Working together

Written by: HTU | Published:

The government’s stated aim is to give schools more autonomy. Paul Bennett from the National College discusses how focused and sustainable collaborative working could be the key to making the most of increased freedoms

In the government’s drive to bring about higher standards in all schools, right across the sector, we are witnessing a period of unprecedented change in education.

Schools are being given more freedom and autonomy than ever before, with an emphasis on the importance of great leadership, high quality teaching and learning, and a world-class curriculum.

The traditional model of a single school and a single head, under the umbrella of the local authority family, is still very much the norm for the primary sector. However, we are beginning to see more diverse and complex models emerging.

Local collaborations and partnerships between schools are developing, with evolving models of governance; federations of small schools have been created to secure effective use of resources and long-term sustainability; and a number of successful school leaders are taking on more than one school in an executive headship role.

For many, the “middle tier” – the layer between central government and schools – is where the most impact is being felt. As increasing numbers of schools convert to academy status and with greater accountability shifting to school level, the role of local authorities is changing.

While many continue to offer strong support to their families of schools, others are taking on a different role and have less capacity to support schools in this way. Alongside this, the emergence of sponsoring academies and chains has created a more complex interface between central government and schools.

For some, the changing and increasingly diverse landscape is seen as a great opportunity to innovate. However for others, it is a challenge. Some simply do not have the capacity or confidence to make the most of the opportunities offered by increasing freedom and autonomy.

As the changes to the system outlined above become embedded, it is an important time to reflect on your own context and circumstances and consider where your key strategic alliances will be over the next few years. Whether it’s a strong local authority family, diocesan family or multi-academy trust doesn’t matter.

What does matter is having open and honest discussions with governors, and other schools, to determine the vision and the appropriate organisational model for the schools in your locality in order to achieve the best outcomes for your children.For this reason, effective collaboration makes sense.

First, underpinning collaboration is the recognition that we have a collective responsibility for primary education in the locality; that we need to ensure all children, not just those in our own school or schools, have access to a high quality primary curriculum and have the best possible start in life.

Second, in practical terms, working in effective partnerships offers a real solution to the challenges many primary schools encounter. It enables the range of learning strategies to be extended, it encourages professional dialogue within and between schools, it provides increased access to specialist teaching and knowledge, and it means time and resources are able to be used more effectively.

The potential for this was demonstrated recently in a project undertaken by the National College – Maximising Progress – which encouraged groups of small rural primary schools to collaborate in order to increase leadership capacity and address shared school improvement priorities. The project offered support to clusters of schools across four local authorities and the results were overwhelmingly positive.

The impact of collaboration was seen in a number of areas, with one highlight being able to access or recruit a school business manager. This freed up the heads to spend less time on management tasks and more time on strategic leadership.

Another benefit was the appointment of, or access to, specialist maths teachers. By sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm, these specialist teachers created a real passion for learning and confidence for pupils, teachers and teaching assistants alike.

What’s also interesting is that where this was most successful, schools reported a “ripple effect” with an increase in pupil attainment in other subjects such as English and science (see below for more details).

Much can be drawn from this project and the benefits felt by the schools involved. With a renewed focus on the curriculum, prompted by the new national curriculum proposals, this collaborative approach can be applied to curriculum change. The new national curriculum has the potential to be a real catalyst for primary schools to work together and to get involved in debating and shaping the future vision for primary education, both locally and nationally.

With autonomy and choice underpinning government policy, but alongside more rigorous and demanding programmes of study for English, maths and science, leadership of the curriculum and curriculum innovation has taken on even greater importance. And in this new world, it is clear that primary leaders will have to be more actively involved in designing and developing this curriculum and meeting the high expectations and ambitious goals being established.

This isn’t going to happen centrally, with a national strategy and government-organised workshops and resources. It will be up to schools themselves to set the direction and see it through.

Schools working together, in ever stronger collaborations, sharing knowledge, expertise and resources, must surely be the way to take advantage of the opportunities and address the challenges presented by the changing landscape and a new national curriculum.

Maximising Progress

This project encouraged groups of small rural primary schools to collaborate in order to increase leadership capacity and address shared school improvement priorities.

The project offered a menu of support to 13 groups (or clusters) of between four and seven schools in four local authorities (67 schools in total) over an 18-month period. The support included enabling shared access to a school business manager and specialist teachers, and cluster-based training in areas such as the collaborative use of data and senior leadership team development.

Impacts of collaboration from the Maximising Progress project included the following:

- Greater and more effective collaboration between schools Schools were able to identify common priorities for improvement and share good practice, knowledge and understanding.

- Enhanced leadership capacity and confidence of staff and governors. Sharing expertise across schools led to more effective use of resources as well as offering development opportunities. Access to a school business manager freed up headteacher time, enabling them to take a more strategic leadership role focusing on leading teaching and learning and raising attainment across the cluster.

- Improved pupil progress and raised attainment in maths and English. Increased capacity meant that staff were able to spend more time observing pupils and identifying their strengths and needs. The introduction of a specialist maths teacher also led to increases in pupil progress and attainment. In one cluster, early data suggested an eight per cent increase in pupils achieving Level 4s and a five per cent increase in pupils achieving Level 5s.

- Higher quality of teaching and learning in the supported schools. Maths specialist teachers were excellent at sharing ideas for teaching and learning, working across all schools, teaching classes, running workshops for specific groups of pupils and supporting the CPD of teaching and support staff. Pupils demonstrated increased interest and enthusiasm for the subject, with evidence of greater reasoning, explanation and exploration. Teachers and support staff showed greater confidence in their teaching of maths.

- Better use of assessment and data analysis to inform learning and more effective focused support for underachieving groups of pupils. Monitoring and tracking pupil progress across schools proved very effective and enabled staff to analyse data and identify areas and groups for targeted support. Access to RAISEonline training was extremely positive and gave staff greater confidence to apply intervention strategies.

- Strengthening governance. Working in a cluster enabled schools to bring together and offer training to their governing bodies, resulting in shared practice and ideas. It also enabled governing bodies to see for themselves the benefit of collaboration between schools.

- Efficiency and value for money through access to school business management expertise. As well as freeing up headteachers in the clusters to focus on leadership, the school business managers also made significant savings through more effective procurement and securing grants and funding streams. The school business managers also worked together, supporting each other’s workloads and sharing good practice.

• Paul Bennett is director for primary leadership at the National College for School Leadership. Visit

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