Learning from the past
There is a history of school-to-school networks, both domestically and internationally – back to Education Action Zones and Networked Learning Communities in the UK and the work of the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative and the Coalition of Essential Schools in the States.
That history tells us something, and in the stampede towards Multi-Academy Trusts there is a danger that we forget to take note. That isn’t to say that the past was an unmitigated success. But it is to say that we should be humble enough to build from the foundations of what is known.
Five things known with certainty
These five statements arise from an evidence-base that is consistent across multiple programmes and research studies. They are as close as you’ll get in education to self-evident truths.
- Voluntarism is an important foundation for success – not least because so much that is involved in school-to-school collaboration requires both discretionary effort and high levels of trust. Without these you are building on sand. Does this mean that forcing a school to be in, say, a multi-academy trust can’t work? Not absolutely. It does means, though, that it is unlikely to work, or that it will not work well.
- Shared values and aspirations, compelling reasons for working together, are crucial to success – a self-evident truth, but one often ignored. For example, it can be assumed that schools within a locality might form a natural collegial arrangement – which they can. But they might just as easily have poor collaborative histories and low trust relationships. Success for all children in a locality is a great collaborative aspiration, but it won’t happen without a collective aspiration.
- A shared moral purpose offers a strong bond for collaboration – there are few things more compelling than working together to eradicate social injustice or to overcome historical barriers to achievement. This is different from ‘improving test scores’ and is more in the realm of changing lives together – a moral quest.
- Networks, well run, expand access to good ideas – they facilitate knowledge-sharing, collegial learning, joint work groups and practice sharing between and across member schools
- Networks, well run, extend the sphere of professional influence – they allow teachers to learn together, to have progression opportunities and innovate ‘on behalf of’ the wider professional community
Ten insights – 10 things you can bet are true
Beyond these five ‘universal truths’, we proposed in 2006 a further ten things that emerged from research and evaluation activity in the Networked Learning Communities programme.
- Learning in a collegial context (‘on behalf of’ the network; the profession) invokes passion & moral purpose – this is the secret power of school networks. The bottom line is that there is a transaction cost to the collaborative process and it draws on discretionary effort. The pay-off for teachers is the congruence of this work to their public service values. Teachers are in the changing lives business – and not just the lives of children in their own school.
- Networks grow leadership – school networks spread leadership influence and distribute leadership laterally. Even more importantly, they liberate new ‘types’ of leaders, those with generous and collegial dispositions – system leaders.
- Reciprocity & generosity are surfaced in learning networks – this is at the core of a healthy collaborative professional culture and it is highly motivational for professionals.
- Trust is an important issue for networks – BUT, it is as much an outcome of high quality network activity as it is a precondition. Simple mantra: quality cross-school joint work activities build trust relationships.
- Rigour is an important feature of network activity – and it comes from working together around an explicit approach to learning – a shared mental model and a commitment to building a collective body of practice.
- Networks are new ‘units of engagement’ –particularly with regard to new ways of working with external agencies – engaging with ten schools for an external partner or a community organization is challenging. Engaging with one network makes sense.
- ‘Liberation from context’ is a motivational feature of school networks – offering teachers a larger cultural and operational canvas. Put simply, many teachers feel constrained by their school, and connection with a more diverse set of schools and a wider professional reference group is highly motivational. True for students, too.
- High challenge schools can be very effectively supported through peer evaluation & peer support strategies – there are some excellent models and materials to support this proposition and some robust evidence that it works – much better, too, than more instrumental interventionist strategies.
- Achievement gains are a key outcome of effective school networks – given that this is the ultimate objective of schools, it is helpful to know that the approaches with highest gains for students are almost always collaborative school contexts.
- Developing and sustaining effective school networks is hard – because in school networks, new ways of working together emerge with difficulty and at high early ‘transaction cost’. Collaboration across schools runs ‘against the historical grain’ and requires new ways of working.
Ten things we know a bit less about
The statements below have the status of propositions – ‘findings’ bearing the warranty of practical experience rather than hard evidence. Some, like the second, are true, but are features that can still be understood better. Others hint at issues for further study. Some are statements that have a ‘truth beyond evidence’ but which, at the time of writing, are still without sufficient research behind them.
1 Issues of causality and attribution are extremely problematic when trying to assess the impact of networks.
2 Whilst voluntarism is crucial, it can also be orchestrated. It can be ‘brokered’ or mediated within early formulation processes.
3 Networks expose the limits of traditional communication and involvement strategies. Without a deep commitment to extensive and inclusive communication, widespread engagement cannot be achieved.
4 The active involvement and advocacy of headteachers is consistently crucial to success. Networks in which some heads resist active commitment experience differential growth of network functions (and access for some staff and pupils is denied).
5 Networks require as much unlearning as new learning. Those in positional roles enshrining institutional power – particularly headteachers – have the most challenging unlearning agendas for school network success.
6 ‘Transfer of practice’ is far too naïve a concept to describe knowledge exchange processes in networks. Collective problem-solving, joint work projects, collaborative enquiry – a range of mutual learning and knowledge-creation activities better describe the learning processes specific to network contexts.
7 The ideal size for a school-to-school network is 5 – 12 schools. This can vary of course, and the ‘best’ size is whatever makes sense for the member schools and the context. The larger the network, the more significant a challenge ‘size’ becomes. (Arguments for larger networks tend to be made around cost-efficiencies rather than optimal size of professional community.)
8 Networks of schools offer promising possibilities for the implementation of local ecosystem approaches and the integration of wider services and partners.
9 We only have subjective data in the area of ‘cost-benefit analysis’. The ‘opportunity cost’ and ‘transaction cost’ of network activity has to be offset by increased gain for children across the network’s schools. Evidence is emergent.
10 Governance models that work for both the collective and for the individual school are important for sustained success. The truth is, though, that we know less about governance than almost any other feature of school networks.