Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Making the pieces fit

Jigsaw pie chart

In the ASCL book Achieving More Together, Robert Hill lays out seven major challenges that need to be addressed in order to pave the way for stronger collaboration.

I partly wanted to write Achieving More Together to take on the sceptics - within schools and within government - who say that partnership working involves a lot of effort for little return.

The evidence the book assembles is conclusive: partnership does add substantial value. It makes for more effective teaching and learning. It broadens opportunities. It enables faster implementation of new ideas and policies. It contributes to efficiency. And it is helping to raise achievement and attainment.

But collaboration is not a panacea. The benefits of partnership are sometimes exaggerated. The added value is not always spread evenly across all members of a partnership programme. And the full potential of collaboration is not being realised. Achieving More Together highlights seven policy challenges that need to be addressed.

The first requires the government to end the strategic tug-of-war between focusing on the autonomy of individual institutions one moment while calling for schools to work in partnership the next.

Both have their part to play. The accountability of individual schools should fit within a broader partnership context. Competitive pressures - in terms of schools knowing that they have to attract parents and students - need to co-exist with an environment where schools also support each other. It does not have to be 'either/or'.

A set of principles that addresses the tension between competition and collaboration - as has recently been developed for the NHS - could be a very useful first step.

Practical barriers

Second, the government must deal with the barriers that in practice are creating tensions between working autonomously and working in partnership. The issues, described in chapter 12 of the book, on admissions, funding, pay and conditions, performance tables, inspection and evaluation frameworks need sorting out. Until they are addressed they will act as a drag anchor on the rate of progress partnerships make.

In particular the hotchpotch of financial arrangements for supporting collaborative working should be completely overhauled. Partnerships - particularly 14-19 partnerships - should have the necessary dedicated support that is essential if they are to take root and flourish without existing school leaders being overwhelmed by the pressure of partnership responsibilities.

Third, the government should adopt a much more strategic approach towards promoting and fostering school and college collaboration. There are too many partnership programmes. Rather than policy initiatives driving the creation of separate and distinct partnership arrangements, we need strong local collaborations to be the vehicle through which policy implementation is channelled.

Fourth, we need to develop a culture where all local authorities understand the difference between influencing and controlling, and between commissioning and providing.

The best authorities trust and work with school leaders. They encourage all their schools to be part of a partnership or network. They match stronger schools with weaker schools. They support partnerships by devolving responsibilities and resources to them. And they provide practical help, with data management or resources to employ a dedicated partnership leader. Schools and colleges want and need the practice of the best authorities to be the standard for all.

No excuses

Fifth, schools and colleges themselves have a responsibility to practice the disciplines of partnership working. We have the knowledge of what is effective in building successful and effective collaboration; the challenge is to apply the learning.

School and college leaders should not sit back and use government action, or inaction, as an excuse for not developing strong partnerships. Rather they should model collaborative behaviour in the way they act.

They should encourage intensive networking between staff at all levels across the partnerships in which their school or college is involved. They should have an open approach to sharing data with partners. And they should realise the huge potential to be gained from organising professional development on a collaborative basis. Many school and college leaders are already doing these things and thus realising their potential to lead the system.

Sixth, the agencies that support school partnerships, particularly NSCL, CEL, TDA and SSAT, need to build on or adapt their existing work and expand their support for partnerships. Whether through expanding action learning or providing more bespoke development support for partnership leadership teams, there is more that can be done to increase the pace and depth of collaborative activity. Increasing support in this way will also help foster sustainable leadership.

Seventh and finally, both government nationally and schools, colleges and their other local partners need to be patient and persistent in pursing partnership. Collaboration is not a quick fix but a strategy that proves itself over the long haul.

It takes time to build the trust that enables partnership to go deep: to learn how to make the most of each other's strengths and confront each other's weaknesses. In an age when we look for instant success, partnership working teaches us that there is a dividend that is well worth having but it will not come overnight.

Robert Hill is a former government policy adviser and now an independent consultant on public policy issues. This is his second major project with ASCL.

© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders