SSAT Reform Bulletins: Spring 2014

SSAT has recently published the first in a series of reform bulletins focusing on the topic of collaboration within a self-improving school system.

Our first bulletin explores how collaboration can help to drive improvement throughout the school system, beyond just raising standards in the lowest achieving schools. It takes into account a wide variety of research as well as international examples. You can read the bulletin below.

Feeding into this work, SSAT held a ‘Reform Discussion Dinner’ on the evening of Tuesday, 4 March. Policymakers, practitioners and leading educational thinkers were in attendance to give their opinions on the role collaboration should play in our education system. Debate was lively and stimulated by the fascinating insights of Sir Tim Brighouse, the man behind the London Challenge.

On the back of the ideas generated by the discussion, SSAT will be producing a longer paper to examine what different forms collaboration can take, which are most effective, how this might all be measured and what implications this has for the school system.

Collaboration within a self-improving school system

The need for collaboration: decentralisation and a self-improving school system
Since the coalition government came to power in 2010, the English school system has seen a significant move away from centralised forms of governance to a more autonomous and school-led system – a vision set out in the government’s white paper in which they argue for ‘every school to be able to shape its own character… free of either central or local bureaucratic constraint.[1] Early on, Hargreaves characterised this shift as a ‘balance’ between the centralisation of the successive Conservative and Labour governments following the Ruskin speech in 1976, and the complete decentralisation that characterised the system prior to this.[2]

At the start of 2014, we are in a position to reflect on the extent to which this vision has been realised. It is clear the system has more freedom than at any time in the last twenty years: radical changes have been made to school architectures and structures, giving schools greater autonomy matched by a strong accountability framework.[3] Arguably, this situation is unlikely to alter greatly, regardless of the outcome of the 2015 election. As such, there is a clear need for schools to share evidence of what works with one another, provide support across the system, and work together to drive system improvement. More has got to be done to enable and incentivise collaboration, if we are to truly achieve a self-improving school system.

Why collaboration works
It would seem to make sense that a number of people working together are likely to produce something better than an individual working on their own. Indeed, Mercer points out that significant human achievements have required groups working together ‘to achieve something greater than any of them ever could alone’.[4] This general trend has been supported by a variety of literature analysing why collaboration can prove so effective. Notably Ronald Burt has shown that collaboration allows ‘structural holes’ to be bridged, giving collaborators access to new knowledge and ideas.[5] It is clear that, historically and theoretically, collaboration can bring with it great reward.

Indeed, there are ample examples of the success of collaboration from outside the world of education. Academics such as Ahuja have provided overwhelming evidence that interfirm collaboration is associated with improved firm performance.[6] In depth studies such as Davies’ exploration of the UK Fairtrade market corroborate these findings and importantly, this demonstrates that competition does not necessarily prevent collaboration.[7] And as the likes of Clay Shirky point out…read more.

[1] DfE (2010) ‘The Importance of Teaching: The Schools White Paper 2010’. London: Department for Education

[2] Hargreaves, D (2010) ‘Creating a self-improving school system’. Nottingham: National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services

[3] Williamson, S (2013) Why change is needed. London: SSAT

[4] Mercer, N (2000) Words and Minds, London: Routledge

[5] Burt, R (2004) ‘Structural Holes and Good Ideas’, American Journal of Sociology, vol. 110, pp. 349–399

[6] Ahuja G (2000) The duality of collaboration: Inducements and Opportunities in the Formation of Interfirm Linkage’, Strategic Management Journal, vol. 21, no. 3, pp. 317-343

[7] Davies, I (2009) ‘Alliances and networks: Creating success in the UK Fairtrade market’, Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 86, supplement 1, pp. 109-126

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