School Partnerships and Cooperation - Education Committee Contents

2 Potential for school collaboration

School collaboration for school improvement

18. We heard near-universal support for the concept of schools collaborating in order to provide a better service for all children and young people.[19] Witnesses described a wide range of activities involved in school collaboration and identified a number of clear benefits. For example, the Culm Co-operative Learning Partnership considered that school to school cooperation "broadens opportunities. It enables faster policy implementation of new ideas and policies. It contributes to efficiency".[20] A common theme in evidence was being able to provide activities, whether for staff or pupils, that would not be viable within the constituent schools on their own.

19. Much partnership and cooperation involves shared Continuing Professional Development (CPD). Evidence from Collaborative Schools Ltd., a partnership in Wiltshire, stated that joint CPD allowed them to provide "more opportunities tailored to meet needs".[21] Evidence collected by Myscience showed that "a significant minority of the [Myscience] teacher panel felt that being in a family or alliance offered increased access to CPD", noting that this feeling was particularly strong in primary schools.[22] We heard from the Girls Day School Trust (GDST) about their 'Driving Outstanding Practice Programme', which gives teachers the opportunity to "learn from experiences and best practice in different environments" in order to "develop the skills and strategies to achieve outstanding learning and progress from students." The teachers are then encouraged to share this with colleagues back in their own schools.[23] An alternative model is followed by North Tyneside Learning Trust, who told us that they sponsor "a range of CPD opportunities geared towards strengthening leadership and supporting outstanding teaching".[24] The Association of Teachers and Lecturers noted that collaboration also allows for "opportunities to observe teaching and gain feedback from peers on their own teaching", in addition to what might traditionally be thought of as CPD.[25]

20. Collaborative working also has the potential to provide direct benefits to pupils. St Peter's School, York told us that its Independent State School Partnership helps with "increasing access to minority and shortage subjects",[26] which would not otherwise be viable. Similarly, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) pointed to the "exchange programmes between rural and inner city schools which offer opportunities for pupils from different and diverse backgrounds to mix".[27] Evidence from Culm Co-operative Learning Partnership implied that inter-school collaborative working also helped encourage teachers to see their role as part of something bigger. It listed advantages of its partnership including: "developing networks so that everyone feels part of the larger community of schools [and] finding out about what happens at each phase of education to help pupils make sense of progression from one stage to another and to enable continuity and preparation for lifelong learning".[28]

21. Other evidence focused on leadership development, such as the example we received from Helen Salmon, currently Principal of Tavistock College but at the time Headteacher of St James' School in Exeter.[29] The DfE argued that school collaboration's "biggest contribution to school leadership development lies in providing rich and varied opportunities to lead, innovate and take responsibility. Collaborative working therefore provides a broader base for developing leaders and greater opportunity for leaders to learn from one another".[30]

22. Some partnerships are also able to deploy their staff across different schools to make the best use of them. Cllr Ralph Berry, Portfolio Holder for Education and Children's Services at Bradford Council, described how brokered support saw "an experienced Academy Head and two Community School Deputies move to [a failing] school for 2 years to tackle [its] issues".[31] Movement between schools was not just restricted to staff: in some cases partnerships can also facilitate the movement of pupils. Sir David Carter told us that the Cabot Learning Federation "are able to create Managed Moves between the Academies in order to give students in the CLF the chance of a 'fresh start'".[32]

23. We were given several examples that point to the potential of school collaboration as a strategy for raising standards. Many of these described how relatively successful schools - in both the state and private sector—have been effective in supporting improvements in poorly performing schools. For example, we heard from Peter Maunder, Headteacher of Oldway School in Paignton, who stressed the long term nature of his school's involvement in collaboration with other schools[33] and the great benefits they had seen flow from it: "all schools that were below category have experienced significant improvement and have moved above floor targets".[34]

24. It is apparent that school partnership and cooperation is generating new energy within the education system and, in so doing, fostering a great deal of innovation. We note, however, that we also heard warnings that the approach might wrongly come to be seen as the answer to all the challenges facing schools. Both the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL)[35] and Ofsted argued in written evidence that collaboration is not a panacea. Ofsted explained: "The success of the collaboration will ultimately depend on the quality of the leadership in identifying an ambitious vision for improvement, a clear strategy for its implementation and a rigorous system for monitoring its effectiveness".[36] The National Union of Teachers (NUT) similarly identified that collaboration can only work with proper commitment:

    School collaboration is not a simple strategy that automatically brings about success. It can be complex and time consuming and may not always be successful. Neither is it cost neutral: many activities require teacher time, both during and beyond the school day, as well as support staff administration and co-ordination. All of these may deplete the time and effort available for staff to focus on their own school and students.[37]

25. These reservations raise concerns that collaboration may exhibit some features of a 'fad'. Whilst such strategies for improvement work when adopted by energetic individuals, who will implement them with the high quality leadership, clear vision and rigorous evaluation identified above, their impact may fade when adopted by schools who do not implement these strategies with the same enthusiasm, commitment and skill.

Importance of mutual benefit

26. Some concerns were expressed in written evidence that becoming part of a partnership, or engaging in other forms of cooperation, could pose risks to the performance of highly performing schools which were supporting others. ASCL reported that within schools such fears are often expressed by governing bodies, especially where they are concerned that there could be an adverse impact on performance measures.[38] Similarly, the NAHT were concerned that "it is not uncommon for high performing schools to experience an amount of 'backlash' if it is perceived by the schools' parent body that the head and leading teachers are spending too much time off-site supporting other schools".[39] The GDST echoed both of these points[40] and evidence from Myscience stated that its experience was that "tension exists between outstanding schools using their staff to support other schools [...] and leaving them in the classroom to continue to achieve outstanding results".[41]

27. Despite this, most of the evidence we received focused on the mutual benefit in such partnerships. Mervyn Wilson, Chief Executive of the Co-operative College, argued that no school "has all the answers" and as such "stronger [schools] benefit as much as the schools that they are supporting".[42] Leo Winkley, headteacher of St. Peter's School in York, said that parents also understood the benefits both in these terms, and in giving children "a sense of the world around them".[43] Peter Maunder told us: "There is always a challenge within the school or on my very best teachers to get a balance between my very best teachers teaching children, coaching and developing other teachers in my school and carrying out outreach work. However, we have been involved in this for a long time and we can definitely see great benefits".[44]

28. While it may be true that there are inherent risks to highly performing schools in collaborating with others, most expressed confidence that they are manageable. Sir David Carter, Executive Principal of the Cabot Learning Federation, stated that "the best leaders will mitigate that risk and look very carefully at what capacity they can create". He argued that taking into account the needs of both schools will produce the best results: "The model of the successful school working alongside a school that is on an improvement journey is enhanced when the results of both schools are expected to improve". [45] The DfE endorsed this view in its written evidence and quoted Dr Gary Holden, Chief Executive of The Williamson Trust, an Academy Sponsor, who said: "We took the decision to sponsor because it was the right thing to do and because it is itself a great school improvement strategy. By working together all partner schools improve".[46]

29. Co-operatives UK argued that the fact that both sides benefit from partnership means that the relationship should not be seen as one-sided and paternalistic. On the contrary "there are advantages recognised in co-operative school partnerships of mutual support".[47] The National Union of Teachers followed a similar line of argument in concluding that schools in partnerships should be "treated as equal partners rather than their influence and activity in the partnership being determined by Ofsted grade or league table position".[48] The NAHT argued that, without this mutual respect, collaboration will not be an effective improvement strategy: "There must be trust between those schools working together, mutual respect for staff and pupils alike and confidence and recognition that all schools in the collaboration have something to bring to the group as well as something they want to take out".[49] The Co-operative College also argued there is much greater capacity for collaboration for improvement in relationships of a non-paternalistic nature: "if a number of schools are working mutually together to support a school with a lead school overseeing delivery of the support, in consultation with the school being supported and the other schools involved, provides much greater capacity—and much less 'doing to'".[50]

30. Mervyn Wilson from the Co-operative College accepted in oral evidence that he could see circumstances where this would not be completely appropriate: "It is also fair to say that a co-operative model is not a solution for a failing school. The model does not address the weaknesses within a school in that way".[51] Similarly, evidence from Tavistock College, while advocating cooperation which is "not too forced", stated that this was not meant in reference to "schools in special measures where wholesale change is required".[52] On the other hand, evidence from City Challenge demonstrates that more intensive partnerships were often effective in bringing about rapid improvements in such schools.[53]

31. Properly handled, school collaboration offers benefits to all schools involved. The Government should continue to promote this message so as to reassure reluctant governing bodies and promote equality of esteem among all participants.

Competition and collaboration

32. The written evidence we received was sharply divided over whether competition between schools creates serious problems for encouraging them to collaborate or whether they can co-exist happily. For example, the NUT expressed concern that "the single biggest challenge to collaboration is the Government's marketised approach to education".[54] Similarly, the NASUWT argued that "the use of competitive quasi-markets in the provision of education works to undermine collaboration between educational institutions".[55]

33. James O'Shaughnessy argued that this is a misguided view of markets, where collaboration and innovation does take place within firms.[56] Evidence from the London Leadership Strategy highlighted an example given by David Hargreaves, Associate Director for Development and Research of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, in a report on the leadership of a self-improving school system.[57] He argued that:

    It is commonly claimed by school leaders that collaboration between schools would increase if only competition between them were to be removed. In the business world, including Silicon Valley, collaboration and competition live side by side. It seems that if the system is rich in social capital, competition does not drive out collaboration but may actively promote it.[58]

34. In general, witnesses endorsed this view that the two could coexist, with partnerships helping schools to rise to the challenges created through competition. ASCL stated that what is needed for a successful education system is a careful balance between these two forces, but that "this balance is not yet right. [...] Autonomy and collaboration are both needed, so these tensions cannot be resolved; rather they need to be held in balance. The tension then has the potential to be creative and positive".[59] Sir David Carter argued that, even within cooperative organisations, accountability measures created healthy competition with "academy principals sitting around the table who all want their school to perform well in the Federation", but it does not erode working relationships, because they all know that "everybody is contributing results to that whole".[60] James O'Shaughnessy also argued that the creative tension between competition and collaboration is beneficial: "Competition is the sharp edge that ensures that collaboration does not slip into complacency".[61]

35. The Minister agreed with this position, arguing that "The fact that there are schools in the area that are doing better and are collaborating may well cause tension among those schools in the area that are not doing well and maybe not collaborating. That is healthy, because it might encourage them to collaborate".[62] We believe that while there are tensions between competition and collaboration, these are largely creative tensions. Collaboration between schools is growing in many forms within a competitive school system.

Evidence of impact

36. Given the high levels of enthusiasm and belief in the efficacy of school partnerships, it was striking to hear that definitive evidence of impact was lacking.[63] In particular, Dr Caroline Kenny, a Research Officer at the Institute of Education, and David Sims, Research Director at the NFER, pointed out that evidence was missing on the conditions needed for successful partnerships and how they generate positive effects. [64] David Sims argued that:

    There is not really a rigorous evidence base on the impact of partnerships on attainment and attendance, for instance. There are pockets of qualitative evidence that we have, but in terms of hard, measurable evidence there is very little. If claims are made that certain partnerships, federations or trusts are having an impact, where is the evidence for that and how testable is it? I think we have a long way to go to provide that kind of evidence.[65]

37. These comments should not be taken as critical of school partnerships in themselves. James O'Shaughnessy, former Research Director of Policy Exchange, while generally positive on the effects of partnership, agreed that "we want to be able to disaggregate the impact of a school just being better led or having better teachers or teaching practices from the effect of being part of a chain, group or federation".[66] Dr Kenny argued that such research was important to "make [school partnerships] the best that they possibly can be" and hence guide effective policy-making. She also stressed that evaluation should be an integral part of the roll-out of the partnerships programme, not something that is an afterthought.[67]

38. Some research has been carried out or commissioned. Two projects funded by the Education Endowment Foundation include school collaboration within their approach. Challenge the Gap[68] aims to measure "whether schools can work together to successfully narrow the gap and raise attainment".[69] Achieve Together[70] includes a pilot project "to see if greater collaboration can improve results".[71] Quantitative evidence was provided by Chapman, Muijs and MacAllister in a report for the National College of School Leadership. Using statistical matching, they found that schools in "performance" and "academy" federations started with similar results but, two to four years after the formation of the federation, had better performance than schools with apparently similar characteristics that had not federated. In addition, they identified federations adopting executive leadership structures (one executive head leading schools within the federation) as achieving better results than those which maintained traditional structures (one head teacher for each school).[72]

39. The DfE view was that "the research is clear; schools that are working in partnership arrangements are raising standards and improving at a faster rate".[73] While Government statistics back up this case, identifying the underlying cause of this improvement is more complicated than this makes it sound. Given the widespread enthusiasm and the encouraging improvements already seen, the intention of seeking evaluation is not to slow down the introduction of a school-led system. On the contrary, the aim is to ensure that what works and why is fully understood, and hence the education system can achieve the best possible outcomes from a school-led improvement system. Indeed, later in this report, we suggest steps to maintain the momentum behind school collaboration and get more institutions involved in partnerships and cooperation. Although evidence on the impact of school partnerships seems positive, it would still benefit from robust evaluation, particularly aimed at identifying what works and why. Given the importance of a school-led improvement system to its vision, we recommend that the Government embed evaluation into further initiatives relating to school partnership and collect systematic evidence on 'what works'.

19   Qq 1-4 Back

20   Ev w6, para 6 Back

21   Ev w40, para 7.1 Back

22   Ev w49, para 29 Back

23   Ev w13, paras 27-31 Back

24   Ev w111, para 4.2 Back

25   Ev w78, para 27 Back

26   Ev 57, para 4.7.1 Back

27   Ev w25, para 2 Back

28   Ev w4, para 1 Back

29   Ev w20, para 2.1 Back

30   Ev 46, para 20 Back

31   Ev w71 Back

32   Ev 45, para 4 Back

33   Q 4 Back

34   Ev 84, para 1.2-1.3 Back

35   Ev w6, para 7 Back

36   Ev 80 paras 7-8 Back

37   Ev w33, para 51 Back

38   Ev w6, para 14 Back

39   Ev w25, para 7 Back

40   Ev w13, para 32 Back

41   Ev w49, para 8 Back

42   Q 6 Back

43   Q 3 Back

44   Q 4 Back

45   Q 9 Back

46   Ev 46, para 3 Back

47   Ev w82, para 25 Back

48   Ev w33, para 4 Back

49   Ev w25, para 5 Back

50   Ev 86, para 3.5.4 Back

51   Q 22 Back

52   Ev w18, para 4 Back

53   Hutchings, M., Hollingworth, S., Mansaray, A., Rose, R. and Greenwood, C. (2012), Research report DFE-RR215: Evaluation of the City Challenge programme, London: Department for Education  Back

54   Ev w33, para 52 Back

55   Ev w56, para 9 Back

56   Ev w84, para 7 Back

57   Ev w102, para 3.4 Back

58   National College for School Leadership, Leading a self-improving school system, September 2011, p 18 Back

59   Ev w6, para 29 Back

60   Q 38 Back

61   Q 94 Back

62   Q 249 Back

63   Ev 74, para 6 Back

64   Q 56 [Dr. Kenny] Back

65   Q 57 [David Sims] Back

66   Q 68 Back

67   Q 60 Back

68   Run by Challenge Partners and to be evaluated by Manchester University. Back

69   Challenge the Gap: Challenge Partners, Education Endowment Foundation projects, 10 February 2012, Back

70   Run by Teach First, Teaching Leaders and Future Leaders and to be evaluated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Back

71   Achieve Together: Teach First, Teaching Leaders and Future Leaders, Education Endowment Foundation projects, 23 January 2013, Back

72   National College for School Leadership, A study of the impact of school federation on student outcomes, August 2011, p 4 Back

73   Ev 46, para 20 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 6 November 2013