New Year is traditionally a time for optimism – for looking forward, considering the possibility of better times ahead. However, unless I’m misreading the mood, that doesn’t seem to be the prevailing emotion in the world of education. Uncertainty, anxiety and exhaustion seem to be the themes from school leaders as we head into the new year.
Obviously, the impact of two years of pandemic has much to do with this, as does the fact that there is still an air of doubt clouding the situation as schools return. In-school testing, staff absences, the return of SATs and exams – all cloud the future and make planning more difficult. The most recent government announcements have only deepened the gloom.
However, in the spirit of the season, if we’re going to change things, then the start of a new year is a particularly good time to do so, and it also makes sense to apply the things we have learnt in the turbulent times of the pandemic.
It’s been notable that when we analyse the successes of the last two years, many of them come down to organisations putting aside their competitive relationship and working together. When we needed to get meals to families or source PPE, schools, Local Authorities, Multi-Academy Trusts pulled together and got things done. When the chips are down, sometimes quite literally, collaboration was the only option.
The problem is that collaboration is often seen as an added extra, a ‘nice-to-have’. Our system is structurally hard-wired to be competitive. Exam grades are allocated based on pre-determined ratios, meaning that whether or not a student achieves a Grade 5, for example, depends not just on whether they have achieved a certain level of knowledge or skill, but on how many others have done as well or better. School performance measures use metrics that compare individual schools to the group as a whole, so that even if everyone gets better, or indeed everyone gets worse, there are still exactly the same proportion of ‘failing’ schools.
The use of the word ’Outstanding’ as the highest Ofsted grade, literally means that the school ‘stands out’, or differs from the rest. By definition, it is impossible for more than a small number of schools to be outstanding – why can’t we have a system that hopes and expects all schools to be performing at very high level?
There’s a myth that to be successful in life, we need to engender a spirit of competition – that we should teach our children that success means doing better than the next guy. This isn’t how human society works, at least not when it’s operating successfully. In the vast majority of jobs in the real world, it’s far more important to work well with your colleagues and the people around you than to ‘beat’ them.
Of course, the belief that competition brings about improvement is ingrained into the performative, neo-liberal philosophy that has driven our public services for the last forty years. I’m not qualified to know whether it works in manufacturing or investment banking, but I can see the damage it causes in a public service like education.
A competitive system, by its nature, creates winners and losers. Successful firms thrive, weaker ones go to the wall. The problem with applying this to a public service like education is that we can’t accept the casualties of the system, we can’t allow some children to fail on the grounds that others will benefit elsewhere.
A system founded on the principle of collaboration looks very different. It’s a system where we all feel a genuine stake in the success of others and where success that comes at the expense of others is not seen as success at all.
Imagine if every policy decision was subject to this test – does this policy increase the potential for collaboration, does it improve the system as a whole? How do we take good ideas, share them, support their implementation elsewhere? Imagine if collaboration was the guiding principle behind discussions around admissions, exclusions, budgets, recruitment.
It’s not the same as sharing good practice, valuable though that can be. Collaboration is frequently interpreted as the favoured few telling the rest how to do it – Hubs, Tsars, accredited CPD providers – this isn’t a sign of a collaborative system, it doesn’t unlock the potential within each school.
But collaboration means working together to achieve a shared goal. It isn’t simply a soft option, free from accountability. If accountability is shared, then resources will be targeted where they’re needed, data will be used to support and inform rather than report and conform, and expertise will be put to work wherever it will have the greatest impact. If you want to see the research basis for the power of collaboration, see ‘Learning is the Work’ Michael Fullan, amongst many other studies.
It’s been my privilege to spend time in hundreds of schools, including many that were mired in difficulties. I can honestly say that I never visited a Special Measures school that didn’t have pockets of excellence, or an Outstanding school that had nothing to learn from others, regardless of their Ofsted badge or attainment profile. In other words, I’ve never come across a school that had nothing to gain from a collaborative system, or nothing to offer.
On a local level, 2021 saw the start of our own experiment in true collaboration – ‘Better Together’ a partnership of schools, some from our own small MAT, but also single academies, maintained and voluntary aided schools – special, primary and secondary. The aim is to run professional development courses delivered by our staff, for our staff. We chose a number of key themes – SEND, Governance, Behaviour, Curriculum etc – and asked for teams of people to take on the responsibility of running the courses. No expensive charges, no badge – just generous sharing.
It’s early days, but so far we have delivered courses to over 400 staff and governors, and feedback has been excellent. It’s also given opportunities for staff to deliver training to colleagues from other schools, and uncovered some real talent. If you’re interested in seeing how it works, our website is here
I realise that my new year’s optimism has probably got the better of me and we’re currently a million miles from this, but like all revolutions, it has to start from the ground up. If we want change for the better, we need to do it together.