The cost of collaboration
By Christine Wright, head of St Wilfrid's RC Comprehensive School, South Shields
Between March 2003 and May 2004, I spent 219 hours in meetings and related activities connected with just two initiatives - Excellence in Cities (EIC) and the Leadership Incentive Grant (LIG).
Both were centred on raising attainment and improving the educational chances of urban pupils through collaboration among local schools.
EIC, following an intensive period of bidding and set up, had 'settled down' to a demanding 70 hours annually, on top of all the existing work of course.
I valued working and sharing practice with colleagues; even the joint setting of sometimes unreasonable targets generated some good thinking on ways to move forward.
But the bureaucracy around the partnership took on a life of its own.
Four inches of paper
Meetings were often long, hidebound by procedure and protocol, and not infrequently I found myself with a four inch high pile of paper to wade through and digest before each meeting, with (heart-sinkingly) more paper tabled at the meeting!
Then came LIG, with even greater emphasis on collaboration. The meetings, joint working days and related work mushroomed, adding up to around 42 hours in the month leading up to the launch, and over 100 hours in the first year.
Suddenly, we were in the country of the absurd. Why was this?
I moved to a school in a different LEA in September 2004, also in EIC and LIG collaboratives, and since then have experienced a substantially reduced (though still significant) bureaucratic commitment.
Since this revelation dawned, I've been reflecting on the question: why does it take so much less bureaucracy to collaborate in some areas than others? There are several issues.
Firstly, the degree of school leader autonomy over initiatives varies greatly. Heads in my current LEA have seized control and refused any attempt to wrest it from them.
They drive the LIG agenda in particular, despite attempts from the LEA to intervene at times. They formed two small tight collaboratives focused on what goes on in our schools. Meetings, tabled papers, and procedures are minimised.
Secondly, the degree of DfES pressure impacts on the LEA. I can't entirely blame an LEA under the DfES 'cosh' - and under heavy pressure - for passing that pressure downwards to school leaders and demanding to be drivers of the agenda.
It's the system that is at fault rather than individuals in it.
Thirdly, there is the tension between collaboration and competition. It exists everywhere, but was exacerbated in a small LEA with academies, city technology colleges, voluntary-aided and community schools in close proximity amid falling rolls.
The tension is sometimes impossible to resolve, and can lead to a kind of displacement activity where meetings and bureaucracy mask the real agenda of conflict.
Addicted to protocol
Finally, some characters and organisational cultures just generate more bureaucracy than others. Some people appointed to key central posts simply seem to thrive on tabled papers, protocols, procedures and meetings.
The government department culture generates more of this than schools, but I've been in schools where a leader or leaders appeared to get their kicks out of creating an Orwellian layer of bureaucracy.
This may explain why some LEAs run as totalitarian states while others are somewhat laissez faire, with the great majority falling comfortably in the middle.
It's also true to say that schools in challenging circumstances (which are often those involved in EIC and LIG) are more easily pressured than those performing well.
At the top of the league tables, to some extent leaders can say: "Go away and leave us to get on with teaching and learning. We're doing well and we'll do even better if we can be in our schools improving them."
Despite the paperwork, there have been lots of benefits from the EIC and LIG collaboratives.
I value the dialogue between school leaders, the shared good practice and ideas, not having to reinvent the wheel, and the shared acknowledgement of common problems and their possible solutions.
A partnership, like a good leadership team, can often be more than the sum of its parts. This is good for all our schools.
However, the DfES needs to be aware before spawning any initiative that collaboration costs. It costs time. It generates meetings, bureaucracy, form filling accountability, local mismanagement.
It can lead to micro political battles for control and generate armies of consultants and administrators, often taking good teachers from the classroom and siphoning off funding from the young people it was supposed to benefit.
© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders