. This has been the experience of the Gung Ho network of eight Midlands primaries in Sandwell and Dudley, linked to an education action zone.
Gung Ho has an annual year-long rolling programme of assessment, with each teacher involved visiting other schools in the network, dealing with an array of issues, such as pandas (Ofsted's performance and assessment reports), covering the context of standards and value-added measures, to help analyse problems and present solutions.
Jan Campbell, local learning community director and a member of the network, explains: "We use partnered learning walks, where two schools work together over a period of a term. Two teachers at a similar level, depending on the issues we are dealing with at the time, are identified from each school and each one visits the other's school. They would also use an accompanying text, such as The jigsaw of a successful school: 12 essential pieces", by Tim Brighouse, chief adviser to London schools.
"This structure helps them involve staff in discussions on a set agenda, dealing with issues ranging from management of classrooms to the curriculum and data handling. Once you are working with people you trust, you don't mind them coming to your school because you know they are there to support not criticise you. From that we can start a new process of self-evaluation taking external views as well as internal views.
"It is easy for teaching staff to get bogged down in their own problems and having outside intervention helps clarify thoughts."
Meanwhile, back at Summerlea, Mr Ball is getting ready to move on to an even bigger know-how and good-practice sharing project. Teachers' TV is filming the working and meetings of the Think First network.
DIY: SET UP A NETWORK
1 How will you fund it, to pay for research and supply teachers totake classes during meetings and fact-finding missions? Brian Ball says: "We have been invited to other areas to talk about networking and we will charge to fund our network." Estimates of necessary funding vary from pound;1,500 to pound;2,500 per school in a network. A way to raise this is through the school paying money into a network fund. Funding may be forthcoming from local organisations, such as the local authority.
2 A strong leadership team.
3 The ability to communicate.
4 Commitment as well as the willingness and ability to develop this commitment.
5 A willingness to share.
7 A shared ethos, says Tony Powell, a consultant educationist who was the senior primary adviser for Sefton council.
9 "An involvement with national initiatives, such as the strategy for primary schools," Mr Powell says. "If you have a subject focus then you can share initiatives."
10 Recognise it is a partnership, but make sure there are people "who do the practical things, the agendas, the calling of the next meeting, as well as people who will come up with the big ideas".
The Janus NLC, grouping 10 primaries just north of Liverpool, is also working on emotional intelligence to enable it to evaluate its work effectively.
But the network also helps the schools deal with more specific issues, explains David Walker, headteacher at Churchtown and a group leader. "The NLC was very helpful for: developing middle management; handling transfers from reception to year one; and raising standards in boys writing, using ICT and e-books, which requires pupil tracking data.
"We want innovation to come from the grass roots. It is important for teachers to be involved in training and modifying practice.
There was a lot of sharing so that larger schools could support smaller schools. It is useful for staff and children to visit schools in other parts of our area to improve their work. Overall, the NLC has made up for shrinking LEA support."