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'We must develop collective autonomy to ensure lasting improvements in our schools'

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The emphasis on school autonomy in England has led to some excellent bottom-up school-based improvement strategies, with leaders and teachers empowered to do what works for their context, free from the interference of outsiders. But too often, the result is that many schools do not improve significantly and if anything, the gap between high- and low-performing schools becomes greater. You can’t run a whole system in a region or country by relying entirely on having brilliant leadership in each school. 

The undoubted existence of transformational leadership in some schools does not improve the whole system, with exceptional schools often attracting the best talent, with the rest left struggling in comparison. The positive concepts of variety, localism and freedom can easily become the negative ones of isolation, fragmentation and variation, with children as the victims.

But if top-down change leads to resistance and to a one-size-fits-all approach and if bottom-up change is not coherent or too variable, what is the solution? The answer is to develop “collective autonomy”.

Tonight, schools from around the world will come together to show how this can be done both within and across national borders. Given the right framework, the willingness and skills of staff can be harnessed to deliver genuine school-led school improvement. During a live webcast organised by Education Development Trust, the ‘Global Dialogue’ event will explore the critical features of collaborative school improvement with the teachers and leaders on the frontline of these reforms. It will feature international educationalists such as Michael Fullan, John Hattie and Viviane Robinson.

Hundreds of school leaders will join the dialogue live, from a variety of locations, ranging from isolated Australian communities right through to vibrant city locations in Canada, UK and New Zealand. Starting with this event, we are calling on school leaders to break down traditional barriers to adopt a collaborative, cluster-based approach to driving up school standards.

There are already shining lights of activity that show how effective collaboration can be. In the UK, more than 500 pioneering schools have formed innovative clusters with erstwhile competitor schools. They share their data and thereby open up to each other the darkest recesses of their actual or perceived failings; they give and receive honest, open and constructive feedback as part of a commitment to long-term, reciprocal support. No one points the finger of blame and walks away.

Examples of improvement through peer review have included identifying the "over-scaffolding" being done by some teaching assistants in maths, particularly for pupils in receipt of the pupil premium. This approach left pupils too dependent on the teaching assistant. Using materials from the National Centre for Excellence for the Teaching of Maths, and giving teaching assistants the opportunity to visit schools to watch other teaching assistants successfully developing pupils’ independence in maths, gave them the skills and the know-how to deliver the same for their pupils.

Every participating country has its own story to tell. For example, in northern Victoria, Australia, the Nathalia Learning Community Alliance is made up of four separate, rural schools. By joining together, they have been able to offer a much richer curriculum than any school could on their own and their results improved faster than the national average. With increased education standards, the children and young people of this community have been able to stay in their community rather than leave to attend boarding school, which happened previously.

After a decade of laissez-faire decentralisation, all 2,500 of New Zealand’s schools had been obliged by their national government to form networks. This mandatory approach met with huge resistance. The process is now voluntary with agreed principles and values that guide the establishment of networks. As a result the numbers of participating schools is on course to be 100 per cent by the end of this year.

Coming together and learning from early successes is crucial to long-term success. Most encouragingly, some of my colleagues are already trialling similar approaches not just in wealthy countries but in low-income countries too.

As the writer and educator Helen Keller said: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

Steve Munby is chief executive of Education Development Trust, formerly known as CfBT

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