Massey University, New Zealand
Restructuring or self management is a comparatively recent and novel
experience for most high schools. This article presents evidence from a
small scale exploratory study in England that looks at how two groups of
schools have begun to cope with the effects of restructuring by
networking. the two groups are each a mixture of elementary, junior and
senior high schools. The article examines how the schools have chosen to
establish a 'learning network' and collaborate rather than compete with
each other. Two key purposes of collaboration are identified:enhancing
the quality of teaching and learning and supporting administration and
maintenance. The author suggests that the model offers a cost effective,
education-driven way in which high schools might organise for learning in
Collaboration for the purposes of improving teaching and learning is
potentially a very threatening, time consuming, and energy sapping form
of self development. Teachers collaborate successfully only occasionally.
There are even fewer documented instances of institutions doing so in a
purposeful and productive manner. In this paper I want to examine one
largely unanticipated by-product of recent school restructuring in
England and argue that collaboration will help high schools shape their
future in a turbulent world.
During the 1980s and 1990s, successive Conservative administrations have
engineered a move towards a "managed market" system of autonomous schools
and colleges. At the same time, they have severely circumscribed the
powers and influence of the locally elected education authorities (LEAs)
that had hitherto organized and supported the development of educational
provision for schools in a given area. Despite the pressures now placed
upon schools to compete with one another for students in order to
survive, there is increasing evidence of schools going in the opposite
direction and developing local networks to fill some of the vacuum
created by the demise of their LEA. This paper outlines some of the early
moves made by two such networks (each of about 20 schools) in one LEA (of
several hundred schools) in England. It should be noted, however, that
since I have begun to talk with colleagues and document the development
of such networks, many variations on the theme have been brought to my
attention: variations of size and organization, of focus and degree of
The most captivating facets of this development for me lie in the notion
that it is driven by the schools and colleges themselves; focused on
issues to do with the quality of teaching and learning; and organized
according to the needs and priorities of the participants.
The approach merits widespread dissemination for these reasons alone.
However, with the world-wide 'megatrend' (Caldwell and Spinks, 1992)
towards school autonomy, the issues appear highly relevant to the high
schools of the future in the US. The prospect of developing true learning
networks (Goddard and Clinton, 1994) that transcend institutional
boundaries and help overcome the short-termism of many national
educational policy initiatives, to my mind constitutes a clear signpost
for high school principals as they either tip-toe hesitantly or stride
out confidently to greet the millennium.
Background to School Autonomy
Since 1988 the educational map in the UK has changed beyond recognition.
Successive rafts of legislation from central government have consigned
schools and colleges to a roller-coaster ride type existence, at the same
time both exhilarating and stomach churning. Ultimately, though, the
journey may prove a fairly pointless exercise, for although there are
plenty of white-knuckle thrills for the willing passengers, those of a
weaker disposition will feel incapable of doing anything but hanging on
and hoping that the ride will soon end. We might be able to justify such
results when a minute's fairground ride is on offer; it's rather more
difficult to accept when we are talking about children's learning.
In the real world the roller coaster returns to the point of departure
and passengers disembark, some elated others not, and go on their way. In
education, that is no longer an option; the ride goes on and on and
schools and colleges need to find ways to cope with the ambiguous and
turbulent environment in which they exist.
The current situation in England and Wales is well captured in Carlson's
(1975) distinction between domestic and wild organizations. Schools and
colleges have moved from the domestic comfort of having their needs
decided and resources provided for them by the LEA to a wild situation in
which they must attract students in order to secure resources. Equally,
while the government has provided a compulsory curriculum framework
overloaded with content, schools and colleges are free to decide how they
wish to interpret and deliver the formal curriculum. Prior to 1988,
schools and colleges enjoyed ready access to a range of curriculum and
management support services provided centrally by each LEA. Since 1988
legislation has required LEAs to move their support services onto a
trading agency basis and to hawk their wares to institutions who are now
free to purchase, if they can afford it, such services as payroll,
equipment, personnel, maintenance, legal advice, curriculum support,
in-service training, administration systems support, etc., where they
wish. Early evidence suggests that elementary schools have tended to opt
rather more cautiously for sliding-scale service agreements with their
LEAs whereas high schools are more adventurous. Because of their larger
budgets, they are more able and willing to negotiate flexible and
advantageous contracts for the delivery of most items of expenditure,
from capital building projects to a discounted price for their electric
The discussion below shows how the schools and colleges in the study have
begun to work together and their perceptions of the advantages that may
accompany closer working arrangements. Two main areas of activity are
identified : support for teaching and learning, and support for
administration and maintenance.
Two Variants on School Collaboration
The term used to describe their local network by the two respondents in
their interviews was Development Group (DG). This is a throwback to the
time several years earlier when the LEA was divided for development work
purposes, on a geographical basis, into more than 20 groups of up to 25
schools each. Each DG was provided with an LEA-appointed advisory teacher
to support curriculum initiatives within the schools. Each DG was also
given a pot of money to support in-service work generally and some to
allow school principals time for meeting each other.
In this study, DG1 comprises 17 schools: two senior high schools, several
junior highs and the remainder elementary schools. DG1 is a recent
amalgamation of two LEA-structured development groups and is located in
two adjoining coal mining communities in a mixed urban/rural LEA. The DG
has a growing influence on the work of the schools within it.
DG2 is made up of 19 schools in one self contained town of 50,000 people
in the same LEA. Traditionally, the town has been regarded as a
self-contained and self-sufficient community with a strong sense of
family. In the DG, there is one large senior high school (1,500
students), a small number of junior high schools, and the remainder
elementary institutions. DG2 has evolved rapidly and reflects the united,
family identity of the town as a whole.
Collaboration for Teaching and Learning
The respondent in DG1 cited the original LEA aims for the group: to
promote collaborative INSET work and curriculum development across a
range of subjects in all ages (i.e. pre-school to tertiary education).
She also identified the objective of providing school principals with the
encouragement to collaborate rather than to compete with each other.
The DG2 respondent echoed those sentiments. Being a recently appointed
principal, she admitted she was at first not completely attuned to the
rhetoric of DG2's mission statement, but commented favorably on the fact
that money was now going into curriculum support groups: "not just
self-help blind leading the blind after school sessions; they're actually
doing something now."
The DG2 respondent focused in on this teaching and learning element and
suggested that previously there had been some complaints within the group
that money was being spent on administration of the DG with little to
show for it. In the last year this had changed considerably: "for example
the physical education (PE) group decided that they wouldn't buy things,
they'd actually buy expertise, so they bought in the PE adviser who gave
them a whole day on writing and preparing PE policies and discussing
schemes of work, and those teachers came back thinking that really was
In DG1 and DG2 both respondents talked about the importance of making it
something teachers felt in charge of which hadn't happened in the past.
In both DG1 and DG2 there was a rolling program of curriculum development
priorities. These were serviced by standing curriculum groups that would
produce skeletal guidelines for consideration by all teachers within the
group. In many cases the curriculum groups comprised teachers from all
phases (i.e., K-12). This was felt to be important, as the buzzwords that
characterized both respondents' perspectives were "progression" and
"continuity" in learning: the need to ensure common approaches wherever
possible and the advoidance of duplication or omissions in curriculum
Equally, in both groups there was a management or steering group made up
largely of principals from the schools. With regard to teaching and
learning issues, they tended to take a macro-perspective, concerned that
issues such as record-keeping and assessment should be addressed, and
they were also concerned that all this activity should demonstrate value
for money and a pay-off in the classroom. As the DG1 respondent
Because development groups are I think fairly new, there's no monitoring
and evaluation of what happens when say the science group have done a
report: if they've done their work, we've paid for it; then that is
supposed to come back to schools, cascade and be used. What we don't have
is a system for checking how efficiently, if at all, it is cascading or
it's being used or of what value these things are.
This last point illustrates one substantive difference between DG1 and
DG2: in the former, the talk was of evaluation of work done by groups; in
the latter the emphasis was much more on opportunities for talk and
problem-sharing by teachers, rather than accountability for what they
The difference is evident also in the way in which staff were chosen to
support the work of the curriculum groups. In DG1 the group decided to
retain the services of their former LEA-appointed advisory teacher,
because she was felt to have expertise across the curriculum and, more
importantly, credibility with classroom teachers. Her brief was to work
solely on teaching and learning issues. In the future, it was envisaged
that her role would develop to include classroom-based observation and
In contrast, DG2 had appointed a network manager to liaise with and
service all the functioning groups to make sure they were operating
effectively, but, unlike DG1, not to lead or support action-research by
teachers. In addition, DG2 had an information technology (IT) specialist
who serviced the information technology needs of all the schools within
To summarize this aspect of activity in both groups, the respondents saw
great benefit in enabling teachers to come together within the group, to
share problems and concerns, and to develop and experiment with common
approaches across schools and age groups. This took place on a rolling
basis in all aspects of the curriculum. In one group, however, there was
a much stronger emphasis on tangible evidence of changes in classroom
practice as a result of the activities undertaken.
Support for Administration and Maintenance
The other major strand of activity in both groups concerned the
managerial or administrative process. Both respondents emphasized the
benefits provided by economy of scale. Small organizations operating in
isolation were unlikely to be able to greatly influence external
providers or suppliers of services. Large organizations could share
expertise on issues as diverse as grounds maintenance, pay policy, and
insurance issues and could lever better terms and conditions from
prospective providers. The DG1 respondent suggested the main activity of
the principals' group in the medium term was going to be at service
agreements: "Things like buying in special-needs teaching which could be
quite useful because it would be across a group of schools, which would
mean then continuity when they go to their next school."
This was echoed by the respondent in DG2. She, however, emphasized the
fact that the LEA was more likely to be concerned by, and pay attention
to, a voice from a larger coalition: "We're a big enough group to demand
that people from County Hall do what we want and come up with the level
of service that we want."
On the same issue, she acknowledged that the strength of the group lay in
its collective expertise. As an individual principal, she was unlikely to
have a detailed grasp of all the issues which she was required to manage,
but there was every chance that someone else within the group would have
and would be prepared to share that expertise.
Finally, both respondents acknowledged and were grateful for the amount
of direct influence exerted by individual schools on the direction taken
by the DG as a whole. In contrast with the old LEA arrangements, the
development plan for the group was now drawn up and driven by the schools
As (principals), they're there because of the need to achieve consensus.
I don't think it would be fair to say, well I actually don't agree with
this bit, when you're going in on all the others. But we would be
committed to trying to come to some agreement.
In short, the advantages of being the group were the strengths brought
about by size, the commonality of purpose, and the access to a forum
where issues could be talked through and resolved collaboratively. That
is not to say that there were no difficulties or tensions within both
groups. These did exist. Nevertheless, both respondents emphasized the
benefit of belonging to an active forum in which common concerns and
priorities were dealt with by the participants themselves.
Conclusion: Why Collaborate?
As an outsider, I got the strong sense that these groups felt they were
pulling the strings and setting their own agenda rather than being jerked
around according to the whim of someone else. By working collaboratively,
they could decide on common priorities and pool resources in terms of
time, energy, and expertise, for the benefit of all group members:
teachers and administrators alike. In the last resort, the test of the
value of groups such as these is their effect on teaching and learning
quality. Throughout these interviews, there was an emphasis on developing
best practice for the benefit of students:
It seems to me that it's almost like the net under the trapeze that we're
actually working towards so that if a child were transferred say between
schools there would be a commonality of approach. The structure would be
there for them, it wouldn't be too idiosyncratic. (DG2)
The lesson for high school principals of the future may well be simply
that collaboration between and amongst institutions mitigates some of the
worst effects of your being on the educational roller-coaster. For all
the anxiety and discomfort, at least you know that you and your
colleagues have devised some sort of practicable safety net-just in
Caldwell, B. and Spinks, J. (1992). Leading the self-managing school.
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Carlson, R. O. (1975). Environmental constraints and organizational
consequences: The public school and its clients. In J. V. Baldridge and
T. V. Deal (Eds.) Managing change in education (pp. 187-200).
Goddard, D. and Clinton, B. (1994). Learning networks. In S. Ranson and
J. Tomlinson (Eds.) School co-operation: New forms of local
governance (pp. 55-65). Harlow: Longman.