Take the lead

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
Several schools have decided to collaborate How do they start? Melissa Murphy explores some options

There is no blueprint for an effective learning network. Their form and structure should be the one that makes sense to the schools involved and the needs of their pupils.

Networks can be any size but most commonly involve between six to 11 schools. The type of schools often depends on the reasons drawing them together. To tackle transition issues, a secondary school may work with its feeder primaries. To overcome isolation, a group of small schools in similar contexts may collaborate to pool their resources.

Network leaders should be identified early. Effective networks usually have at least two co-leaders from different schools. These are not always headteachers; a network can offer opportunities for other staff to develop their leadership skills. Another role that can help network development is the use of a facilitator to lead network meetings and sessions; this could be an existing member of staff, a co-leader or someone from outside.

How will your schools share their news, developments and findings? Regular face-to-face meetings are important, but consider the use of a website or newsletter that is distributed to all stakeholders.

Funding is another issue to consider. Contact your school improvement adviser or local authority to see what funding is available. Many networks are self-funded by pooling their continuing professional development budgets or charging a levy per pupil. Schools in federations operate under a formal collaborative arrangement, sharing a joint governing body.

Effective networks share a vision and moral purpose. To do this, barriers need to be broken down. It is important to meet in different locations and let staff get to know each other. Organise a launch conference and ensure as many members of the school community are involved - this includes teaching and non-teaching staff, governors, parents and pupils.

Using a development tool, such as diamond 9 (see page 12), can be an effective way of creating a shared vision across a group of schools. The stakeholders involved read a list of priorities individually and arrange them in order of importance in a diamond pattern. Then groups of three to five people who don't normally work together are asked to share their patterns and create a new diamond on behalf of their group. Each small group explains their choices to the wider group and the whole group collectively agrees a new diamond of their priorities. This simple tool creates a vision that every stakeholder has contributed to.

As well as a shared vision, effective networks develop a pupil learning focus to specifically address. A clear content area for your pupil learning focus is needed and it should be drawn from school-level data that all members of your network cants and pupils.

Using a development tool, such as diamond 9 (see page 12), can be an effective way of creating a shared vision across a group of schools. The stakeholders involved read a list of priorities individually and arrange them in order of importance in a diamond pattern. Then groups of three to five people who don't normally work together are asked to share their patterns and create a new diamond on behalf of their group. Each small group explains their choices to the wider group and the whole group collectively agrees a new diamond of their priorities. This simple tool creates a vision that every stakeholder has contributed to.

As well as a shared vision, effective networks develop a pupil learning focus to specifically address. A clear content area for your pupil learning focus is needed and it should be drawn from school-level data that all members of your network can access. The data should help you define a target pupil group to focus on.

It is helpful to define your pupil learning focus as a question: for example, how can we improve boys' underachievement in literacy? It is useful to break your question down into a series of further questions that are actionable and manageable. Smaller school-to-school enquiry groups can then be set up to undertake classroom research on behalf of the network.

One popular method of collaborative enquiry to try is research lesson study. Teachers identify three pupils and jointly plan a research lesson based on the needs of these pupils. The joint observation and analysis can be used to refine the lesson and the findings can be shared across the network. Sharing the learning undertaken by enquiry groups is important.

Time should be scheduled for these groups to share their learning, whether it is through a joint inset day, network meeting or by distributing their findings in a newsletter across the network.

School-to-school study visits are a cost-effective way of ensuring the learning transfers easily between schools. Structured school study visits are also useful for building trust and relationships across a network - vital for collaboration that is transformational.

Melissa Murphy is a writer for the Network Learning Group

NCSL Networked

Learning: www.ncsl.org.uknlc

Primary National Strategy:

www.standards.dfes.gov.ukprimary

Education Improvement Partnerships:

www.standards.dfes.gov.uksiesieips

DfES Innovation Unit:

www.standards.dfes.gov.ukinnovation-unit

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