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Collaboration is the key to school improvement…

… But it must be established with purpose and continually worked at and refined, writes SSAT head of research Tom Welch…

No organisation has innovated in the area of collaboration in education to the extent that SSAT has over the last 30 years. Collaboration has made educational headlines, recently, after a report from the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education.

Much of the report focused on the lack of robust evidence causally linking collaboration and school improvement. Some would argue that when dealing with the human subject – our students – causality will always remain a distant dream, but many researchers are working on it.

Despite the research being in its infancy, there is such a strong correlation between collaboration and school improvement (c.f. a number of OECD reports) it would be perverse to cease educational collaboration until the research catches up.

Because we think we know instinctively what it is to collaborate, it is easy to assume that we know how to do so effectively and with impact. This is not necessarily the case. In Building on Consensus, SSAT’s policy recommendations for 2015, we said ‘The fact is that good collaboration remains the exception and not the rule’.

Effective collaboration does not naturally appear to fill the void left by the erosion of traditional school support structures. Instead, it is something that must be established with purpose and continually worked at and refined.

Effective collaboration is something that must be established with purpose and continually worked at and refined

Effective collaborations should:

  • Establish clear purpose: ‘Networks and collaboratives have to have clear, tangible outcomes…’ (Building on Consensus, 2015). This purpose should, ideally, be to meet a challenge shared by all partners.
  • Pay attention to process: shape the collaboration into a regular, sustainable routine.
  • Not leave management to chance: Somebody (in a number of cases, SSAT) needs to take responsibility for ensuring that the collaboration lasts after initial enthusiasm fades.
  • Establish an environment where risk and innovation are the norm: at its best, collaboration is innovative for all parties involved. It should be bilateral, where possible – not one partner, deemed to be stronger, sharing their solutions with weaker partners.

Collaboration, then, is more than the haphazard sharing of good practice in a linear fashion, or simply sharing a model derived from others’ successes. It must be of mutual benefit to all participants – all must be equally vulnerable, allowing the burden of the necessary risk taking to be spread among all collaborators, not shouldered by the few.

In his book Word and Minds, Neil Mercer noted that ‘explosions of literature, art, science and technology, which occur in particular places at particular times, represent more than coincident collections of individual talent: they represent the building of communities of enquiry and practice which enable their members to achieve something greater than any of them ever could alone.’

If a collaboration follows the model outlined above, it too has a fighting chance of ensuring that the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

If collaborations keep sight of purpose, process, management, and innovation, they can be at the heart of school improvement

SSAT have formulated and managed many such effective collaborations in their history. Some we have stepped away from, while ensuring that they are run by the profession, for the profession; others we continue to support. One such example, the SSAT Leading Edge Network, has since 2003 supported high-performing schools in sharing practice and working collaboratively.

With this purpose in mind, it is led by a steering group of teachers from within the programme, and coordinated by SSAT. A clear programme of events is set out for each year and many more informal collaborations spin off from these programmes.

This approach facilitates innovation for all those involved. As one Headteacher headteacher put it: ‘During the years of our membership we have benefited greatly from working very creatively with a number of schools’.

It is through extensive experience of programmes such as the Leading Edge Network that SSAT and its members have seen the great power of effective collaboration.

We understand that if collaborations – large and small, formal and informal – keep sight of purpose, process, management, and innovation, then they can be at the heart of school improvement. One principal recently told us: ‘Our membership of the Leading Edge programme has contributed more to the development of this school than any other organisation we belong to’.

If school leaders are to be responsible for the improvement not just of their own establishments, but of the system as a whole – creating a self-improving system – then collaboration must remain a central tool in their armoury.

Read the CMRE report on collaboration.

Follow SSAT on Twitter: @SSAT

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Follow Tom on Twitter: @tom_w_welch

Read more blogs by Tom.

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