Schools can often be criticised for not doing enough to collaborate with each other locally. The perception is that schools are isolated beasts, competing with each other, and that collaboration only occurs within an academy chain, and often not even then.
The Malago Learning Partnership (MLP) in Bristol is one of many informal voluntary arrangements involving schools around the country that acts as evidence against this common perception.
Consisting of primary and secondary schools – both academies and local authoritycontrolled – and a special school, it is a diverse group of nine institutions in which all participants feel they are getting a great deal of benefit from working together.
The schools involved are Greenfield E-ACT Academy, Bedminster Down School, Cheddar Grove Primary, Headley Park Primary, Ilminster Avenue E-ACT Academy, Knowle DGE, Parson Street Primary, St Peter’s CofE Primary and Victoria Park Primary.
Here, Kate Richardson, head of school at Greenfield E-ACT Academy, offers her experience in the hope of helping other partnerships to maximise their potential or to assist schools looking to create such a partnership.
How was the Malago partnership formed?
The MLP began life in 2012 when six headteachers started working together to try and support one another on common issues and problems, as Richardson explains.
“[The headteachers] looked for extra support as the role of the local authority changed, so they started to talk with one another and began helping each other dealing with problems or situations that arose,” she says.
Over time, this evolved to become a more formal set-up and incorporated all levels of teaching staff, tackling issues from teaching methods and handling the new requirements of the national curriculum to primary-secondary school transitions and resource sharing.
During this time of expansion, one of the headteachers from the initial schools involved was nominated as the head of MLP, something that Richardson credits as vital to its early success.
“We definitely needed a leader to ensure that everyone knew what was going on and when and what they were expected to contribute,” she says.
Interestingly, though, the MLP has now become “leaderless” after that headteacher left his school. Now the nine headteachers delegate tasks between themselves, such as organising meetings, sharing agendas and taking minutes.
“Now it runs itself and we’ve seen several headteachers come and go at the schools involved without affecting the partnership, but it definitely helped having that initial person in charge,” says Richardson.
Any partnership that involves nine schools and hundreds of teachers will present challenges. Richardson cites the not having enough time as among the most pressing issues.
“It can be hard for teachers to find the time, particularly when you have your own school challenges to deal with,” she says. “it can be tough to stick to meeting schedules and so forth.”
But Richardson says that everyone within the MLP recognises the commitment that they have made to one another – something that any other fledging partnerships must do as well.
“It’s important to establish exactly why you’re doing it and to have a real purpose behind it, because if people don’t come to meetings you won’t get anything out of it.”
Main points of cooperation
School improvement – the schools are informally “inspected” twice a year by other leaders in the partnership. One of the visits focuses on the whole school, while the other visit looks at a specific area at the request of the school.
Business management – through termly meetings between business managers, joint projects are created. For example, the schools have organised to share a speech and language specialist.
NQTs – new teachers are supported with a group development session each term.
Working groups – teachers from each of the nine schools meet termly to look at inclusion, maths, early years, English, computing, School Direct bids, assessment and moderation and governance.
Events – three joint events are held per year to bring together school communities: a fun day for Reception classes, a music festival and a joint sports day.
Inset – one inset day per year is held jointly between the schools.
Data – one day per year is given over to a comparison of data from all the schools.
The key benefit, says Richardson, is the “inspection” visits. “The improvement visits are more rigorous than a local authority visit – you have more people taking part and they are your peers; you want to impress them,” she says.
“Sometimes the feedback can be negative or they raise issues you’d missed and that can be hard to hear. But schools need to be open and honest, otherwise you won’t learn.”
And there is ongoing support between schools, too. “There’s always new ideas being shared and discussions on how to tackle particular problems or new challenges,” Richardson explains. “If I see that there’s a new initiative from the Department for Education then I know there are eight other people out there in my position that have heard about it too and I can ask what they think.”
Another major benefit is cost savings. The MLP recently pooled together to hire a press officer, while Richardson joined forces with another primary within the MLP to buy 60 iPads – 30 for each school – at a reduced rate.
This raises another key aspect of the MLP that other partnerships should bear in mind – every school does not have to take part in everything.
Richardson urges any similar partnerships to retain this flexibility so that each school can operate within its own requirements. “The MLP is brilliant for picking up new ideas but you have to have the confidence to retain your school’s personality and stick to what you’re doing. So if, say, all the other schools are focusing on French but you have invested in Spanish, stick with that and know that it’s OK – you don’t have to follow everyone.”
Daniel Watson is a freelance journalist based in London