Is partnership working between schools another passing government initiative or the fundamental shift needed to improve standards further? I believe it is the latter.
The evidence becomes increasingly unequivocal: there is a clear partnership dividend. Independent reports have quantified the benefits in terms of more effective professional development for staff, increased opportunities for students and faster rates of improvement for schools.
The gain across partnerships is not always even. For example, some schools and pupils benefit more than others from the same initiative, yet overall the evidence is conclusive: collaboration is worth the time and investment. But as I have spent the past year talking to school and college leaders about their partnerships, one question persists: how can we get the most from partnering while performance tables and the need to attract students force us to compete with neighbouring schools? Sometimes this is an excuse for opting out of collaboration, but mostly it is a genuine question borne out of local tensions. My answer is threefold.
First, competition and collaboration are not polar opposites. In the private sector, firms are entering into alliances to be more competitive. It is not so different in education. One head, a committed member of a federation, told me how he was improving the quality of teaching and learning by working with other schools. He saw partnership as helping to make the school more competitive and attractive to parents: 14-19 partnerships enable schools to increase the range of courses and so improve what they can offer to students; ICT partnerships cut the cost and share the risk of providing the latest technology.
Second, the government must make significant policy changes to address the tensions between competition and collaboration. Schools, sixth form and FE colleges should, for example, be funded on a common basis. Partnership is undermined when institutions are funded differentially for undertaking similar work.
The School Admissions Code of Practice could encourage schools to develop and operate agreed oversubscription criteria, particularly as more and more secondaries become admissions authorities in their own right. Performance tables should assess partnerships' performance as well as individual institutions - and include added value as well as raw scores. Tables should also cover a broader range of qualifications to recognise the full extent of partnerships' work with students close to exclusion.
As more post-16 students study across difefrent sites, it makes little sense to have tables reporting only on the performance of students at one institution. Intelligent accountability would assess the performance of students taught at an institution, so enabling partnerships to judge the quality of teaching and learning at different institutions.
Third, schools and colleges can do a lot themselves to reconcile collaborative and competitive pressures. For example, there is a federation of schools jointly advertising their prospectuses to attract Year 7 students, thus sending a clear message that they are not trying to win students by doing down their neighbours. Another, a sixth form collegiate, had procedures for handling plans by individual institutions to set up new courses that could threaten the viability of others.
Partnerships are about shared values and vision. Do schools and colleges believe they can achieve more together than by themselves? If there is no shared unity of purpose, collaboration will wither and die. But if there is vision and commitment then, while national rules might present obstacles, there is no limit to the benefits and added value partnerships could bring.
Robert Hill's book, Achieving More Together: Adding Value Through Partnership, is published this week by the ASCL
Robert Hill Former special adviser to Tony Blair and now a consultant on public policy issues.