Increasingly school-to-school collaboration and networking is receiving emphasis as national systems start to fragment and schools edge towards being interdependent as well as independent. But collaborative working between schools is not an easy option whether it’s two, three or more schools working together.
Recently I have been thinking about what needs to be in place for networking to be effective? How can schools make sure collaboration with others results in gain for students, not pain….and even worse, not just a lukewarm cosiness that may make everyone feel good but which ultimately is just a drain on resources and destined to fizzle out? Meeting with the cross-sector University of Melbourne Network of Schools has prompted my thinking together with reflections on my own experience within United Learning as a well-established network of almost 50 schools in the UK.
At the heart of successful school-to-school collaboration is an ethos which understands that as educators we are all responsible for the growth and development of our students, regardless of which school they attend. Easy to say but more difficult to enact. Are we genuinely able to rejoice in the success of another school, even a ‘competitor’? If we remind ourselves that we are celebrating the success of the students not the school then the answer is “of course!”.
So, essential to an effective school network is a shared belief in children and their potential to achieve amazing things and then a shared purpose to the networking. Why work in a network? What are the member schools trying to achieve together? Time spent in thinking carefully about the goal of the ‘network as network’ is time well spent. The temptation sometimes is to jump into focusing just on the outcomes, even though those are important. The act of reflecting, co-creating, learning, evaluating, challenging, questioning is what elevates this way of working to another level, as well as the quality of the outcomes for students that can be achieved by using each others’ experience to amplify the process.
A defining characteristic of schools is that each one is specific to its context – no two schools are ever the same. One of the perhaps less than helpful consequences of this fact is that schools tend to look inwards most of the time. How often have I heard “oh well, we’re different” – the implication being of course that “you wouldn’t understand”. Just like the closed doors of the classrooms, schools can be impervious to what is going on in schools around them. So before even getting to the stage of learning together in a network, there is a need just to know together – to understand and appreciate the context, characteristics, challenges, strengths and areas for development of those partner schools.
As schools in a network really get to know each other and open themselves up to scrutiny, the need for mutual respect and trust takes centre stage. “Respect” is one of those words that has become overused and so lost some of its meaning. In this context, respect requires the collaborating schools to understand and honour each other as having differences and similarities rather than being better or worse.
Prof Alma Harris and Dr Michelle Jones  speak of “disciplined collaborative professional learning”. Networking that has a defined purpose and well-articulated goals must also have a rigour that is built on data and evidence. The strength of the collaborative effort will depend on a willingness of the member schools to share that data and to challenge each other – only possible, of course, on the basis of mutual respect and trust. Without sufficient challenge the danger is that everyone will have a “nice” time and will feel good but nothing much will be achieved.
Leadership is therefore essential and this needs be achieved in two distinct and complementary ways. The first is through internal leadership shared between the members of the network on the basis that the collective learning belongs to the group. There needs to be agreement around the co-creation of the network itself, of its goal and of the plan of action. And this shared internal leadership carries with it a mutual accountability of all members to the plan and to the network. Such leadership calls for skilful teamwork (again built on respect and trust), generosity and humility.
And such leadership is assisted enormously by the second type of leadership, which is that of an external coach or facilitator. This role is not concerned with directing the project but with enabling the schools in the network to grow and develop together as a team with a shared purpose. Without the role of network coach or facilitator there is a danger that the work could easily meander, falter and ultimately fizzle out.
Success in education comes from working together harnessing the power of the collective. Prof John Hattie , in commending the University’s Network of Schools, says his research shows that the answers to educational challenges lie in schools themselves rather than in schools having to look somewhere else for the magic answer – and that by working together the difference that can be made is increased.
Prof David Hargreaves  speaks of schools in collaboration needing to be willing to give away their expertise in the hope of something in return. This requires generosity and a humble spirit from all collaborating partners. Each school is capable of giving something to others, each school is capable of learning something from others, and collectively the outcomes are stronger and have greater impact for students.
Alma Harris and Michelle Jones: Connecting professional learning: leading effective collaborative enquiry across teaching school alliances”, NCSL, July 2012
Hargreaves, DH, 2003a, Working Laterally: How Innovation Networks Make an Education Epidemic, London: DEMOS