I was going to call this piece “You’re getting a collaboration!” But, tempted as I was, in the end I thought that this was a little too negative and threatening – the complete opposite of what we should think about when considering collaboration.
Two key questions are “Who are you collaborating with?” and “What has been the impact of that collaboration?” It’s reasonable to expect that everyone in the education system can answer those questions – certainly their ability to answer them would reveal a lot about the system they work in.
We have long understood the power of collaboration to effective and growing organisations. In education, Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves, in What’s Worth Fighting For in Headship?, identified the creation of “collaborative cultures” as one of a school leader’s most important contributions to pupils’ ability to learn. The power of collaboration that they homed in on has, since that book’s first edition in 1992, been consistently recognised by other researchers.
Last year, the International Council of Education Advisers, established by education secretary John Swinney to support research-informed approaches – and including such renowned international names as Alma Harris, Andy Hargreaves, Pasi Sahlberg and Carol Campbell – unsurprisingly recommended that the Scottish government give some thought to “ensuring a culture of collaboration exists throughout Scottish education, at classroom, school, regional and national level”. It was one of the three key areas they felt that Mr Swinney needed to consider.
This leads to another crucial consideration: can meaningful collaboration be imposed? Some certainly have their doubts.
This month, for example, educationalist and former secondary headteacher Frank Lennon advised MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee to question the wisdom of compelling schools to take on more autonomy, as is happening with the government’s planned “headteachers’ charter”. Greater autonomy works best, he said, when schools decide the point at which they’re ready for it.
Part of the government response to its own international group was the establishment of “regional improvement collaboratives” as a central plank of their school governance review, though this had been proposed before the advisers’ report was even written.
‘Thanks, but no thanks’
To paraphrase one of comedian Kevin Bridges’ Glasgow stories about an “empty” – an impromptu and usually raucous party when the homeowner is away – this was a case of us more “getting a collaborative, rather than being asked if we would like one”.
When we were notionally asked about this idea during the consultation period, most people said politely, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Yet we’re still getting them, whatever our reservations about their composition, organisation or ability to make an impact on schools and classrooms.
I have always believed in the power of collaboration to harness collective expertise in a school. In the schools I led, I took management expert Ken Blanchard’s mantra that “None of us is as bright as all of us” and adapted it to “None of us is as powerful as more of us”. And collaboration across and beyond schools is now so much easier because of social media platforms such as Twitter, as well as blogs and online forums.
My experience and research evidence indicate that collaborations work best when they are self-created and organised, rather than imposed from above in some hierarchy. I have experience of both. Those that were forced or imposed all failed to deliver any meaningful improvements for learners, but still swallowed up a lot of time and energy. As a school leader, I found it difficult to build productive working and personal relationships with others who had diametrically different views on education.
The best collaborations were the ones that we forged ourselves, with like-minded and similar-thinking people, at similar stages of development. There is a danger in the current climate, however, that school leaders may also try to force collaboration in their establishments. Such a strategy is doomed to failure. Instead, we need to focus on creating cultures where collaboration can thrive.
I am sure it was deliberate that the international advisors warned the government to focus on “culture”, not structure, in its drive for excellence and equity in Scottish education. Cultures recognise the importance of people and relationships – and develop over time within supportive conditions that are high in trust.
I think there is a misconception in government and organisations such as Education Scotland that collaboration – and thus improvement – can be imposed. At one level it can, but it ends up being superficial and characterised by surface-level compliance, rather than being deep and sustainable. I agree with Fullan and Hargreaves: collaboration is key, but it requires a common and mutually agreed focus, with impact being measured in terms of outcomes for learners. It has to be collaboration for a purpose.
Instead of focusing on changing structures to impose surface-level collaboration, schools and systems need to concentrate on creating the conditions that promote and expect collaboration to take place.
It is easy enough to then ask the questions: Who are you collaborating with? Why? What has been the impact for learners? What are you going to do next? With true, deep and meaningful collaboration, those questions should be easy to answer, whether you are a teacher, school leader or have a regional or national role. But we really do have to get away from the temptation to micro-manage and impose everything we think is worthwhile onto teachers, schools and systems. Winning hearts and minds will always trump any imposition from above.
George Gilchrist is a recently retired primary teacher and a fellow of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership