Get into bed with a rival

18th December 2015 at 00:00

the management mentor

HOW MUCH genuine collaboration goes on between individual schools? With the rise of academy chains and federations in England, as well as independent-state school partnerships, it might seem as though there are a lot of examples out there. But away from these relationships, how much more collaboration could there be between individual schools in local areas?

The schools sector is a competitive environment, where headteachers’ attention is frequently focused on such things as the latest league tables, Ofsted reports and funding. And it’s not difficult to understand why this is so – the pressures for headteachers are mostly imposed and unavoidable.

But could it be that because of forced requirements to be “the best’ and “the most efficient”, schools are generally too self-focused and are overlooking the benefits of joining forces with fellow schools and/or other external collaborators?

Collaboration is a common feature of commercial business. Airline companies have collaborated on a large scale for many decades; for instance, in flight-sharing and also in relation to ground services at airports. Car manufacturers are well-known for collaborating on research and development. Such arrangements involve an equitable sharing of both risks and spoils, and are typically managed by an integrated project team.

Of course, collaboration will at first introduce fresh burdens. It may require new governance and administration arrangements, though eventually these aspects will likely be shared to an extent. However, the long-term benefits will outweigh these initial burdens – for example, cost savings, synergy (ie, that “extra bit” added from a collaborative approach), and, quite possibly, an increase in trust (rather than rivalry) across the whole education sector.

This would seem a more sustainable strategy than continuously promoting the notion of “best” schools, which has the potential to generate more losers than winners, as well as to compromise the spreading of knowledge in society.

There are a variety of areas where schools might want to consider collaborations. For instance, they could undertake collaboration in staff training and development, facilities maintenance, bulk-purchasing, transportation, administration and transaction processing, IT, sport, extra-curricular activities, excursions, music and drama events or local environment projects.

On top of this potential for collaboration between schools, there are possibly untapped opportunities further afield. Take universities, for example. There are some notable instances of schools and universities working together very effectively.

In addition, schools could do more to capitalise on the professional expertise of their ex-pupils.

There are many great collaborations, but, as budgets tighten, it may be time for heads to look at how they can work even more closely with external partners – particularly with schools that they sometimes perceive as rivals.

John Burns is professor of management and accountancy at the University of Exeter Business School

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