I argued in my last post that ‘clumsy collaboration’ might be the key to strategies for schooling which are both effective and progressive. By ‘clumsy’ I mean collaboration which combines the three contrasting change models of individualism (collaboration has to be based in clear and coherent self-interest), solidarity (collaboration needs to be underpinned by trust and shared values) and hierarchy (collaboration must be enabled, structured and incentivised by system and school leaders).
An overly individualistic collaboration becomes a ‘deal’, an overly solidaristic one a ‘friendship’ and an overly hierarchical one a ‘committee’. Unless collaboration is truly clumsy it will, at best, be ineffective and, at worst, be a dishonest waste of time. Because the impulses and world views associated with individualism, solidarity and hierarchical control are inherently in tension, clumsy collaboration requires skill and commitment to maintain.
What is the evidence that collaboration can make a difference at the various levels which make up a schooling system? First, the system as a whole: a step change in improvement is more likely if the key players have been part of a public and professional conversation in which ambitious goals, strong but flexible systems and demanding expectations are agreed. This seems to be the evidence from successful change processes like that in Alberta, and also London Challenge. It was also the way we tried to approach the Raising the Bar (RtB) inquiry which the RSA led for Suffolk County Council.
Central to the recommendations that came out of RtB was school to school collaboration, which can also play a vital role in improving performance. Lots of schools claim to work with other schools. In Suffolk I spoke to staff in a ‘collaboration pyramid’ of a secondary school and its primary feeders. The staff claimed the partnership was very useful but under examination it turned out that they didn’t even have a structured conversation about the progress individual pupils made across transition, let alone agree accountabilities for ensuring that performance claimed for KS2 continued and developed in KS3. As David Hargreaves and colleagues have shown, achieving results depends on a deep and sustained whole school commitment to collaboration as an integral part of improvement.
Teacher to teacher collaboration is the key part of school partnership. For teachers to work with other teachers on inquiry based collaboration should be seen as an essential element of their professionalism. Teachers must always be learners and they learn best by working with colleagues to solve practical challenges. But these ways of working are psychologically and intellectually demanding, particularly for front line teachers facing many other calls on their time and energy.
There are lots of collaborations between schools and outside organisations including charities, private sector employers and other public agencies. But too often these are not as ambitious and creative as they could be. For example, employer engagement can be powerful for children’s life chances but schools and employers both complain the other is hard to work with. Back in Suffolk we worked with a group of teachers and employers to develop an agreed set of core competencies. On the one hand, this meant that schools were committing to giving the pupils the competencies employers said mattered; on the other, it meant employers would try to ensure that their offer – visits to school, project materials, work-experience – was based in a wider understanding of what schools are trying to achieve. In Peterborough we found that getting schools and local institutions to work together on an area based curriculum was exciting and full of promise. It was also very hard work and could only succeed if it had buy-in from school and civil society leaders.
Professional/pupil collaboration has two elements. The first relates to pupil engagement in school governance, which needs to be both authentic and realistic, again, with a clear and honest account of what both sides are hoping to get out of working together. In the classroom we know that pupil feedback is one of the most powerful factors in driving up standards. Feedback is best delivered as part of a collaborative model of learning in which teachers, pupils and parents agree goals, understand mutual obligation and share a commitment to the potential of learning.
It may seem trite to argue that a single concept could be of such value in so many contexts. And, as I have emphasised, when it comes to collaboration, it’s not what you do but the way that you do it that gets results. The dominant ideas in schooling over the last fifteen to twenty years have been ‘national standards’ and ‘school freedom, diversity and competition’. Both of these are necessary parts of the engine of improvement. But without oil engines overheat and seize up, which is often what feels to be happening in our schools. Clumsy collaboration is the oil that can enable the different parts of the school system to work together to achieve more ambitious and more progressive aims.
Becoming excited by an idea is a bit like falling in love: sometimes, it is an instant, head over heels moment but it can also come from the dawning realisation that a presence at the edge of your world has the potential to be at the centre of it.
As an example of the latter, over the next couple of days I want to explain why I am becoming besotted with the concept of collaboration in the development and reform of school education.
I have an old friend to thank for my new commitment; the three powers theory (derived from ‘Cultural Theory’ and the work of Mary Douglas). As regular readers will know, this theory argues, first, that change can be pursued using hierarchical, individualistic or solidaristic means; second, that often the most effective solutions find some way of combining these sources of power (if they are not combined they will often undermine good intentions); and third, that this is always difficult; such solutions are contextually contingent and ‘clumsy’ because the three forms of power are inherently in tension with each other (indeed their power partly derives from their critique of each other).
My shaft of light was to see that ‘collaboration’ when done properly has enormous potential to achieve this clumsy mix of forms of power:
- From an individualistic perspective, collaboration must be seen to be in the interests of those engaged.
- From a solidaristic perspective, collaboration needs to be underpinned by trust based on sufficiently shared norms and values.
- From a hierarchical perspective, system and organisation leaders – recognising how hard it is to establish and maintain – have to enable, incentivise and support collaboration
However, each of these ways of valuing and pursuing collaboration could unbalance the whole endeavour:
- If collaboration is too individualistic it becomes merely transactional, less creative and more prone to abuse and conflict
- If collaboration relies too much on solidaristic values it will often lack clarity and strength and end up being more of a friendship (how often are you really challenging to your friends?)
- If collaboration is too controlled and managed by hierarchy it can become bureaucratic and lifeless
At six distinct levels effective collaboration could enable a step change in the functioning of the schools system.
- Relationships between the centre, localities and schools; which are too often characterised by suspicion, misunderstanding and resentment
- Relationships between schools; which are rarely as robust and committed as they should be
- Relationships between teachers; which are too often absent or shallow but could be the foundation for continuously improving professional practice
- Relationships between schools and other local bodies; which tend to be weak or merely transactional
- Relationships between teachers and pupils; learning is still too often seen as something that is done to pupils not with them
- Relationships between pupils; even though team working is vital in the modern workplace, and children can powerfully support each other, we still see schooling primarily as a process of individual endeavour and ranking.
In my next post I will offer some evidence of what ‘clumsy collaboration’ has achieved and might achieve at these levels.
Fortunately, given my lack of educational scholarship, members of the RSA education team have kindly agreed (as if I gave them any choice) to comment on my thoughts and add their own.
A school system can be analysed at three distinct levels: national, regional or local governance, schools as institutions, and the system of teaching and learning. We can apply the three powers* framework to each level.
The goal of clumsy solutions is to combine the three powers by fostering forms of each which are both benign and compatible with the others. Such a balance is unusual and only temporary when it is achieved. The more normal case is for one perspective to dominate in something like the following way:
Hierarchical orientation – Political/administrative centre takes responsibility in some detail for schools and what they do.
Solidaristic orientation – Direction provided by a closed circle of stakeholders, what Professor Rod Rhodes termed a ‘policy network’:‘a set of formal and informal institutional linkages between governmental and other actors structured around shared interests in public policymaking and implementation’
Individualistic orientation – Focus on quasi-market regulation encouraging and facilitating consumer (parental) choice and easing market entry and exit (take-over)
Hierarchical orientation – Power centred in the hands of the Head (and or governors), school highly structured around centrally mandated goals
Solidaristic orientation –Organisation driven by shared and co-produced mission with emphasis on wider social goals (in terms of both content of learning and school engagement with other schools and wider society).
Individualistic orientation – School sees itself as a market player driving in turn a ‘sink or swim’ culture in which success is rewarded and failure seen as the responsibility of individual teachers or pupils
Teaching and learning
Hierarchical orientation – Focus on knowledge, subject and traditional (sage on the stage) model of pedagogy
Solidaristic orientation – Focus on learning process as collaborative (both between teachers and between teachers and learners) and on wider development of pupils as ‘rounded citizens’.
Individualistic orientation – Focus on developing pupils’ capacity for self-directed independent learning and self- determination; explicit encouragement of experimentation and innovation
The downside of each emphasis differs from domain to domain but, in general, hierarchical orientation risks being bureaucratic and overbearing, solidaristic being introspective and producerist, and individualism encouraging atomism and attenuated social responsibility.
Of course, these are highly simplified descriptions but they give some sense of the inherent possibilities and frailties of each emphasis. More interesting may be to superimpose this framework on current Coalition policy and on various explicit or implicit alternatives.
What might be termed Gove-ism combines an individualistic orientation at the level of the system (Academies, Free schools, consumer-focussed information) and a hierarchical one at the level of teaching and learning (standards, focus on traditional subjects and forms of pedagogy). While thinking systematically about schools as institutions is largely absent, the effect of Government policy tends to be to reinforce hierarchical control by ‘heroic’ head-teachers.
In contrast, what might be termed naïve progressivism tends towards solidarism at each level while tending to understate the inherent frailties of such an emphasis.
The clumsy approach seeks to combine all three power sources at each level.
Thus the system of governance provides hierarchical leadership by setting a clear but flexible long term strategy, providing an intelligent but challenging framework of accountability, and being a powerful advocate for schools in the wider polity. The governance framework also taps into (and fosters) solidarity by seeking to craft an open and inclusive dialogue which recognises and honours the agency of each stakeholder. The aim is to design an enabling system which maximises the degree of devolution from the centre and freedom at the level of the school and classroom.
A similar mix is recommended at the level of the school although here leadership is more personal while, in relation to solidarity, there is strong emphasis on responsibilities beyond the school. Teachers are held individually responsible for their performance but there are also powerful system of professional support and development (you must swim but there is a shallow end and lifebelts).
Things are more complex in terms of teaching and learning. A clumsy solution seeks to identify and promulgate those forms of practice and knowledge in which there really is one best route for learning. However, such codes are both underpinned by and interrogated through inquiry based practice based on a model of professionalism which sees outcomes emerging through collaboration between teachers (inside and outside the school), between teachers and learners and between schools and wider society. The goal of enabling children to be independent, self-motivated leaners and citizens is paramount, but there is also practical commitment to addressing the imbalances in social and cultural capital which make such a goal much harder for some than others.
To some this may appear like progressivism reheated, to others a back-door way of legitimising unpalatable elements of reform. But perhaps a more common reaction will be that just given by my long suffering PA Barbara (never a fan of Cultural Theory) ‘Matthew, what on earth are you going on about?’.
*Derived from Cultural Theory in which there are four including the non-active frame of ‘fatalism’
For those of you who waded through the self-indulgence and obscurity of yesterday’s post, it might come as something of a surprise than I do occasionally get out and try to make a difference in the real world. So, today sees the publication of the RSA’s ten month inquiry into school education in Suffolk. Although the lion’s share of the work was done by my splendid colleagues Joe Hallgarten and Louise Bamfield, I chaired the Inquiry and the stakeholder group which informed it. The background to the report is the erratic performance of Suffolk schools over the last decade. Despite recent improvements, Suffolk is still performing poorly in comparison with national averages and its statistical neighbours. Poor aggregate levels of pupil progress and attainment are combined with wide gaps in educational achievement between disadvantaged groups and other pupils. In the words of the County Council, ‘Suffolk is stuck’.
The full report is available here. I’m particularly proud of the methodology we used, eschewing the usual closed door Commission and one way consultation process and opting instead for a set of Solutions groups which have not only informed the work but engaged hundreds of people and developed solutions which are already being implemented even before the County Council has responded to the report.
At the heart of the report is our belief in the power of collaboration. Our approach is to combine devolution of responsibility and resources to schools with an expectation that they commit to strong partnerships with:
‘Pyramids’ of secondary and their feeder primary schools and early years settings where objectives and accountabilities are focussed on the attainment and progression of every child;
Other neighbouring schools and organisations working with young people and the wider community where the objectives and accountabilities are focussed on the well-being of every child;
Schools with a similar profile to themselves in ‘families’, where the objectives and accountabilities are focussed on the quality of teaching and learning and school improvement.
For this collaboration to make a difference it must be long term, substantive, focused and based on measurable aims. We have called the report ‘no school an island’ to signal the importance that we attach to the principle that publicly funded institutions must take both individual and shared responsibility for the interests of the children and young people of Suffolk. We believe that schools now need to open their doors more routinely and purposefully to a wider range of partners, engaging with employers to enable children and young people to have a richer understanding of, and engagement in, the world of work, and to involve the wider community, especially parents, in valuing education and raising children’s achievement.
Another key recommendation (there are twenty in all) is that Suffolk should form a strong partnership with an inner London authority. Partly to learn from the latter’s success but also to address the danger of insularity in Suffolk and to provide opportunities for schools, teachers and pupils to develop new relationships, insights and ambitions. Yesterday saw the first step as pupils from Suffolk and Hackney met and studied together at Holy Trinity School, Dalston under the encouraging gaze of teachers and councillors from both Councils.
Suffolk County Council has been supportive and encouraging but officers and councillors will now take a few weeks to develop a considered response to the report. When exploring successful improvement strategies there is a tendency to overlay a post hoc neatness on the process but, on closer inspection these change processes – from Ontario to London Challenge – turn out to have been multi-faceted and emergent. Achieving a step-change in performance will require effort and adaptation. We hope many of our ideas will work well but others will no doubt need to be refined.
But whatever emerges from the County, many of the ideas in our report are already progressing. For example, there is the collaboration between two clusters of schools around the development of a 9-14 ‘mid-Bacc’ focussed among other things on ensuring a successful and substantive primary secondary transition. There is also the work done by the employer engagement group which rests of the powerful foundation of a set of core competencies – communication, responsibility, teamwork and initiative – jointly agreed by teachers, employers and young people. Using this framework Suffolk schools can benefit from the palpable enthusiasm among local employers to engage more fully not just with schools as institutions but with the content of teaching and learning.
I have really enjoyed the Inquiry process and, although I say it myself, I think our approach is relevant not just to Suffolk but represents a robust and imaginative way to addressing the issue facing all localities: how do we improve standards and maintain some kind of local public accountability and engagement in the context of councils’ losing their provider role and of the establishment of more and more Academies and free schools?
This blog first appeared on the website of Public Finance
There is only a weak correlation between the publicity sought and gained for a policy announcement and the impact made by that policy. For example, the encouragement of free schools is a headline Coalition policy, yet not only is the proportion of pupils so far enrolled in these schools a tiny fraction but many free schools may end up providing an education not easy to distinguish from other Academies and maintained schools. In contrast – as Paul Johnson argued yesterday - apparently small changes in tax incentives can lead to major shifts in behaviour and revenues.
There has today been relatively little coverage of an announcement which could have major implications for the whole pattern of secondary schooling. In a letter to two college principals, the thoughtful Skills Minister, Matthew Hancock (who recently visited and commended the RSA Academy in Tipton), has said that from next year FE colleges which meet certain, relatively permissive, criteria will be free to admit 14-16 year olds on to their rolls.
Overall, this is surely a good thing. It offers pupils – particularly those least engaged in a traditional academic curriculum – the opportunity to attend institutions which may better suit their needs and which will tend to have stronger connections to the world of work. It could also be an important step towards a shift in the way we think about the stages of education so that the 11-14 stage focusses on universal core academic and other competencies, while the 14-18 stage is much more oriented around the educational and vocational routes chosen by young people. In turn this might lead to a gradual, and surely welcome, reduction in the obsessive focus on GCSE scores at sixteen.
Whilst one might hope that the way this new opportunity develops would reflect the choices and best interests of young people, in reality local factors and organisational incentives will probably be more determining.
In relation to the former, the key issue will be whether there is an FE college that meets the Hancock criteria in the vicinity. But as currently nearly 300 colleges do make the grade, it will be organisational interest which will most mediate the opening of new options for young people.
There are two key incentives to consider; intriguingly they point in opposite directions.
On the one hand, the kind of pupils who might be most attracted to FE may also be the ones least likely to meet the 5A-C or EBac benchmark, so schools may see offloading these pupils as a way of improving their scores and league table positions. This perverse incentive would not be so strong if the focus of school evaluation and accountability was on three levels of progression but – regrettably – the Government seems to be de-emphasising this measure.
On the other hand, schools and school leaders generally see their size as a symbol of status and success and might not want to see those pupils who have a choice voting with their feet at the end of year nine. Furthermore, the pupils most likely to take the FE option are more likely to attract the Pupil Premium, something which will make them sought after by both schools and colleges.
As Shadow Education Minister Karen Buck has emphasised, this potentially radical shift needs to be carefully planned and overseen. But two factors mitigate against this aspiration. First, the ambiguity and confusion over the role of the only body which has the span and legitimacy to take on the task of coordination – local authorities; second, the evidence that the devolving of careers advice to schools has – entirely predictably – led to a decline in spending. It must also be assumed that the advice is also less independent and more driven by the school’s self interest.
Given the traditionalism of many of his colleagues, Matthew Hancock may be careful about what he says bur he does, I sense, recognise there should more on offer to secondary school pupils than the EBac, and more that is vocationally related. His letter could come to be seen as one of the most important reforming actions of this Government.
It is vital now that central and local Government, schools, and colleges and independent careers advisors make this change work for young people, and not allow it to be scuppered by poor planning and organisational gaming.