Together we're strong

29th October 2004 at 01:00
Schools need incentives to help them link up and share their experiences, writes Mel Ainscow

In England the latest big idea for school improvement is networking. The argument is that to improve the achievement of all children, schools will need to work together, sharing expertise and resources. This is based on the assumption that the best expertise on how to improve children's learning resides within schools.

For the past 15 years I have been part of a project that has explored this approach. Known as "improving the quality of education for all" (IQEA), the project involves university researchers working with groups of schools. The focus is on improving pupil achievement by developing classroom practice and management arrangements, and by establishing a sense of inter-dependence between schools.

From the outset, the work of IQEA has always involved school-to-school co-operation as a strategy for developing an inclusive approach to school improvement. These experiences lead me to have a strong belief that the idea of schools co-operating is the best way forward.

However, most of this must be seen as an act of faith since there is little research evidence to demonstrate the extent to which such approaches can lead to positive outcomes, nor, indeed, evidence that can be used to guide action in the field.

At present my colleagues and I are working with an IQEA school network in south Wales. It now involves 12 secondary schools, from several local education authorities. Co-ordination is provided by Cyfarthfa high school, in Merthyr Tydfil.

As the network has grown it has been interesting to compare the experience with similar developments in England. While the two education systems are similar, there are some subtle differences For example, Welsh schools tend to have a much stronger link with their communities than their English counterparts. And, by and large, these communities seem to have a deeper commitment to education in general and to the success of their local school in particular.

There also seems to be a much less competitive environment among Welsh schools. At the same time there is a noticeable sense of partnership and common purpose between school leaders, LEA staff and national inspectors.

All of this should make co-operation among groups of schools easier. I have been told, for example, of how teachers in some Welsh-medium schools are linking together to help in the translation of teaching resources.

On the other hand, Welsh schools, particularly in the secondary sector, seem to be rather isolated from one another. This may be, in part, because the element of challenge that arises from the more competitive English context is missing.

Of course, introducing school-to-school collaboration in a highly competitive context is far from straightforward. I recall a meeting I attended in one English LEA. It had been called to discuss the logistics of, and the possible benefits and problems associated with, a proposal to establish clusters of schools.

Eventually, one secondary head, while acknowledging that he had enjoyed the debate, said: "OK, but what's in this for me and my school?"

He argued that the idea would only take off if stakeholders could see that there would be significant, practical benefits for their own schools. In other words, he wanted to be convinced that the proposed arrangement would enable his own school to move forward.

All of this seems to suggest that self-interest is an important component of inter-dependent relationships. Indeed, research suggests that a group of individuals are only likely to develop a sense of inter-dependence when they recognise that an event that affects one member affects them all.

It seems, then, that in practice participants need first to understand and then to experience the potential benefits of inter-dependent working arrangements.

In England, some recent policy developments have helped to encourage such initiatives. For example, the National College for School Leadership has provided funding for network learning communities.

Further impetus in the urban contexts has been provided by the leadership incentive grant, a government scheme that provides additional financial resources (pound;125,000 per school annually, for three years) to groups of secondary schools facing challenging circumstances that commit themselves to co-operating on joint improvement plans.

The Department for Education and Skills expects "all schools receiving the grant to dedicate significant time and resources to collaboration, by giving and receiving support".

The Welsh context is rich with possibilities for encouraging more powerful forms of school-to-school co-operation.

However, it also seems that further action is needed to create the incentives that will encourage such developments.

Mel Ainscow is professor of education at Manchester university

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